Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report for January 3 – 9

The planets 40 minutes after sunset on Jan. 8, when Venus is most nearly in line with the sun and Saturn is 5 degrees above Mercury | Graphic created with SkySafariAstronomy.com, St. George News

Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report
John Mosley

Jan. 3 – 9

The Sky Report is presented as a public service by the Stellar Vista Observatory, a nonprofit organization based in Kanab, Utah, which provides opportunities for people to observe, appreciate, and comprehend our starry night sky. Additional information can be found on this website. Send questions and comments to [email protected]

As predicted, the “Evening Star” – Venus – has left us, and it’s now moving between the earth and sun, soon to reappear as the “Morning Star” during the third week in January. The ancient Greeks called the Venus “Hesperus” when it appeared in the evening and “Phosphorus” when in the morning, although they knew it was the same planet.

Venus is closest to being aligned with the sun at 5:52 p.m. MST on Jan. 8, and then it will be 5 degrees north of the sun. Only rarely does it pass directly in front of the sun; that happened last in 2012 but not again until 2117.

Mercury is trying to compensate for the loss, but it’s a poor second. Still, seldom can you see it at all. Mercury is very low in the southwest in the evening twilight. Good nights to look for it are Jan. 7-14 when it’s to the lower right of Saturn. Mercury is actually twice as bright as Saturn, but presumably, you’ve been following Saturn all along and know where it’s been and where it is. On Jan. 10-14, they’re less than 4 degrees apart and you’ll see both planets at the same time through binoculars.

By now Saturn is getting too close to the sun to see easily and we’ll lose it next week. Jupiter is higher and brighter than both, and it’s now the sole planet that’s conspicuous in the evening sky. Jupiter is the brightest star or planet in the sky.

The moon is near Mercury on Monday, but you won’t see either. On Tuesday, it’s a very thin crescent 5½ degrees straight to the left of Saturn; you’ll see both together in binoculars. On Wednesday it’s to the lower left of Jupiter.

The earth is closest to the sun – perihelion – at 11:52 p.m. MST on Monday, when the sun is precisely 91,406,842 miles distant, which is precisely 3,102,756 miles closer than we will be when at our farthest on July 4. So why is it cold now? Seasons happen because the earth is tilted 23½ degrees causing the sun to ride high in the sky with long days in summer and low in the sky with short days in winter. This is why the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere; it can’t be high in the sky for both hemispheres at the same time.

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