SOUTHERN UTAH — 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 is available online. Send questions and comments to [email protected].
Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction last month, and at their closest they were separated by a scant one-tenth of a degree. They’re still close, and on Monday they’re separated by 2.5 degrees and remain a nice “double planet” in binoculars. But Mercury joins them, and for a few days only you have the opportunity to see three planets simultaneously in a pair of binoculars – an extremely rare sight you don’t want to miss!
On Monday, Mercury is only 1.5 degrees straight to the left of Jupiter and on Tuesday, it’s 2 1/4 degrees to the upper left of Jupiter. Mercury moves farther away, but you should see all three planets together in binoculars through Thursday. Mercury is half as bright and Saturn one-twelfth as bright as Jupiter.
The trick is that they are very low in the southwest during twilight, so you’ll need a very clear sky free from haze, a very low horizon and binoculars. You also have a very narrow window of time and must look within a few minutes of a half hour after sunset. Seeing the triple planet gathering will be challenging but rewarding.
Jupiter and Saturn set 4 minutes earlier each day. We’ll lose them at the end of the week, but Mercury is making a good appearance and will be around the next three weeks, getting higher and setting later each evening until Jan. 24, when it reverses course and begins to set earlier each day. There will be more on Mercury in the next two sky reports.
The easiest planet to see now is Mars. Mars was closest and brightest in October, but it will be around until summer. It’s presently high in the south as darkness falls, and because it’s in an empty part of the sky without bright stars to compete, you can’t miss it. A telescope will reveal its small orange disk.
In the morning sky, Venus is as close to the horizon a half hour before sunrise as Jupiter is a half hour after sunset, but Venus is so bright that you have a better chance to spot it. Look very low in the southeast – again, you’ll need a very low horizon. Venus is moving ahead of the Earth and around behind the sun. We’ll soon lose it to sight, not to return until late May, when it slowly reappears in the evening sky.
Written by JOHN MOSLEY. John Mosley was program supervisor of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for 27 years and is the author of “Stargazing for Beginners” and “Stargazing with Binoculars and Telescopes”. He and his wife live in St. George where he continues to stargaze from his retirement home while serving on the advisory committee for Stellar Vista Observatory.