Stellar Vista Observatory Sky Report: Jan. 18-24

Stock image, St. George News

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].

Mars, Uranus and the first-quarter moon on Jan. 20, 2021 plus stars as bright or brighter than Uranus. The brightest stars of Aries are at the top. The moon is 6 ⅓ degrees from Mars, and all three might be seen together in very wide-angle binoculars. Graphic created with SkySafariAstronomy.com. | Image courtesy of Stellar Vista Observatory, St. George News

Jupiter and Saturn have left the evening sky while at the same time Venus is leaving the morning sky, leaving bright Mars to shine down on us. But this week and most of next, Mercury makes an excellent although brief appearance in the evening sky. If you’ve never seen it, this is a good time to look.

Mercury passed Saturn and then Jupiter last week. What happened is the Earth is orbiting the sun so as to place the sun between us and Jupiter and Saturn, and they’re now on the far side of the sun and can’t be seen. At the same time, Mercury is moving around from behind the sun and is increasing its angular separation from the sun day by day. 

On Sunday, Mercury is as far from the sun as it will be – 19 degrees – and it sets 90 minutes after the sun. The few days around Sunday are the best time to see it when it’s low in the southwest during evening twilight. Mercury is brighter than any star (except Sirius, which is in the opposite part of the sky), so that will help you see it. 

Telescopically, Mercury is awfully small and disappointing, although you might see it go through its phases. But there are photo opportunities if there are a few thin clouds and an interesting horizon. 

Before the end of the month, Mercury moves between the Earth and sun, and we’ll lose it then. The one planet that’s easy to see is Mars, which rides very high in the south as darkness falls. Mars is as bright as the brightest stars and it’s in the constellation Aries, which has no bright stars to compete, so you can’t miss it. Note the “red planet’s” orange color. 

Use binoculars to see the planet Uranus less than 2 degrees below Mars this week. Uranus is easily visible in binoculars, but the trick is to know which it is. One good free star chart is at TheSkyLive.com; customize for your location, go to “Uranus”, and set the date and time. Bookmark it for future use.

The moon joins Mars and Uranus on Wednesday. Venus is too nearly in line with the sun – and on the far side of it – to be seen until it slowly reappears in the evening sky in late May.

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.

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