Skywatch: Shooting stars, a planetary conjunction and brighter days


The new year starts with Mars and the moon in revelry, shooting stars in early January and the planetary duo of Venus and Saturn preparing for a late-month conjunction. Oh — and the days are growing brighter.

As the night stage begins, Earth’s reddish neighbor is visible at -1.1 magnitude, nice and bright, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. You’ll find it ascending the eastern heavens after sundown. On the night of Jan. 3, the reddish dot of Mars will be just above the gibbous moon in the constellation Taurus. Other parts of the world — the southern parts of Africa, for example — will see a lunar occultation (blocking) of Mars, according to the International Occultation Timing Association, or IOTA. Washington will not see it.

Throughout January, Mars will become less bright from our earthly perspective, dropping to -0.3 magnitude, according to the observatory. On the night of Jan. 30-31, we will see another close encounter between Mars and the moon. Gazers in Washington will not see the occultation, but places far to the south — such as Florida — will see it after midnight Jan. 31, according to IOTA.

Jupiter starts the new year prominently in the southern sky at sunset. You’ll find this large, gaseous planet in the constellation Pisces at -2.4 magnitude (very bright) now, and it dims throughout January to -2.2. The young moon — about four days past new — approaches Jupiter on the evening of Jan. 25.

The planets Venus and Saturn are actually not close, but thanks to our earthly angle, they seem to get quite sociable in our early-evening western heavens. Tonight, our neighboring planet Venus can be spotted (in the constellation Capricornus) after sunset in the southwest at -3.9 magnitude (very bright), according to the observatory. Also in Capricornus, Saturn is +0.8 magnitude (visible but not as bright).

Over the next three weeks, Venus and Saturn seem to become friendlier. They conjunct on Jan. 22, very low in the western sky just after sunset. On Jan. 23, spy the sliver of a very young moon above and to the left of Venus and Saturn. The two planets then have space between them.

The usually robust Quadrantid meteors peak on the night of Jan. 3-4, according to the American Meteor Society. The pesky news is the waxing gibbous moon will be more than 90 percent lit, as our lunar companion becomes full on Jan. 6. Effectively, the bright moon will wash out many shooting stars. The society predicts 120 meteors an hour during the short peak, but set your expectations low, as there probably will be substantially fewer later in the evening (Jan. 3) and after midnight (Jan. 4).

The new year — quite literally — becomes a little brighter, as Washington now enjoys nine hours 30 minutes of daylight on Jan. 1, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. By adding a minute or two of sunlight daily, illumination starts adding up. By Jan. 31, we will see 10 hours and 13 minutes of daylight.

* Jan. 14 — Guided by museum staffers, observe the sun safely through a properly filtered telescope for “Second Saturday Sungazing” at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Free admission to the museum. Parking $15.

* Jan. 14 — “Imagining the Surfaces of Distant Stars,” a talk by Kenneth Carpenter, a project scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, at the regular online meeting of the National Capital Astronomers. He will explain how ground- and space-based observatories contribute to our understanding of the surfaces of stars beyond our sun. 7:30 p.m. For access, visit:

* Jan. 28 — Telescopically tour the star-filled midwinter heavens at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Enjoy the space outings through telescopes provided by Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) members. Meet at the museum’s bus parking lot, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *