Happy New Year! The year 2024 arrives with a promising but brief meteor shower, and plenty of planets putting on a show in the morning and evening skies. Mars, Mercury, and Venus perform their gravitational minuet before sunrise, with the Moon joining the show on the 8th, the same morning some observers see the Moon pass in front of Antares. Saturn and Jupiter linger in the west after sunset, both planets still worthy targets for a small telescope. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month!
3 Jan. At 1:00 UT, the Earth reaches perihelion, the point in its orbit where it lies closest to the Sun at a distance of 147,100,632 km. That’s about 3% closer than at aphelion in early July.
4 Jan. Last Quarter Moon, 03:30 UT
3-4 Jan. The brief but sometimes intense Quadrantid meteor shower peaks. The Quadrantids average about 25-40 meteors in dark sky. The predicted time of the peak of the shower is 9h Universal Time on January 4, a time which particularly favors observers in the eastern Americas. But look anytime on the night of the 3rd and into the early morning of the 4th, especially in the morning when the radiant is higher in the sky. The Quadrantids take their name from the defunct northern constellation Quadrans Muralis. They can appear anywhere in the sky, but the radiant lies just north of the bright star Arcturus in the northeastern sky in the pre-dawn hours or just over the north-northwestern horizon after evening twilight. This year, a last-quarter Moon obscures the faintest meteors, but the Moon is located in Virgo, well away from the radiant. The Quadrantids strongly favor northern-hemisphere observers.
5 Jan. The Moon, now a fat waning crescent, follows Spica into the morning sky about 4.5o to the east.
8 Jan. Rise early, put on a parka (or flip-flops if you’re enjoying summer south of the equator), and look to the southeast to see Mercury and Venus join a waning crescent Moon. You need a clear view of the horizon to spot Mercury (magnitude -0.1) while Venus (magnitude -4.0) is much more prominent. The bright star Antares in Scorpius lies very close to the Moon’s bright limb. Observers in central and western North America can see the Moon occult Antares in the early-morning hours, just before sunrise in the west and at sunrise in central regions. A small telescope is a big help to see this event. Detailed timing for the occultation of Antares at this link.
9 Jan. If you missed the action in the morning sky yesterday, head out and look east to see the waning crescent Moon forming a triangle with Mercury and Venus. A lovely sight in binoculars!
11 Jan. New Moon, 11:57 UT
12 Jan. Mercury reaches greatest western elongation in the morning sky about 24o from the Sun.
15 Jan. Grab your telescope and look for Neptune sitting about a degree north of the waxing crescent Moon.
14 Jan. A thin waxing crescent Moon lies about 7o to the east of Saturn in the southwestern sky after sunset. Shining in Aquarius at 1st magnitude, Saturn’s disk spans about 16”, still big enough to reveal some detail in a telescope on an evening of steady air. The planet is moving away from us now and appears to move towards the Sun each day in the coming weeks.
18 Jan. First Quarter Moon, 03:43 UT.
18 Jan. The Moon lies 3o east of Jupiter tonight. While it’s well past opposition, the biggest planet still shines bright at magnitude -2.5 – you can’t miss it hovering in the constellation Aries – and reveals a disk a bit more than 41” in a telescope. The planet is always worth a look when you’re out with your telescope. Even a modest pair of binoculars shows its four big Galilean moons, each a unique world in its own right.
25 Jan. Full Moon, 17:54 UT
27 Jan. Mars and Mercury make a spectacular if elusive conjunction in the southeastern morning sky today. The two planets are separated by just a quarter degree in eastern Sagittarius. At magnitude -0.2, Mercury is the brighter of the two and lies just to the north of Mars. The Red Planet shines at magnitude 1.3, about four times brighter than Mercury. You need a clear view of the horizon to see the pair, and binoculars or a small telescope help pull the two planets out of the morning twilight. Venus lies nearby, also in Sagittarius, just north of the star Kaus Borealis at the top of the ‘Teapot’ asterism of the constellation.