Night sky in January 2017 – northern hemisphere

Highlights: Venus brilliant in January’s evening sky. Mars close to Neptune.

skimp thumbnailWelcome to Skymania’s guide to the night sky in January, 2017. You will find a map of the whole visible sky, which can be adjusted for any time and date, plus information on the position of the planets, phases of the Moon, and notable astronomical events to watch out for. (To open the sky map in a separate window, click here.)

For the night sky in the southern hemisphere, click here.

The sky in January 2017

Summary: Venus shines brilliantly in the evening sky, with Mars nearby. Jupiter dominates the morning sky, with Saturn and Mercury rising just before dawn. Neptune lies close to Mars at the very start of the month, and may be seen with a telescope or binoculars. Asteroid Vesta is bright enough to spot easily with binoculars. (If you don’t own an optical aid, we’ve advice on choosing binoculars or a telescope here). Meteor fans should watch out for the Quadrantid meteor shower.

Mercury and Saturn
Saturn, to the upper right, and Mercury between the elongated clouds, pictured on January 15 from East Kent. Image credit: Paul Sutherland/Skymania

The planets

mercurythmMercury begins the year in the morning sky. Having passed through inferior conjunction, between the Earth and the Sun in December, it rapidly moves westwards during the first days of the month. By the end of the first week of January, it might be possible to glimpse it low before dawn, but you will require a clear, unobstructed horizon. Greatest elongation west is reached on January 19 when the planet will shine at magnitude -0.2, close in the sky to the considerably more distant Saturn. Mercury then begins to draw back in towards the Sun.

venusthmVenus continues to dominate the evening sky, shining like a brilliant jewel after sunset. In recent weeks, it has lifted itself well above the horizon for northern observers, and so is hard to miss, shining at magnitude -4.5, making it the brightest object in the night sky after the Moon. Many non-astronomers will be heard asking what the bright “star” is. Venus reaches its greatest elongation east on January 12, after which it will begin to draw back towards the Sun, on its way to inferior conjunction in March when it will lie approximately between Earth and the Sun. Through a small telescope, the planet will resemble a moon at half phase.

marsthmMars continues to hang around in the evening sky as its rapid eastward motion through the zodiac delays the Sun’s attempts to catch it up. From northern latitudes, would will find it to the upper right of Venus, shining more dimly at magnitude 1. On New Year’s Day, Mars will have another close neighbour, as the outermost planet Neptune will lie less than a Moon’s-width away from it. Both will therefore be visible together in the field of a small telescope, though Neptune is very much fainter at magnitude 8, well below the limit of naked-eye visibility.

jupiterthmJupiter, the biggest planet in the Solar System, is very well placed for observers willing to check out the sky in the later hours of the night. It rises around an hour after midnight at the start of January and more than two hours earlier by the end of the month. The planet lies in Virgo and shining brightly at almost magnitude -2. A small telescope will reveal the planet’s belts and bands as well as the four main moons, known as the Galilean satellites, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

saturnthmSaturn returns to the morning sky this month, having passed through superior conjunction, on the Sun’s far side, in December. It rises about two hours before the Sun at the start of the month, and a couple of hours earlier by month’s end. You will need a good southeastern horizon to see Saturn shining at magnitude 0.5. Look out for Mercury nearby.

uranus_thmUranus is visible in the evening sky, but sets soon after midnight in mid-month. The planet is just visible to the unaided eye if you have an exceptionally clear, dark sky, but binoculars make it much easier to spot. You can find it in shining at magnitude 6.0 in the constellation of Pisces.

neptune_thmNeptune, the last of the eight worlds recognised as planets in our Solar System, is visible with binoculars or a small telescope as soon as it gets dark, in the constellation of Aquarius, shining at magnitude 7.6. A telescope will show a tiny disk and give a hint of its bluish hue. At the start of the month, Neptune will lie very close to Mars, as described above.

Vesta is at its besta!

The brightest of the asteroids, Vesta, is at opposition on January 18 and will be easy to find with binoculars over the next few weeks. The bright stars Castor and Pollux point straight at it in January. Here is our guide on how to find, and photograph), Vesta.

New Year meteors

The first meteor shower of the year is the Quadrantids, which are technically active from December 28-January 10, but which actually have a sharp peak on the night of January 3-4. Peak activity is predicted to occur this year at 14h UT, which favours the west coast of the USA and Canada, where it will still be dark before dawn. Observers in Europe can expect to see some meteors on the night before and the night after maximum, but rates can be expected to be considerably lower. At least the Moon will not be a problem, since it will be a slim, dim crescent setting early in the night.

Report on the 2016 Quadrantids
How to observe meteors

The Moon

The Moon always makes a great target for a small telescope, which come into view as its phases change. We’ve a guide to where to find 50 of the best lunar features, plus a checklist to download so you can tick them off as you spot them! Don’t have a telescope? Here’s our guide to choosing one.

Phases of the Moon

Phase First Quarter: Jan 5
Full Moon: Jan 12
Last Quarter: Jan 19
New Moon: Jan 28
Image courtesy U.S.N.O.
Fifty fantastic features – our amazing Moon

moon_in_relief_thmHere’s our guide to observing some of the finest sights on the Moon with small telescopes. Click here for pages of charts that will help you find interesting features to seek out yourself, including craters, lava flows, mountain ranges and deep chasms!