The sky this month

Mercury is too close to the Sun to be observed until late January when it might be found low after sunset at magnitude -0.6 if you have a clear south-western horizon.

Venus rapidly crosses from the evening to the morning sky this month as it comes between us and the Sun. This point, called inferior conjunction, happens on 11 January, after which it will gradually emerge before dawn to shine as a brilliant beacon. A telescope will show it as a fine crescent.

Mars continues to brighten as it heads towards opposition in April which will be its next closest encounter with the Earth. During January it heads through the constellation of Virgo, rising at around midnight at the start and an hour earlier than that at the end of the month. The diminishing distance means it s apparent size is increasing, and some surface details might now be glimpsed through a small telescope. Find out more about Mars here including new maps to show its position in the sky.

Jupiter is ideally placed now for observation, being visible all night long and shining at magnitude -2.7 in the constellation of Gemini. It reaches opposition – the point when it is on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun – on 5 January. If you have a small telescope, or binoculars held steady, you will be able to see the four main moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, that were discovered by Galileo. Not that they may not all be visible at the same time if some are hidden by the planet. A small telescope will show the belts in Jupiter’s atmosphere too.

Saturn rises well before the Sun now so is observable for a few hours in the pre-dawn sky, shining at magnitude +0.6 in the constellation of Libra. The rings are open wide as viewed from Earth, making them a fine sight in a small telescope.

New Year meteors

The New Year opens with a display of fireworks in the form of the Quadrantid meteor shower. Unlike some of the longer-lasting showers of the year, these “shooting stars” have a sharp peak which occurs this year at around 19h UT. Good news is that the Moon is close to new and so moonlight will not drown out the meteors. The meteors appear to radiate from a spot north of the constellation of Bootes, but may be seen in any part of the sky. Predicted rate under ideal conditions is for 80 meteors an hour at maximum, but in reality you will see a lot fewer, though still a generous number if you have clear skies away from any street lights.

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