Venus Kisses Saturn On Friday Jan. 8

On Friday, January 8, the planet Venus will appear to pass just 5 arc minutes north of the planet Saturn, That is a mere one-sixth of the diameter of the moon, a small enough distance to fit in the eyepiece of a powerful telescope.

On January 9, the planet Venus will appear to pass just north of the planet Saturn. Credit: Starry Night software.

This will be a rare opportunity to see two planets at the same time in a telescope’s narrow field of view. In a lifetime of observing the skies, I have seen such a close conjunction of two planets only two or three times. With the naked eye, sharp-eyed observers will be hard pressed to separate the two points of light.

Unfortunately for observers in North America, the point of closest conjunction will occur at 11 p.m. EST, while the planets are below the local horizon. For a skywatcher in New York, for example, the planets won’t clear the eastern horizon until 5 a.m. EST, at which time they will have separated so that they are 17 arc minutes apart, or slightly more than half the diameter of the moon. Even so, they will still fit in a telescope eyepiece.

Of course, this conjunction is something of an optical illusion. The two planets aren’t anywhere near each other in space, but merely appear close together from our perspective here on planet Earth.

Venus is currently on the far side of the Sun from Earth, 1.22 astronomical units distant (1.22 times the average distance from the Earth to the sun), so it appears similar to a gibbous moon.
Saturn is 10.79 astronomical units from Earth, nearly 9 times farther away than Saturn.

The two appear almost the same angular diameter: 14 arc seconds for Venus, 15 arc seconds for Saturn, yet in reality Saturn is actually almost 10 times the diameter of Venus. So Saturn’s greater distance balances out is larger size, and the two appear almost the same from Earth.

The most striking difference between the two is their difference in brightness. Venus is magnitude –4.0 on the upside-down brightness scale astronomers use, while Saturn is only magnitude +0.5, 4.5 magnitudes (or almost 100 times) fainter than Venus. This difference is mainly due to Venus’ closeness to the sun (0.72 astronomical units) compared to Saturn’s (9.55 astronomical units).

When you look for the twin planets just before dawn on Saturday morning, the first thing you will notice is Venus shining brightly in the southeastern sky. You will have to look closely to spot “tiny” Saturn just above and to the right of it.

If you own a planetarium program like Starry Night that lets you travel to other planets, check out the view Saturday morning from Saturn. You will see Earth and Venus in a close conjunction, Venus a narrow crescent from Saturn’s perspective, and Earth a rounded gibbous shape, since despite being close in the sky, they are actually on opposite sides of the sun, and lit by it quite differently.

Mercury at its Best

Now that Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, Mercury is the smallest of the eight planets. With a diameter of 3032 miles (4879 km.), it is slightly more than a third of the diameter of Earth, and smaller than the solar system’s two largest moons, Ganymede and Titan. Because of its tight orbit around the sun, Mercury never strays far into the night sky, peeping tantalizingly over the horizon a few times a year. The next two weeks will be your best chance for seeing Mercury in evening twilight this year.

Timing is the secret for catching sight of Mercury. Try too early, and its tiny speck of light will be lost against the twilight sky. Try too late, and Mercury will be too close to the horizon. Ive found the best time to be about half an hour after sunset. Binoculars are helpful in initially spotting Mercury, but once located in binoculars you should be able to see it with the unaided eye.

Currently Venus is shining brightly in the evening sky, and it can be a helpful guide to spotting Mercury, about two-thirds of the way down towards the horizon, and slightly to your right. Dont confuse it with nearby Aldebaran, which will have a noticeably reddish color and will probably twinkle, while Mercury shines with a more steady light.

On the evening of Thursday, May 7, Mercury will be at its farthest from the Sun, making the next two weeks the best time this year for observers in the northern hemisphere to spot this elusive little planet. Credit:  Starry Night  software.

On the evening of Thursday, May 7, Mercury will be at its farthest from the Sun, making the next two weeks the best time this year for observers in the northern hemisphere to spot this elusive little planet. Credit: Starry Night software.

In a telescope, Mercury is a disappointing sight. Like Venus, Mercury exhibits phases as it passes between us and the sun. At present it is slightly gibbous. On Saturday, May 2, it will look just like a miniature first quarter moon. After that, it will assume a crescent shape.

Because Mercury is always seen close to the horizon, it is a challenge to see its surface markings, even in a powerful telescope. Serious observers of Mercury prefer to observe it in the daytime sky, now relatively easy to do because of computerized telescopes. But always be very careful when observing with the sun above the horizon, because even the briefest view of the sun in a telescope will do permanent harm to your eyes.

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