This Week’s Sky at a Glance, January 1 – 9

Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) remains about 6th magnitude, very high in the southeast before the first light of dawn. It's unlikely to brighten further. See the December Sky & Telescope, page 45, or Bob King's article online. Both provide finder charts.


Mercury at dusk, Jan. 1, 2016

Catch Mercury in the evening twilight early this week, while you still can. Altair helps point the way.

Moon, Mars, and Spica at dawn, Jan. 2-4, 2015

The waning Moon poses between Spica and Mars early in the dawn of Sunday the 3rd.

Friday, January 1

• Orion season is in full swing. The Hunter strides up the southeastern sky in the evening, with his three-star belt still almost vertical. Far below shines brilliant Sirius, the Dog Star, in Canis Major.

• By midevening at this time of year, the Great Square of Pegasus balances on one corner high in the west. The vast Andromeda-Pegasus constellation complex runs all the way from near the zenith (Andromeda's foot) down through the Great Square (Pegasus's body) to somewhat low in the west (Pegasus's nose).

Saturday, January 2

• Dawn and sunrise happen at their latest for the year this week (in the world's mid-northern latitudes). Early in the dawn, look low in the southeast for bright Venus. It heads up a triangle with Saturn to its lower left and twinkly Antares lower down. And on Sunday morning the 3rd, the Moon high to Venus's upper right shines with Mars and Spica, as shown at right.

• Earth is at perihelion today, its closest to the Sun for the year: only 1 part in 30 closer than at aphelion in July.

Sunday, January 3

• The Quadrantid meteor shower, brief but sometimes rich, is well timed this year for North America. It should reach its peak for several hours late tonight. See our article in the January Sky & Telescope, page 48.

Monday, January 4

• Vega is still moderately high in the northwest when the stars come out. Once the night is fully dark, the little constellation figure of Lyra, so high on warm summer nights, extends leftward from Vega low in the cold.

Moon, Venus, Saturn at dawn, Jan. 6-8, 2016

Venus and Saturn draw closer together in the eastern dawn as the waning crescent Moon passes them by. . .

Venus and Saturn in conjunction, Jan. 9, 2016

. . .and then on the morning of the 9th, Venus and Saturn have their conjunction.

Tuesday, January 5

• Latest sunrise for the year (if you're near 40° north latitude). Tomorrow morning the 6th, the waning Moon stands above Venus, Saturn, and Antares, as shown here.

Wednesday, January 6

• On Thursday morning the 7th, the waning crescent Moon stands left of Venus, Saturn, and Antares low in the southeast, as shown here.

• Algol should be at its minimum light, magnitude 3.4 instead of its usual 2.1, for a couple hours centered on 10:31 p.m. EST.

Thursday, January 7

• Before moonlight returns to the evening sky next week, explore some new sights in upper Eridanus with your scope using Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders column, chart, and photos in the January Sky & Telescope, page 55. Do you know about the row of three 12th-magnitude galaxies in the field of Nu Eridani?

And take apart famous NGC 1356 in Eridanus, "the definitive barred spiral galaxy," with Going Deep on page 58 of the January issue.

Friday, January 8

• In the early dawn Saturday morning, spot brilliant Venus, the "Morning Star," in the southeast. Right next to it is Saturn, only 1/60 as bright. When seen from the Americas, they'll be 1/2° or less apart. That's about the width of a chopstick at arm's length. Binoculars give a fine view, and both planets will fit into a telescope's low- or medium-power eyepiece.

They'll be at their very closest, a mere 0.1° apart, around 4h Universal Time: excellent timing for Europe.

Saturday, January 9

• In this very coldest time of the year, the dim Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) hangs straight down from Polaris after dinnertime, as if (per Leslie Peltier) from a nail on the cold north wall of the sky.

The Big Dipper, meanwhile, is creeping up low in the north-northeast. Its handle is very low and its bowl is to the upper right.

• Algol should be at minimum light for a couple hours centered on 7:20 p.m. EST.


Want to become a better astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.

This is an outdoor nature hobby. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential guide to astronomy.

Pocket Sky Atlas, jumbo edition

The Pocket Sky Atlas plots 30,796 stars to magnitude 7.6 — which may sound like a lot, but it's less than one per square degree on the sky. Also plotted are many hundreds of telescopic galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae. Shown is the new Jumbo Edition for easier reading in the night. Click image for larger view.

Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The basic standard is the Pocket Sky Atlas (in either the original or new Jumbo Edition), which shows stars to magnitude 7.6.

Next up is the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0, plotting stars to magnitude 8.5, nearly three times as many. Next up, once you know your way around, is the even larger Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use sky charts with a telescope.

You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders collection (which includes its own charts), Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the bigger Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner.

Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically (meaning heavy and expensive). As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."

This Week's Planet Roundup

Jupiter with Great Red Spot on Jan. 2, 2016

Jupiter on January 2nd. . .

Jupiter with Great Red Spot on Jan. 4, 2016.

. . .and two days later on the 4th when practically the same longitude was on the central meridian. Christopher Go in the Philippines took these images with a 14-inch scope in a high wind and in "perfect seeing," respectively.
    Jupiter's Great Red Spot doesn't get any redder than this! At least it hasn't for many years. It even seems to match the almost brick-red description it earned during its prominent showing in 1878–79, which made the Red Spot famous and gave it its name. However, the spot has greatly shrunk in longitude over the decades (as will be the cover story of the March Sky & Telescope).
    South here is up. Note the Red Spot's redder central core, and, at the same longitude, the changing, run-together blue patches along the south edge of the ragged North Equatorial Belt.

Mercury remains low in the southwest as twilight fades, but it's getting lower now and fading fast. Look for it about 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. On the evening of January 1st it's still magnitude –0.3. By January 8th it's not just lower, but has dimmed to a perhaps unobservably faint magnitude +1.8.

Saturn, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are lined up along the ecliptic in early dawn, in that order from low in the southeast to high in the south-southwest.

Brilliant Venus starts the week forming a triangle with Saturn to its lower left and Antares more directly below it. Watch Saturn move toward Venus for their close conjunction, less than ½° apart, on the morning of January 9th.

Mars is halfway between Venus and Jupiter: about 40° from each. Spica shines about 10° to Mars's right — similar in brightness, different in color.

Brightnesses: Saturn is magnitude +0.5, Venus –4.0, Jupiter –2.2, Mars +1.2, and Spica +1.0.

Uranus (magnitude +5.8, in Pisces) is still in fine view high in the south right after dark. Finder chart.

Neptune (magnitude +7.9, in Aquarius) is getting low in the southwest right after dark.


All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America.

Eastern Standard Time (EST) is Universal Time (UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.


"Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."

— Henri Poincaré (1854–1912)


4 thoughts on “This Week’s Sky at a Glance, January 1 – 9

  1. John BorraJohn Borra

    Last fall, while waiting for freight to be loaded aboard my aircraft, I realized just how easy it is to see Venus during the daytime. I made a sport of looking for the planet as darkness gave way to dawn, discovering that as long as I had a reasonably transparent sky and knew just where to look, it is easy to spot.

    But yesterday I made the surprising discovery that Jupiter, too, is visible in daylight. While standing on the airport ramp, I had noticed the pleasing conjunction of Jupiter and the waning gibbous moon high in the predawn sky. Later, while cruising northwest at 6,000 ft. MSL, the moon again caught my attention; noticing the sun was now shining directly on my wing, the challenge suddenly occurred to me. Can I still see Jupiter? Indeed, I could! And thanks to its proximity to the moon and a reasonably transparent sky, I found it very easy to see. The sun had risen just a few minutes before and I determined to keep the planet in sight as long as possible. After landing, I checked my notes against the times for local sunrise and found that Jupiter was still visible, though with difficulty, about half an hour after sunrise.

    1. RalphRalph

      Polaris, it’s never as easy as it seems to seek her out and find her. The North Star is the only star in the sky that is always in the same place and yet I find it difficult to spot it out too

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