Planets pair up at dawn and the Moon is new.
A quartet of planets awaits early risers this week. If you get outside roughly 45 minutes before sunrise, you’ll be able to see Mercury, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter arrayed across the southeast. Of those four, Jupiter is the brightest (magnitude –0.9) and highest, sitting a little less than 30 degrees above the horizon. Just five degrees to the left of Jupiter is 1.3-magnitude Mars. Our second planetary pair is much, much lower down. Saturn shines at magnitude 0.5 and has an altitude of only five degrees. Below and to the left of the ringed planet by about 5½ degrees is –0.3 magnitude Mercury. The swift little world is wrapping up its current apparition and will be hard to spot. You’ll likely need binoculars to fish it out of the horizon haze, the morning twilight brightening all the while. Don’t despair if you can’t see Mercury—it’ll reappear in the evening sky in a month or so.
At dawn, a very, very thin crescent Moon sits 3½ degrees to the left of Mercury and Saturn, low in the east-southeast. Since the 13th, Mercury has moved sunward, away from Saturn, and now is a little harder to pick out in twilight’s glow. Once again, binoculars will be helpful for tracking down all three targets.
The Moon is new this evening, at 9:17 p.m., EST.
This morning, Jupiter watchers in eastern Canada will get to see their first double-shadow transit of the new Jupiter apparition. It’ll be a brief one, however. The double transit begins at 4:45 a.m., EST, when the shadow cast by Ganymede lands on Jupiter’s disc, joining Europa’s shadow, positioned near the planet’s northwest limb. The show ends ten minutes later when Europa’s shadow egresses. As it happens, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot will also be visible, adding extra viewing interest to an already enticing event.
The night sky over the January 19 – 21 weekend is free of moonlight for the most part. The latest the thin waxing crescent sets is a little before 10 p.m on Sunday evening. (Moonset occurs earlier on Friday and Saturday nights.) At around this time, the constellation Auriga is nearly overhead. The leading light of the pentagon-shaped group is 0.1-magnitude Capella, the sixth brightest star in the heavens and the fourth brightest visible from Canadian latitudes. Capella’s luminosity partly stems from the fact that it’s only 45 light-years away—about 10 times farther than the closest star system to our Sun.
Auriga is home to three splendid open clusters: M36, M37 and M38. These stellar clumps are members of the Milky Way Galaxy and relatively nearby. M36 and M37 are around 4,000 light-years distant, while M38 is nearly 6,000 light-years away. Each cluster is a rewarding sight in a small telescope, or even in binoculars if your viewing conditions are good enough. The easiest bino target is M36, because it’s the most compact member of the trio. In a telescope, M36 displays a striking, spiderlike appearance with rows of faint stars (the spider’s legs) radiating from the cluster’s centre (the body). However, telescope users will likely find M37 to be the most rewarding Auriga cluster, as it’s richly packed with stars. M38 is less impressive, but it offers a bonus—the faint, little cluster NGC1907, which lies just 30 arc minutes south-southwest of M38.
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