Saturday, Jan. 1 — The inner planets dance (after sunset)
To kick off 2022, the inner planets Mercury and Venus will shine together low in the southwestern sky after sunset on Saturday, Jan. 1. Magnitude -0.71 Mercury will be positioned a slim fist’s diameter to the upper left (or 8 degrees to the celestial east) of 23 times brighter Venus. The two planets will set about an hour after the sun. On the following evenings, Mercury will shift higher while Venus descends. Once the sun has completely set, it will be safe to view the planets in binoculars (green circle) and telescopes. Under magnification, Mercury, situated on the far side of the sun from Earth, will exhibit a 70%-illuminated disk. But Venus will show a razor-thin sliver because it will be positioned between Earth and the sun.
Sunday, Jan. 2 — New moon (at 18:33 GMT)
At 1:33 p.m. EST or 18:33 GMT on Sunday, Jan. 2, the moon will officially reach its new moon phase. At that time it will be located in Sagittarius and approximately 4.3 degrees south of the sun. While new, the moon is traveling between Earth and the sun. Since sunlight can only reach the far side of a new moon, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, our natural satellite becomes completely hidden from view for about a day. This new moon will occur less than a day after lunar perigee, resulting in large tides around the world.
Sunday, Jan. 2 — Watch Algol brighten (at 7:42 p.m. EST)
In the constellation of Perseus, the star Algol, also designated Beta Persei, represents the glowing eye of Medusa from Greek mythology. It is among the most accessible variable stars for skywatchers. During a ten-hour period that repeats every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes, Algol dims by half and then re-brightens, because a companion star orbiting nearly edge-on to Earth crosses in front of the much brighter main star, reducing the total light output we perceive. Algol normally shines at magnitude 2.1, similar to the nearby star Almach in Andromeda. But at its minimum, Algol’s magnitude 3.4 is similar to the star Rho Persei (ρ Per), which is located just two finger widths to Algol’s lower right (or 2.25 degrees to the celestial south). On Sunday, Jan. 2 at 7:42 p.m. EST (or 00:42 GMT on Jan. 3), a fully dimmed Algol will sit nearly overhead in the eastern sky. Five hours later the star will shine at full intensity from a perch halfway up the western sky.
Monday, Jan. 3 — Quadrantids meteor shower peak (before dawn)
Named for a now-defunct constellation called the Mural Quadrant, the Quadrantids meteor shower runs from December 30 to Jan. 12 every year. Quadrantids meteors always travel away from the shower’s radiant, which lies in the northern sky beyond the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle. This shower commonly produces bright fireballs because it is produced by particles from an asteroid designated 2003EH. The shower’s most intense period, when up to 50 to 100 meteors per hour can appear, lasts only about 6 hours surrounding the peak, which is predicted to occur on Monday, Jan. 3 around 21:00 GMT (or 4 p.m. Eastern and 1 p.m. Pacific time). With the peak on Monday afternoon in the Americas, the optimal times for viewing Quadrantids there will be before dawn on both Monday and Tuesday — although fewer Quadrantids will be seen. Observers in eastern Asia will have the best show — before dawn on Tuesday morning — when the shower’s radiant will be high in the northeastern pre-dawn sky during the peak of the shower. Happily, the peak night will be moonless worldwide.
Monday, Jan. 3 — Young moon passes Venus and Mercury (after sunset)
For a brief period after sunset on Monday, Jan. 3, the very young crescent moon will be positioned near the inner planets Venus and Mercury, just above the southwestern horizon. Once the sun has completely set, seek out the very bright speck of Venus, and then look a fist’s width to her left (or 11 degrees to the celestial southeast) for the sliver of the 2%-illuminated moon. Magnitude -0.7 Mercury will shine several finger-widths above the moon, allowing them to share the field of view in binoculars (green circle). The moon and Venus will set first, leaving Mercury to brighten as the sky darkens. Observers at southerly latitudes will see the trio a little higher and in a darker sky.
Tuesday, Jan. 4 — Earth at perihelion (at 07:00 GMT)
On Tuesday, Jan. 4 at 07:00 GMT or 2 a.m. EST, the Earth will reach perihelion, its minimum distance from the sun for the year. At that time Earth will sit 91.407 million miles (147.105 million km) from our star — or 1.66% closer than our mean distance of 1.0 Astronomical Units. As winter-chilled Northern Hemisphere dwellers will attest, daily temperatures on Earth are not controlled by our proximity to the sun, but by the number of hours of daylight we experience.
Tuesday, Jan. 4 — Crescent moon near Saturn (early evening)
The moon will make its monthly trip past the bright gas giant planets starting on Tuesday evening, Jan. 4. Once the sky begins to darken after sunset, the creamy dot of Saturn will appear shining several finger-widths to the upper right (or 5 degrees to the celestial southeast) of the slim crescent moon, close enough for them to share the view in binoculars (green circle). Watch for the brighter planets Mercury (below them) and Jupiter (above them). The grouping will make a terrific photo opportunity.
Wednesday, Jan. 5 — Waxing moon with many planets (early evening)
On Wednesday, Jan. 5, the waxing crescent moon will climb to sit a palm’s width below (or 6 degrees to the celestial southwest of) bright Jupiter in the southwestern sky after dusk. Saturn, Mercury, and Venus will be strung out to their lower right — although Venus will set quickly after sunset. The line of planets will express the plane of our solar system, close to the ecliptic (green line), on the night sky. As the sky darkens, keep an eye out for Earthshine, sunlight reflected from Earth that slightly brightens the dark portion of the moon’s disk.
Friday, Jan. 7 — Mercury at greatest eastern elongation (after sunset)
On Friday morning, Jan. 7 in the Americas, Mercury (orbit shown in red) will reach its widest separation of 19 degrees east of the Sun, and maximum visibility for the current apparition. That timing means that Mercury will appear almost as far from the sun on both Thursday and Friday. With Mercury positioned just below the evening ecliptic (green line) in the southwestern sky, this appearance of the planet will be a relatively good one for both Northern and Southern Hemisphere observers. The optimal viewing times at mid-northern latitudes will be around 5:30 p.m. local time. Viewed in a telescope (inset) the planet will exhibit a waning, half-illuminated phase. The bright planets Jupiter and Saturn will share the scene.
Sunday, Jan. 9 — First quarter moon (at 18:11 GMT)
When the moon completes the first quarter of its orbit around Earth at 1:11 p.m. EST (or 18:11 GMT) on Sunday, Jan. 9, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon will cause us to see it half-illuminated — on its eastern side. At first quarter, the moon always rises around noon and sets around midnight, so it is also visible in the afternoon daytime sky. The evenings surrounding first quarter are the best for seeing the lunar terrain when it is dramatically lit by low-angled sunlight.
Wednesday, Jan. 12 — Bright moon above Ceres (evening)
On Wednesday evening, Jan. 12, the orbital motion of the waxing gibbous moon will carry it very close to Ceres, the largest object in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the first asteroid discovered. In 2006, Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet. After dusk, the moon will be positioned in the southeastern sky among the stars of Taurus, with the tiny dot of magnitude 8.0 Ceres situated less than a lunar diameter below it, i.e., to the celestial SSE. The Pleiades star cluster will be nearby. For best results, hide the bright moon outside of the top of your field of view of binoculars (large green circle). The duo will be telescope-close, too (small green circle) — but your optics will flip and/or invert the scene. Over the course of Wednesday night, the moon’s separation above Ceres will increase to several finger widths.
The Winter Football, also known as the Winter Hexagon and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini, and Canis Minor — specifically Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor & Pollux, and Procyon. After dusk, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky — extending from 30 degrees above the horizon to overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through the asterism. The hexagon is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous moon will reach the western edge of the giant shape on Thursday, Jan. 13 and then cross through it from Jan. 14 to Jan. 16 (red path with dates:time).
Sunday, Jan. 16 — Ceres stops moving (overnight)
On Sunday, Jan. 16, the motion of the dwarf planet designated (1) Ceres across the background stars of Taurus will pause while it completes a retrograde loop that began on October 8, 2021 (red path with labeled dates:times). Tonight, the magnitude 8.1 object will be located in western Taurus, a slim palm’s width below the bright Pleiades star cluster (Messier 45). After Sunday, Ceres will resume its regular prograde motion eastward.
Monday, Jan. 17 — Small Full Wolf Moon (at 23:48 GMT)
The full moon that will occur at 6:48 p.m. EST (or 23:48 GMT) on Monday, Jan. 17 is known as the Wolf Moon, Old Moon, and Moon after Yule. The January full moon always shines in or near the stars of Gemini or Cancer. The Indigenous Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region call it Gichi-manidoo Giizis, the “Great Spirit Moon”, a time to honor the silence and recognize one’s place within all of Great Mystery’s creatures. (You might recall that name from hearing or singing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.) The Cree of North America call the January full moon Opawahcikanasis, the “Frost Exploding Moon”, when trees crackle from the extreme cold temperatures. Full moons during the winter months climb as high in the sky as the summer noonday sun, and cast similar shadows. The full moons of January and December 2022 will appear smaller than those of the rest of the year — the three summer full moons will be supermoons.
Tuesday, Jan. 18 — Uranus stands still (evening)
On Tuesday, Jan. 18, the distant, blue-green planet Uranus will temporarily cease its motion through the distant stars of southern Aries — completing a westward retrograde loop that began in late August. After Tuesday, the planet will begin to move eastward again. At magnitude +5.75, Uranus can be seen in binoculars (green circle) and backyard telescopes, and even with unaided eyes, under dark skies. Look for the planet’s small, blue-green dot a fist’s width to the lower left of (or 11.5 degrees southeast of) Aries’ brightest stars, Hamal and Sheratan. Or use binoculars (green circle) to locate Uranus using the closer star Mu Ceti.
Wednesday, Jan. 19 — Grimaldi shows lunar libration (all night)
Due to its orbit’s 5-degree inclination and ellipticity, the moon tilts up-and-down and sways left-to-right by a small amount while keeping the same hemisphere pointed towards Earth at all times. Over the course of many months, this lunar libration effect lets us see 59% of the moon’s total surface — without leaving the Earth! Libration can be detected by noting the way major features, such as the dark and very round crater Grimaldi, move toward and away from the limb of the moon, and up and down. That 108-mile (175 km) diameter basin is easy to see using your unaided eyes, and in binoculars, and telescopes. It is located near the western edge of the moon, just south of the moon’s equator (the up-down red curve) and below, or lunar southwest of, the large, dark patch of Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms. On Wednesday, Jan. 19 and the following nights, libration will shift Grimaldi higher and away from the moon’s edge.
Friday, Jan. 21 — The Pleiades (all night)
In mid-evening during late January, the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45 is positioned high in the southern sky. The rest of its home constellation Taurus sits below the cluster. Visually, the Pleiades is composed of the medium-bright, hot blue stars named Asterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone. In Greek mythology, those characters were the daughters of Atlas, and half-sisters of the Hyades. The stars are indeed related — recently born of the same primordial gas cloud. To the naked eye, only six of the sister stars are usually apparent; their parents Atlas and Pleione are huddled together at the east end of the grouping. Under magnification, hundreds of stars appear. Not surprisingly, many cultures, including Aztec, Maori, Sioux, and Hindu have noted this object and developed stories around it. In Japan, it is called Subaru, and forms the logo of the eponymous car maker. Due to its shape, the Pleiades are sometimes confused with the Little Dipper.
Saturday, Jan. 22 — The Double Cluster (evening)
The Double Cluster is composed of the two large and bright open clusters NGC 884 and NGC 889. It sits high in the northern sky after dusk in winter and then descends to skim the northern horizon by dawn. Try to split the pair of clusters, each as wide as the moon and almost a lunar diameter apart, with unaided eyes. Binoculars (large green circle) or a low-power, widefield telescope (small green circle) will show them in all their glory. NGC 869, the more westerly cluster, is more compact and contains more than 100 white and blue-white stars. NGC 884, the easterly cluster, is much less compact and hosts a handful of 8th magnitude golden suns. Use higher power to see doubles, mini-asterisms, and dark lanes of missing stars. The two clusters are inside the Perseus Arm of our Milky Way galaxy, about 7,300 light-years from the sun. Their visual brightness has been dramatically reduced by opaque interstellar dust in the foreground.
Tuesday, Jan. 25 — Third quarter moon (at 13:41 GMT)
When the moon reaches its third-quarter phase at 8:41 a.m. EST or 13:41 GMT on Tuesday, Jan. 25, it will rise at about midnight, and then remain visible in the southern sky all morning. At third, or last, quarter the moon is illuminated on its western side, towards the pre-dawn Sun. Third-quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the Sun. About 3.5 hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. The week of dark, moonless evening skies that follow this phase will be ideal for observing deep-sky targets.
Wednesday, Jan. 26 — Mars near nebulas (pre-dawn)
In the southeastern pre-dawn sky on Wednesday, Jan. 26, the orbital motion of Mars (red path with dates and times) will carry the planet close to several bright deep-sky objects in northern Sagittarius. The Trifid Nebula (Messier 20) and the open star cluster Messier 21 will sit a thumb’s width to the upper left (or 1 degree to the celestial NNW) of Mars. The Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) with its central star cluster NGC 6530 will be positioned just to the lower right (or 0.5 degrees to the south) of Mars. Some of the deep sky objects will be visible in binoculars (green circle) under dark sky conditions.
Thursday, Jan. 27 — Old moon in the Scorpion’s claws (pre-dawn)
When the waning crescent moon rises in the southeast after 3 a.m. local time on Thursday, Jan. 28, it will be passing through the up-down line making up the three claw stars of the scorpion, Scorpius. From top to bottom, those three, 2nd magnitude, white stars are Graffias or Acrab, Dschubba, and Fang (or Beta, Delta, and Pi Scorpii, respectively. The fainter stars Rho and Nu Scorpii bracket the trio. Scorpius’ brightest star, reddish Antares, will twinkle to their lower left.
Saturday, Jan. 29 — Crescent moon with Mars and Vesta (pre-dawn)
On Saturday, Jan. 29, the pretty, slender crescent of the old moon and the bright reddish dot of Mars will rise together in the southeastern sky shortly after 5 a.m. local time — making a lovely photo opportunity when composed with some interesting scenery. The pair will be close enough to share the view in binoculars — with Mars poised a few finger-widths to the moon’s upper left. Before the sky brightens, search for the magnitude 7.6 asteroid designated (4) Vesta located a binoculars’ field-width (green circle) to the lower left (or 6.4 degrees to the celestial ENE) of Mars. Vesta will approach, and then pass north of, Mars in late February. Many deep sky objects (red labels) will share the scene.
For the first half of January, magnitude -0.7 Mercury will be visible in the southwestern sky after sunset. In the first few days of the month, it will be poised to the upper left (or celestial southeast) of much brighter Venus. Mercury’s greatest elongation, 19 degrees east of the sun, will occur on Jan. 7, a week before its perihelion — making this a brief and reasonably good apparition for Northern Hemisphere observers, but a less ideal one for southerners. The best viewing time around elongation will be 5:30 p.m. local time. Mercury will approach Saturn until the pair closes to within 3.4 degrees of one another on Jan. 12-13. After that, Mercury’s westerly retrograde motion will outpace Saturn in their race sunward. Mercury will rapidly become lost in the twilight after mid-month. Telescope views will reveal a waning phase that decreases from 76% to a thin crescent. Meanwhile, the planet’s apparent disk size will swell from 6 arc-seconds to nearly 10 arc-seconds. (Always ensure that the sun is completely below the horizon before training optics on Mercury.) The very young crescent moon might be spotted less than 5 degrees below (south of) Mercury on Jan. 3. But the moon will be more easily seen on the following evening, when it will sit 11 degrees to Mercury’s upper left. Following inferior solar conjunction on Jan. 26, Mercury will enter the east-southeastern pre-dawn sky — commencing a lengthy, but poor apparition for northerners.
The opening few days of January will find Venus low in the west-southwestern sky after sunset, and rapidly descending sunward. When Venus reaches inferior conjunction on Jan. 8-9, our sister planet will be closer than any planet has been to Earth in a century — a mere 0.266 Astronomical Units, 24.7 million miles, 39.767 million km, or 133 light-minutes. Telescope views of the planet will be very risky while it’s that close to the sun. Experienced observers might glimpse Venus’ razor-thin crescent and its swollen apparent disk diameter of 63 arc-seconds! Venus will spend all of January moving retrograde westward through northern Sagittarius. When the planet re-appears in the east-southeastern pre-dawn sky several mornings after conjunction, it will rapidly climb out of the morning twilight and steadily brighten. Venus will end January at magnitude -4.8, and preparing to pass a half-dozen degrees to the north of Mars during early February. The old crescent moon will share the pre-dawn sky with Venus on Jan. 29 and 30.
During January, Mars will be observable in the southeastern pre-dawn sky while it slowly climbs away from the sun on its year-long journey to opposition in late December. On Jan. 1, the ruddy, magnitude 1.53 planet will rise among the stars of Ophiuchus after 5 a.m. local time — just five degrees northeast of its rival, the bright star Antares.
Over the course of the month, Mars will grow in apparent diameter from 4 to 4.3 arc-seconds and brighten a little to magnitude 1.4. Mars’ easterly prograde motion will hold it in place while the background stars migrate west. On Jan. 20 the Red Planet will pass into the rich star fields of Sagittarius. Mars will pass telescope-close to the globular cluster NGC 6235 on Jan. 3, the planetary nebula IC 4634 on Jan. 6, globular NGC 6287 on Jan. 7, the Ghost of Mars Nebula (NGC 6369) on Jan. 15, and the globular NGC 6401 on Jan. 18.
On Jan. 26, Mars will pass less than 1.5 degrees to the SSW of the Trifid Nebula (Messier 20) and the nearby open star cluster Messier 21. That same morning, the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) with its central star cluster NGC 6530 will be positioned just 0.5 degrees to the south of Mars.
Toward month’s end, Mars will greet much brighter Venus, which will approach from Mars’ upper left (or celestial northeast). On Jan. 29, the slender crescent of the old moon will shine several degrees to the south of Mars, making a nice photo opportunity. The magnitude 7.6 asteroid designated (4) Vesta will be nearby, too — about 6.5 degrees to the east-northeast of Mars.
Our time for viewing Jupiter will conclude during January. During the first half of the month the bright, magnitude -2.1 planet will be easily observed in telescopes in early evening as it moves prograde eastward through central Aquarius in the southwestern sky. But Jupiter will be flirting with the evening twilight by month’s end — its angle from the sun will have been reduced to only 25 degrees.
Jupiter’s four Galilean moons will appear on either side the planet in binoculars. In telescopes, the great red spot will cross Jupiter’s disk every second or third night. Thirteen times fainter Saturn will shine 18 degrees to the lower right (celestial west) of Jupiter, until the ringed planet disappears into the twilight towards month-end. On Jan. 5, the waxing crescent moon will pass 6 degrees to the southwest of Jupiter.
During early evening for the first week of January, Saturn will be observable in the west-southwestern sky as it moves eastward among the stars of central Capricornus. After mid-month, Saturn will become increasingly swamped by twilight. The ringed planet’s distance from Mercury, which will be sitting to its lower right (or celestial west), will decrease to 3.4 degrees on Jan. 12-13. After that encounter, Mercury’s westerly retrograde motion will outpace Saturn as they both swing sunward. The young crescent moon will shine 5 degrees to Saturn’s left on Jan. 4.
Magnitude 5.7 Uranus will be observable in binoculars and telescopes all evening long during January. Its small, blue-green dot will be moving slowly retrograde westwards in southern Aries, 10.5 degrees southeast of that constellation’s brightest stars, Hamal and Sheratan, and only 5 degrees from the medium-bright star Mu Ceti to its south. The planet will most visible when it climbs to its highest position in the southern sky at around 7 p.m. local time. From Jan. 10 to 11, the bright, waxing gibbous moon will hop past Uranus.
The distant and blue-colored planet Neptune will be observable in the southwestern sky in early evening during January. The magnitude 7.9 planet will be traveling very slowly eastward among the stars of northeastern Aquarius. If the sky is very dark, Neptune can be seen in binoculars. To locate it, find the north-south grouping of five medium-bright stars Psi, Chi, and Phi Aquarii (or ψ, X, and φ Aqr). Neptune’s non-twinkling speck will sit 3 degrees to the NNE of the top star, Phi. Viewed in a telescope, Neptune’s apparent disk size will be 2.25 arc-seconds.
Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.
Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.
Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.
Visual magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.
Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.
Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.
Night Sky Observing Tips
Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe fainter objects, such as meteors, dim stars, nebulas, and galaxies, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Avoid looking at your phone’s bright screen by keeping it tucked away. If you must use it, set the brightness to minimum — or cover it with clingy red film.
Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars, and the brightest planets — if they are above the horizon. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the fainter constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that is the disk of our home galaxy, the Milky Way — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, use a tree or dark building to block ambient light (or moonlight) and help reveal fainter sky objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.
Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be outside for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress more warmly than you think is necessary. An hour of winter observing can chill you to the bone. For meteor showers, a blanket or lounge chair will prove to be much more comfortable than standing, or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.
Daytime skywatching: On the days surrounding first quarter, the moon is visible in the afternoon daytime sky. At last quarter, the moon rises before sunrise and lingers into the morning daytime sky. When Venus is at a significant angle away from the sun it can often be spotted during the day as a brilliant point of light — but you’ll need to consult an astronomy app to know when and where to look for it. When large sunspots develop on the sun, they can be seen without a telescope — as long as you use proper solar filters, such as eclipse glasses. Permanent eye damage can occur if you look at the sun for any length of time without protective eyewear.