Five vis­i­ble plan­ets in the pre-dawn sky

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - COMMUNITY - Glenn Roberts Glenn K. Roberts is a mem­ber of the Char­lot­te­town Cen­tre of the Royal As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety of Canada (RASC). His col­umn ap­pears in The Guardian once a month. He wel­comes com­ments from read­ers. Any­one who would like to com­ment on his col­umn

Those who are up very early in the morn­ing this month (and next) will have a unique op­por­tu­nity to view all the five vis­i­ble to the naked-eye plan­ets — Mer­cury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — in the pre-dawn sky. The last time all th­ese five plan­ets ap­peared in the same sky to­gether was dur­ing the pe­riod from Dec. 15, 2004, to Jan. 15, 2005.

This time around, the five vis­i­ble plan­ets will ap­pear si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the predawn sky from about Jan. 20 to Feb. 20. Four of the five (Mer­cury, Venus, Saturn and Mars) will ap­pear in the south­east-south re­gion of the pre-dawn sky, stretch­ing in a rough line from the lower left to up­per right (the eclip­tic), and will be vis­i­ble about 70 min­utes be­fore sun­rise. Venus will be the eas­i­est to spot (it is the bright­est of the four). Mer­cury will be vis­i­ble (af­ter Jan. 20) to the lower left of Venus, close to the hori­zon.

Mov­ing up the line to the right from Venus, golden Saturn sits in all its ce­les­tial splen­dour. Venus and Saturn will be fairly close to one an­other dur­ing the first half of Jan­uary. On the morn­ing of Jan. 9, the two plan­ets will stage a par­tic­u­larly close con­junc­tion, the clos­est cou­pling of two plan­ets since March 2013. Watch the wan­ing cres­cent moon slide past Venus and Saturn be­fore sun­rise, both to­day and tomorrow.

Con­tin­u­ing fur­ther up the line, you will spot Mars. Though rea­son­ably bright right now, Mars will, in May, shine as brightly as Jupiter does at present. Use binoc­u­lars to dis­tin­guish the dif­fer­ences in colour be­tween the ruddy-coloured Mars and blue-white Spica, the bright­est star in the con­stel­la­tion Virgo - the Maiden, which sits fairly close to the up­per right of the Red Planet.

The fifth vis­i­ble planet vis­i­ble in the pre-dawn sky, Jupiter, sits in the south­west, hav­ing risen in the east be­fore mid­night at the be­gin­ning of Jan­uary and around mid-evening (9 p.m.) by month’s end. Look for the wan­ing cres­cent moon close to Jupiter on the morn­ings of Jan. 26-27.

Comet Catalina con­tin­ues to move north­ward through the con­stel­la­tion of Bootes - the Herds­man into Ursa Ma­jor - the Great Bear this month, tran­si­tion­ing from an early morn­ing ob­ject to an all-night ob­ject by month’s end.

Al­though the comet hasn’t bright­ened as much as pre­dicted (mag. 6.5 as of 01/01/16 ), it is still sport­ing a dust tail and an ion tail, both of which should be vis­i­ble in binoc­u­lars and long-ex­po­sure pho­tos from a dark site away from city lights. Hav­ing reached per­i­he­lion on Nov. 15, 2015, Catalina is now head­ing back into deep space. The comet’s clos­est ap­proach to Earth will be on Jan. 17, when it will pass ap­prox­i­mately 100,000,00 kms from us.

This month’s full moon on Jan. 23 was of­ten re­ferred to as the “wolf moon” by the North Amer­i­can na­tive peo­ples, in ref­er­ence to the wolves howl­ing hun­grily out­side their huts at this time of the year. The early set­tlers some­times called it the “moon af­ter yule”.

Un­til next month, clear skies.

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