As we move beyond December's jubiliant celebrations and prepare for winter's fiercest blasts, we can take heart that the days, indeed, are getting longer and that there are still some mighty lovely sights to delight us in the first month of 2015.
Most importantly, we can cheer for the re-appearance of Venus in our night skies! She's been hiding in the Sun's glare since the beginning of September and only recently began to show her lovely self in the west shortly after the Sun's setting. Perhaps you've already seen her there, a beautiful beacon on the horizon. Unless you have a unobstructed view west, she's not easily spotted right now, but the waxing crescent moon will meet up with her on January 21st and on February 20 ( just a day before the momentous Venus and Mars meet-up in Pisces), making her easier to catch.
All the visible planets will be in the sky this month, so while you'll have to bundle up to enjoy them, it's worth taking the time to get familiar with our neighbors in the solar system. Let the moon guide you to Jupiter on January 7, to Saturn on January 16, and to Mercury, Mars and Venus on January 21 and 22nd. The next full moon will be February 3.
Tonight, the waning gibbous moon and Jupiter travel together through the long winter night with Regulus in Leo. By 8:30, the moon and its chums will be above the eastern horizon, approaching the meridian after midnight. You'll be able to appreciate the 'Winter Circle' asterism as well, as it precedes the rising moon. Look for 7 bright stars forming a huge circle just above where Jupiter, the moon, and Regulus are placed. Gemini's twinned stars Castor and Pollux, Canis Minor's Procyon, Canis Major's Sirius, Orion's Rigel, Taurus's Aldebaran, and Auriga's Capella combine to make this one of the most recognizable patterns in the night sky.
Mercury makes its greatest eastern elongation from the Sun. Because it's so close to our solar system's luminary, spotting Mercury is never easy, and in the winter, with the angle of the ecliptic in the Northern Hemisphere, it's doubly difficult. However, for this occasion, Venus will be your guide for a successful sighting. First, seek out a spot with an unobstructed western view. Once nautical twilight occurs, some 45 minutes after the Sun sinks, you should be able to see at least one bright light in the southwest. This will be Venus which has been gracing the western horizon since mid-December. The dimmer light next to her is Mercury, named for the fleet-footed 'Messenger of the gods.' Just above them you will spot Mars in Aquarius, waiting patiently for his February date with the beautiful 'Evening Star.'
As the crescent moon wanes to new, it will make a lovely pairing with Saturn in the hour before dawn. Last year, Saturn watched over our evening skies until mid-October, reappearing low in the morning sky by December. In January, the ringed planet will continue to rise earlier each morning, eventually leaving Libra by the end of the month, pairing with Antares, radiant lucida of Scorpius.
January 21 through January 22The days following the new moon offers another opportunity to spot Venus, Mercury and Mars as the three are joined by a slender crescent moon. On the 21st, the moon – illuminated only 3% – will be close to Venus and Mercury just above the western horizon; on the 22nd, it cozies up to Mars.