Venus and Jupiter meet and greet in the morning sky.
Winter constellations are climbing higher in the early evening as the end of January nears, but it’s hard not to think of summer when see Mars hovering in the south-southwest. At magnitude 0.8, Mars is far from its magnitude –2.8 peak attained last summer; however, the planet is still a conspicuous sight amid the faint stars of Pisces and retains its title as the sole evening planet. To enjoy other solar system offerings you’ll have to wait until dawn. That’s when you’ll find the dual beacons, Venus and Jupiter. Venus has been steadily losing altitude while Jupiter has been gaining. As noted below (on January 22) the two worlds pass like ships in the night (or rather, dawn) as the magnitude –4.4 inner planet slowly slips by the magnitude –1.8 gas giant. Lastly, if you have an unobstructed east-southeast horizon, get out your binoculars and try to find Saturn, which is just now slowly emerging from its January 2nd solar conjunction. The ringed planet shines at magnitude 0.5, and rises roughly one hour before the Sun.
Venus has been creeping up on Jupiter for weeks, and this morning is “closest approach” as it comes to within 2½ degrees of Jupiter. That’s near enough that the planetary pair can easily be framed in binoculars, but they’ll also be a remarkable naked-eye sight. If you miss out, don’t be alarmed—you’ll have the opportunity for a do-over the following morning when the two worlds won’t be much farther apart.
On the evening of the 22nd, the waning gibbous Moon sits less than 2 degrees from first-magnitude Regulus, in Leo. The earlier you look, the closer the Moon will be to the star. The best view will be in binoculars, soon after the duo rises a little before 8 p.m., local time.
The Moon reaches last quarter phase at 4:10 p.m., EST, today. It doesn’t rise, however, until after 1 a.m., local time, January 28.
Evenings over the January 25 – 27 weekend are moonfree, allowing for some prime, winter deep-sky hunting. One of the season’s most recognizable shapes is the distinct W of Cassiopeia, now high overhead. If you enjoy observing open star clusters, this is the constellation for you. Cassiopeia is home to two Messier clusters (M52 and M103) as well as several rich NGC clusters. Indeed, you can spend a rewarding hour or two with a small telescope exploring the stellar swarms located just between the stars Delta (δ) and Epsilon (ε) Cassiopeiae.
Begin your hunt with M103, which is found just one degree northeast of 2.6-magnitude Delta. The object glows at magnitude 7.4, which means you can easily snag it in binoculars. M103 is a tight knot of stars that features a few stand-out members brighter than magnitude 8. From M103, it’s a short hop northeast to NGC663, the region’s other bright open cluster. In fact, I consider NGC663 more conspicuous in binoculars than its better known Messier neighbour. Once you’ve located these two clusters, see if you can find the other three identified in the photo above. All five are within reach of a small telescope used under a reasonably dark sky.
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