On these cold winter nights, dress warmly and enjoy a few planets as they skate across the heavens.
As the evening curtain rises, Saturn has begun to ascend the east-northeastern sky. An hour after sunset the ringed planet sits about 25 degrees above the eastern horizon and it can be seen at zero magnitude, which is bright and visible from urban areas.
Saturn's rings, quite tilted toward us, make this planet a nice object to track. Find it nestled between the constellations Taurus and Gemini. In mid-January the planet is nearly 40 degrees above the eastern horizon, high enough to locate from most anywhere on the ground.
Next in winter's planetary cavalcade, Jupiter rises in the east-northeast before 8 p.m., between the constellations Cancer and Leo now. By 10 p.m. during the early days in the month this huge planet is about 25 degrees above the eastern horizon. Jupiter will be about 37 degrees above the eastern horizon at 10 p.m. by the middle of the month. Like a far-off beacon that commands a sea captain's attention, this bright light is hard to miss. Jupiter's negative-second magnitude (very bright), the result of sunlight bouncing off of its cloudy surface, makes this extraordinary object easy to find.
Venus is no slouch in the brightness department -- think Times Square on New Year's Eve. Venus and Mars both rise in the 3 a.m. hour, and they can be found a few hours before sunrise in the constellation Libra. Looking at the east-southeast sky, telling them apart is simple. Mars is a reddish and dim object, while Venus glows at negative-fourth magnitude (ultra bright).
Each morning, Venus moves farther away from the rusty Mars. It reaches greatest western elongation on Jan. 11, which means Venus appears to be at its farthest possible distance from the sun. That's good news for us, because Venus is as high as it gets in the morning sky.
As January draws to a close, Venus appears to move closer toward the constellation Sagittarius and the sun. As you watch Venus late in the month you may notice an interloper in Sagittarius. That's Mercury, at zero magnitude (bright), making a quick visit that is visible if you have a clear view of the eastern horizon.
It's hard to believe Earth is making its closest approach to the sun during these cold days and nights. But on Jan. 4 at 12:01 a.m. EST, Earth's annual elliptical orbit brings it within 91,405,339 miles of the sun, according to astronomer Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory. This is perihelion (pronounced per-uh-HEE-lee-un), and it is as close to the sun as we get all year.
Jan. 4 -- Nancy Grace Roman, a retired NASA scientist, examines how the cosmos changed over millions of years in her talk "The Tranquil Universe" at the regular meeting of the National Capital Astronomers. Montgomery County Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, next to the Bethesda Metro station. 3 p.m. www.capitalastronomers.org.
Jan. 5 -- Astronomer Andrew Harris explains "Infrared Astronomy and the SOFIA Airborne Observatory" at the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house, at the university's observatory in College Park. Weather permitting, gaze at stars and planets through a telescope after the lecture. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Jan. 12 -- Astronomer Pete Johnson discusses "Preparing for an Observing Session" at the regular meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, Enterprise Hall (Room 80, basement level) on the campus of George Mason University, Fairfax. Parking lot B is the closest to the building. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.
Jan. 15 -- Some jolly old elf leaves a new telescope under a tree in your living room, and you do not know how to use it. Learn how to operate it on "New Telescope Owners Night" at the University of Maryland Observatory on Metzerott Road, College Park. 6-9 p.m. (Event repeats on Jan. 18.) Call Elizabeth Warner at 301-405-6555 or email@example.com in advance to tell her the type and size of your telescope.
Jan. 16 -- Thebe Medupe, an astrophysicist from South Africa, examines African heavenly myths and how those beliefs blend with modern astronomy in a new film, "Cosmic Africa." The movie will be shown at 6:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's auditorium, 1530 P St. NW. 202-328-6988. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan. 20 -- Astronomer John Cordes explains "When Science Meets the General Public: The Tenuous Handshake of the Media" at the University of Maryland astronomy department's open house. At the university's observatory, College Park. Sky watching follows. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Jan. 25 -- With a recipe calling for helium and hydrogen, and a dose of gravity for good measure, find out what's cooking in a program titled "How Are Stars Born?" at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Weather permitting, stargazing after the program. Parking available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. 301-650-1463; www.mc.cc.md.us/Departments/planet.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at email@example.com