Five planets – visible to the naked eye – offer a nightly parade through the starry heavens, but for people who wake early, all of these planets may be seen before dawn late in January.
Leading the planetary pageantry, Jupiter ascends the sky tonight in the east at 9:53 p.m., and that extra big gaseous planet seems to hang near the back leg of the constellation Leo the lion and above the constellation Virgo. At negative 2.2 magnitude, quite bright, you should easily find this planet – even through heavy urban light pollution.
Before dawn, Jupiter can be seen high in the southwest.
Despite its largesse, Jupiter rises next week about a half-hour earlier – that is at about 9:30 p.m. – and gets a shade brighter at negative 2.3 magnitude. Throughout the night, it moves to the western sky by morning. (A waning, plump gibbous moon gets close to Jupiter on Jan. 27.)
Next to pass the viewing stand, Earth’s reddish neighbor Mars now rises in the east at around 1:30 a.m., standing near the other end of the constellation Virgo. Currently at 1.1 magnitude, but it brightens to 1.0 magnitude, appearing dim in light-polluted, metropolitan skies.
Saturn rises in east now at about 4:30 a.m., waiting to flirt with Earth’s other neighbor Venus, which rises now just before 5 a.m. The ringed Saturn and the perky Venus had a conjunction last Saturday, appearing quite close. The lovely planetary pair meet again in late October, albeit a little more standoffish, according to Astronomical Phenomena, published by the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Tell them apart by their brightness: Saturn is a first magnitude object, dim, a little tough to see in light-polluted skies, while the very bright, negative fourth magnitude Venus looks like a heavenly padiddle with its lone high-beam headlight on.
Later next week the fleet-footed, zippy planet Mercury forms the rest of the planetary quintet: On Jan. 22, look to the east before sunrise when the fast planet rises near 6:15 a.m., and two days later (Jan. 24) it rises near 6 a.m. From our Earth-dwelling perspective, Mercury appears to move away from the sun. This fleet planet’s magnitude races from a dim, hard-to-see object to a zero magnitude object during the month’s last days, according to Astronomical Phenomena.
Thus five planets scatter across late January’s morning sky, before sunrise breaks it up: Mercury close to the eastern horizon, bright Venus high in the southeast, Saturn higher in the south-southeast, Mars high in the south and bright Jupiter loitering in the west-southwest.
While the visible planets busily dance around the night heavens, we’re getting more daylight. On our darkest days just before Christmas, we had 9 hours, 26 minutes of official daylight, according to the Naval Observatory. Today (Jan. 14) Washington gets 9 hours, 43 minutes, and by Jan. 31, the area will have 10 hours and 12 minutes.