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Skywatch: What’s happening in the heavens in January

Our solar neighborhood’s large planets Jupiter and Saturn each take a bow in January, following their conspicuous grand conjunction Dec. 21 at the winter solstice.

Since the conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn slowly appear to go their separate ways, from our earthly point of view, and Mercury — the planet closest to the sun — arrives to join them soon after sunset.

After the sun goes down Jan. 9, look low on the horizon to catch the bright Jupiter (-2 magnitude), while Saturn (zero magnitude, just under Jupiter and dimmer) prepares to set in the southwestern sky, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. Mercury (zero magnitude, dim compared to Jupiter) arrives to form a short-lived planetary trio.

The following evening, Jan. 10 — just after sunset — Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury form the shape of an equilateral triangle along the southwest horizon. Jupiter is the most-luminous object in this group, Saturn is to the lower right of Jupiter, and Mercury is to the lower left. Jupiter and the fleet Mercury conjunct Jan. 11, according to the observatory.

While Jupiter and Mercury loiter in early winter’s heavens, the fingernail sliver of a young new moon joins the two planets after sunset in the southwest Jan. 14.

Well out of our own blue planet’s view, the ringed Saturn conjuncts with the sun Jan. 23, and Jupiter conjuncts with the sun Jan. 28, according to the observatory. Because of the sun’s glare, you can’t see either planet until February.

Our next-door planetary neighbor Mars is high in the southern heavens as evening falls in the new year. It has a reddish tint, hanging out in the constellation Pisces. Enjoy observing it in prime-time hours now, as it will set around 1:30 a.m. in early January. The magnitude for the red planet is +0.2, which is bright enough to see through Washington’s light-polluted skies. Mars dims within days and won’t be this bright for the remainder of the year.

Venus is seen just before dawn, early in January. Look for it low in the eastern heavens before the rising sun washes it out. This planet is -3.9 magnitude (bright), according to the observatory.

Our own planet has some worthy news. The Naval Observatory reminds the world that in our annual journey around the sun, Earth reaches perihelion — our closest point to the sun all year — on Jan. 2 at 8:51 a.m.

The heavens celebrate the new year by offering shooting stars zipping through the night. The Quadrantid meteors peak on the night of Jan. 2 and early morning of Jan. 3, according to the International Meteor Organization (imo.net) and the American Meteor Society (amsmeteors.org). Both groups think the short peak will render between 110 and 120 meteors an hour, but the waning gibbous moon, which rises the evening of Jan. 2, will inevitably wash out many meteors.

With clear skies, you should be able catch a few of the shower’s brightest shooting stars. Meteor showers occur when flyby comets leave a dusty trail behind, so that when Earth runs through the trail, the dirt strikes our atmosphere, burns up and we see shooting stars. In the case of the Quadrantids, it’s 2003 EH1 — which is probably now a defunct comet, according to NASA.

Speaking of comets, on Jan. 9, catch the online talk “Spontaneous Outbursts From Comets,” by Tony Farnham, principal research scientist at the University of Maryland. The meeting is hosted by the National Capital Astronomers. 7 p.m. For meeting details and online registration, go to capitalastronomers.org.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at PostSkyWatch@yahoo.com.

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