For the first week of January, Venus is very low in the southwest, just after sunset. It’s a tiny crescent if you look in binoculars or a telescope. Some can even see the crescent shape without optical aid. Not me. Binoculars help, as does looking at Venus in a bright sky. By the end of the month, Venus rises before the beginning of morning twilight, the start of a long run in the morning sky through October.
It’s on our side of the sun, and Venus is the closest planet to Earth until Mars takes the title in late March.
Saturn is up at dawn in the southern sky, its rings tipped open toward us, making a magnificent sight in the telescope. You can find it without a telescope, but use a finder chart to find it the first time – once you see where it is, you’ll know for the future. To the unaided eye, Saturn doesn’t look like anything special – a bit steadier point of light, equal in brightness to many of the brightest stars. But in any telescope at 40 power or more, it’s tiny, but distinctly unlike anything else in the sky with its tiny-looking ring.
Jupiter is more than happy to take the spotlight as Venus exits to the morning sky. Jupiter is up all night, as it’s closest to us for the year on the 5th. It’s brighter than any of the stars and planets in the evening sky, and draws the eye to the twin brightest stars of Gemini and the nearby star clusters in Orion and Taurus. Any size telescope can tease out variations in Jupiter’s cloud belts and track Jupiter’s moons.
Mars gets brighter; at its highest before sunrise. Its reddish color makes it stand out, but it’s small. Part of the reason for its small size is that Mars is at its furthest distance from the Sun. Try to see if the shrinking northern polar cap is still large enough to show up in your telescope. Use high power!
Mercury makes an appearance in the evening in the second half of January. It is a poor substitute for brilliant Venus, but it’s an accessible apparition for fans of the innermost planet and those who haven’t seen Mercury in a while – or ever.
The sun will rise over the landing site for Yutu, China’s rover, on the Mare Imbrium, around the 11th. The faint variations in gray across the Mare show different lava flows. Yutu has ground-penetrating radar that may see these layers.
The Moon provides close company for Jupiter on the 14th/15th. Does the furthest away full moon about midnight on the 15th/16th really look further away and is it less glarey? The Moon glides between Mars and Spica on the morning of the 23rd. Saturn gets a close pass two mornings later and the Moon swings by Venus in the morning on the 28th and 29th. When the Moon comes back to the evening sky, it’s a thin crescent below Mercury on the 31st and above Mercury on the 1st of February.
If you can pull your eyes from Orion and his neighbors, look overhead at Auriga for the Goat. The constellation is a charioteer; the goat is one star, Capella, the brightest star in Auriga. The triangle of stars nearby is the goat’s kids or the kid goats. Auriga has star clusters worth seeing: M36, 37 and 38. Then slide over to Perseus for the Double Cluster and M34. Just to their south is M45, the Pleiades, leads us back to Taurus. If you keep moving west, you’ll get to Cassiopeia and the galaxies in Andromeda that were the stars of the fall sky. So bundle up, lay out and tour the sky above you with binoculars or do stand up with a wide-field telescope.
You’ll need binoculars and a finder chart to catch Comet Lovejoy in the eastern pre-dawn sky, falling between Hercules and Ophiuchus. It’s readily visible in a dark sky, which is great for a comet this bright.
[Let us not speak any more of that Christmas gift that didn’t come – Comet ISON. It broke up into pieces of dust before closest approach, which made it impossible for us to see it after perihelion.]
The International Space Station is also a bright morning sky object for a few minutes arcing across our skies most mornings starting on the 7th through the end of January. China’s orbiting outpost, Tiangong 1, is also a morning traveler across our skies for the second half of January, peaking just under magnitude +1 on the overflights with the highest azimuth in our skies.