The Planets in January 2014

Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, has returned to the evening sky this month for a brief sojourn. Unfortunately you will need a good clear western horizon to see it. By the 19th it should be about 5 degrees above the south-western horizon and only visible for about 30 minutes after the Sun has set. By the end of January it will be visible for closer to 1 hour after Sunset and by mid February it will no longer visible in the evening sky as it heads off to its inferior conjunction appointment with the Sun. It will return later February as the ‘morning star’ and remain in the morning skies until mid April. An inferior conjunction occurs when the Earth and interior planet are on the same side of the Sun.

Venus started the month as the ‘evening star’ after shining so brightly in the western sky on January 11th it Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun and so had its inferior conjunction with the Sun. It will be come visible as the ‘morning star’ before dawn around January 19/20. A nice photo opportunity for all the morning risers will occur on January 29th when a thin crescent Moon will be above Venus to the south-east in the morning twilight.

Earth: trivia note for the month – on January 4, the Earth was at its closest to the Sun for the year. The Sun was only 147,089,638 km away.

Mars is slowly returning to our evening skies in January. Spending the month in the constellation of Virgo it will rise around 12:30am local summer time and rising earlier each night by around 2 minutes, finishing the month by poking its head up around 11:30pm local summer time. Currently the best time to check it out is still in the early morning sky about an hour before morning twilight. On the 23 and 24th of the month the Moon will be very close to Mars at around 12:30am.

Jupiter is visible most of the night at present. It will spend the month in Gemini. It is clearly the brightest object in the sky rising around 8:30pm. By January 22nd it will be setting at around 4:30am.  Having reached its yearly opposition – when it’s opposite the sun – rising in the east as the sun is setting in the west on January 5th. Even if you have only a small telescope, or a decent pair of binoculars, which you mount to keep steady the four main moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto should be visible. These are the moons that were discovered by Galileo. Although all four may not be visible at the same time as they may be hidden as they pass behind the planets. It is always interesting to watch and note their positions over a few hours – just as Galileo did over 400 years ago.

Saturn rises well before the Sun in the constellation of Libra. By mid January it is rising at around 2am and in the early hours of Australia Day, just before sunrise around 5:30am Venus will be visible very low on the Eastern horizon the Moon and Saturn will be very close and higher in the same line in the sky will be Mars. Between Venus and Saturn is a red star known as Antares – the heart of the Scorpion. Antares also means ‘Mars-Like” so don’t let it trick you! Mars is higher than yellow Saturn in the sky and Antares, a star, is much lower. The rings of Saturn currently are open wide when viewed from the Earth, making them a fine sight in a small telescope.

If you have any questions about what you see in the sky or want more information please feel free to contact me – Donna Burton, University of Southern Queensland – Astronomy for Schools Co-ordinator North West NSW 63 John Street, Coonabarabran 2357, phone 6842 4343 or via email and you can check out my blog at


Photo Credits and Caption


Aust_Day_Planets.jpg – Australia Day Morning Planet Parade.

Created in the free planetarium software package – Stellarium. This chart shows you the sky looking East on Australia Day (Jan 26), 2014 at 5:15am AEDST. You will need a good south-eastern horizon but you can see Venus low in the East, the Moon and Saturn and orange-red Mars higher in the sky and to the North.


Get Ready for the Geminid Meteor Shower overnight this Friday/Saturday

As usual at this time of the year, the Earth is entering a stream of debris from rock comet 3200 Phaethon, which is the source of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Forecasters expect the shower to peak on Dec. 13-14 with as many as 120 meteors per hour.

This year the nearly full Moon will reduce the number of meteors you may see but it is still well worth a look. Expected to peak from about midnight Friday Australian Eastern Daylight Time (or 1300 UT) until 9pm (1000 UT) Saturday, this meteor shower will be visible in both hemispheres.

Though you do need to keep in mind that meteor showers often peak hours before or after predictions and for sure we certainly don’t know everything that a given meteor stream might have in store!

This shower is an interesting one though, with an equally interesting history and source. The Geminids were first identified as a distinct meteor shower by R.P. Greg of Manchester UK in 1862, and the estimated ZHR rose from about 20 to 80 through the 20th century. The parent source of this shower remained unknown until 1983, when astronomer Fred Whipple linked them to the strange “rock-comet” body 3200 Phaethon. This is an Apollo asteroid also thought to be a member of the Pallas family of asteroids, 3200 Phaethon seems to be shedding enough material to produce the annual Geminid meteor shower. This makes the annual shower rare as one not produced by a comet. It’s worth noting that 3200 Phaethon also passes extremely close – 0.14 AU – from the Sun at perihelion, and gets periodically “baked” during each 1.4 year passage.

In the 21st century, rates for the Geminids have stayed above a Zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of 120, now the highest of any annual shower. It’s worth noting that an extrapolated ZHR of almost 200 were seen in 2011 when the Moon was at an equally unfavorable waning gibbous phase! The Geminids always produce lots of fireballs, capable of being seen even under moonlit skies.

With our warmer nights down under it is a great time to get out and have a look! Jupiter is also looking good after about 10:30pm and Mars and Saturn are visible in the early dawn skies as well.

January Evening Skies for Southern Hemisphere Readers

Venus and Jupiter are the ‘evening stars’ which appear soon after sunset with the brilliance of  Venus is lowest in the west setting about 9.30pm by the end of the Month. In a telescope, now, it looks like a gibbous moon. Venus is still on the far side of the sun from us around 180 million km away but gradually catching up to us again.

Jupiter is above and to the North of Venus as the Sun goes down and it will be setting around 11.30 pm by the end of the month. Its four big moons are easily seen in a small telescope or good binoculars, looking like four little stars lined up on either side of the planet. It is now about 720 million km away as we move to the far side of the sun away from it.

Sirius is the brightest real star that is visible in our evening sky at present. It appears at around 60 degrees above the Eastern horizon just after dusk. Known as ‘the Dog Star’, it marks the head of Canis Major the big dog. A group of stars to the right of it makes the dog’s hindquarters and tail, upside down just now. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky both because it is relatively close, being only nine light years away, and the fact that it is 23 times brighter than the sun. Procyon, in the northeast and below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion.

To the left of Sirius, as the sky darkens, Rigel and Betelgeuse the brightest stars in Orion the hunter will appear. Between them, but fainter, is a line of three stars making Orion’s belt. Rigel is a bluish supergiant star, which is much hotter than the Sun and some 70,000 times brighter. It is located around 800 light years away. Orange Betelgeuse, below Orion’s belt, is a red-giant star, cooler than the sun but hundreds of times bigger. It is actually a ball of extremely thin hot gas. To us in the South we tend to remember Orion as the Saucepan as this appears to be the bottom of  the Saucepan. A faint line of stars above and right of the belt is the pot’s handle or Orion’s sword. It has a glowing cloud at its centre: the Orion Nebula, a place where stars are being born. This is visible in good binoculars as a cloudy fuzzy area.

Left of Orion is the V-shaped pattern of stars makes up the face of Taurus the Bull. The V-shaped group is also known as the Hyades cluster. It is 150 light years away. Orange looking Aldebaran, Arabic for ‘the eye of the bull’, is not a member of he cluster but on the line of sight, is about half the cluster’s distance away from us.

Left again, toward the north and lower, is the Pleiades/ /Seven Sisters or Subaru star cluster depending on where you hail from. It is a pretty cluster with a bit of fuzziness (nebulosity surrounding it) even to the naked eye and is even more impressive in binoculars. The cluster is around 70 million years old and located about 400 light years away from us. There is a very colourful looking star Capella which is not too high above the horizon in the North – in the thicker lower atmosphere,  it often looks like a disco star as it twinkles very prettily due to the effects of the atmosphere.

Low in the south is the Southern Cross, and Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called ‘The Pointers’. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. A telescope shows it is a binary star: two stars orbiting each other in 80 years. Beta Centauri, like most of the stars in Crux, is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away. Canopus is also another very bright star, very luminous and distant: 13,000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, (LMC and SMC) are high in the southern sky and easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small companion galaxies about 160,000 and 200,000 light years away who over time are orbiting our own Milky Way. They look like fuzzy light clouds in the southern skies above and even further to the South than the Southern Cross.

All of these objects mentioned above can be seen without a telescope or binoculars between sunset and around 9.30pm and makes for a great after dinner exercise for the family to see how many you can find.

The Milky Way is in the eastern sky, brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced towards the north but becomes faint below Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. Binoculars show many star clusters and a few glowing gas clouds in the Milky Way, particularly in the Carina region.

Mars, is rising by the end of the month before 10:30pm and looks like a bright orange-red star. It is brightening as the Earth moves closer to it. It is around 140 million km away so appears quite small in a telescope.

Saturn will rise in the east around 1:00 am by the end of the month, making a pretty sight as a pair with the bright white star, Spica, which is the brightest star in Virgo, above and to the left of Saturn. Saturn is around 1,460 million km from us.

Click on Images Above to see sky charts from North South East and West horizons around 9.30pm as seen from NSW Australia