Skywatch Line for Friday, January 21, through Sunday, January 23, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, January 21, through Sunday, January 23, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:20am and sets at 4:54pm; Moon sets at 9:38am and rises at 8:45pm.

Venus, at magnitude –4.3, emerges into dawn view. Look for it low in the east-southeast about 45 or 30 minutes before sunrise. It gets higher every day. In a telescope or good binoculars, it’s a thin crescent, getting thicker every day.

Mars, fainter at magnitude +1.5, is low in the southeast in early dawn. If Venus has risen at the time of observation, it sits some 20 degrees to Venus’s upper right. Mars-colored Antares sit to Mars’ upper right. Mars and Antares are 19 degrees apart on Saturday morning. Mars is on the far side of its orbit from Earth. In a telescope it’s just a tiny blob 4 arcseconds wide.

Jupiter, at magnitude –2.1 in Aquarius, still shines brightly in the southwest at dusk. It sits lower every week.

The asteroid 7 Iris, at magnitude 7.8, is just a week past opposition and nicely placed high in Gemini by 8pm. It sits under the Pollux stick-figure twin, and above Procyon, the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Minor.

In mid-evening during late January, the Pleiades open star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, is positioned high in the southern sky. The rest of its home constellation Taurus sits below the cluster. The Pleiades is composed of the medium-bright, hot blue stars named Asterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno and Alcyone. In Greek mythology, those characters were the daughters of Atlas, and half-sisters of the Hyades. The stars of the Pleiades are indeed related, recently born of the same primordial gas cloud. To the naked eye, only six of the sister stars are usually apparent. Their parents Atlas and Pleione are huddled together at the east end of the grouping. Under magnification, hundreds of stars appear.

The Double Cluster is composed of the two large and bright open clusters NGC 884 and NGC 889. It sits high in the northern sky after dusk in winter, then descends to skim the northern horizon by dawn. Try to split the pair of clusters, each as wide as the Moon and almost a lunar diameter apart with unaided eyes. Binoculars or a low power, wide-field telescope will show them in more details. NGC 869, the more westerly cluster, is more compact and contains more than 100 white and blue-white stars. NGC 884, the easterly cluster, is much less compact. It hosts a handful of 8th magnitude golden stars. Use higher power to see doubles, mini-asterisms, and dark lanes of missing stars. The two clusters are inside the Perseus Arm of our Milky Way galaxy, about 7,300 light-years from the Sun. Their visual brightness has been dramatically reduced by opaque interstellar dust in the foreground.

On Friday, the waning Moon doesn’t rise until about 9pm. If your early-evening sky is dark enough you will be able to see the winter Milky Way. It runs vertically from Canis Major low in the southeast, up between Orion and Gemini, through Auriga and Perseus overhead, and down through Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus to the northwest horizon in the early evening

Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 19 and 20, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 19 and 20, written by Alan French.

The Sun sets at 4:52 P.M. on Wednesday and rises at 7:21 A.M. on Thursday. Sunset on Thursday is at 4:53.

Reaching full early this past Monday evening, a waning gibbous Moon now rises early in the evening and sets after sunrise. On Wednesday the Moon rises at 6:31 P.M. in the east northeast, appearing 97% illuminated. It rises at 7:38 P.M. on Thursday and its visible face will be 90% sunlit. Look for the bright Moon low toward the west before sunrise on Thursday morning. It will be higher and more toward the south southwest before sunrise Friday. The Moon will reach last quarter, having completed three quarters of its trip around the Earth since last new Moon, on Tuesday, January 25.

A nice pass of the International Space Station (ISS) is visible from our area on Thursday night. Because it is the largest manmade object in orbit and reflects a lot of sunlight, the ISS is the brightest satellite in our night sky. Reaching magnitude -3.8 when passing high in the sky, it outshines Jupiter and approaches the maximum brightness of Venus.

There are now 7 astronauts on the ISS, but they are not the only people in space. The Chinese space station module, Tianhe, is now home to 3 astronauts. They are the second crew to visit Tianhe, arriving on October 15, 2021, for an expected six month stay.

When the ISS first appears and is low in the sky it is moving mostly toward us, so it moves slowly. We are also looking through a thicker layer of atmosphere near the horizon, so its light is reduced and it appears fainter. As it gets higher it brightens and moves faster against the starry background.

On Thursday look for the ISS low in the west southwest between 6:26 and 6:27 when it will be moving up from the horizon to the north (right) of bright Jupiter. By 6:27 it will be higher than Jupiter. Between 6:28 and 6:29 it will be passing along the western side of the Great Square of Pegasus heading northeast.

Just before 6:30 the ISS will pass below the familiar “W” pattern of stars that outline Cassiopeia, the Queen, high in the north northwest. Just after 6:30 the space station will pass above Polaris, the North Star. Polaris marks the end of the Little Dipper’s handle and stands 43 degrees above the northern horizon.

We see satellites because they are still up in sunlight when we are in the Earth’s shadow and darkness. Soon after passing above Polaris, just before 6:31 as it heads down toward the northeastern horizon and is still 40 degrees above it, the ISS will move into the Earth’s shadow and fade from view. How long can you follow it before in vanishes completely?

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 17th, and 18th, 2022

This is the Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 17th, and 18th, written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 4:49 PM; night falls at 6:29. Dawn begins at 5:42 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:22.

Cancer houses the Moon on both nights. Monday’s Full “Wolf Moon” rises at 4:23 PM in the Northeast, appears 29 Arc-minutes in size and sets at 8:11 AM, Tuesday. Tuesday’s Moon rises at 5:26 PM, appears the same as Monday’s and sets at 8:45 AM on Wednesday.

Comet Borrelly lies about 34° high above the southwestern horizon at 7 PM: it lies 5° East of Eta Ceti, shines with 8th magnitude and sets at 10:42. The Full Moon’s brilliance may complicate observation.

During Civil Twilight (5:21 PM), Mercury and Saturn form a close quasi-conjunction in the Southwest. Mercury is lowest and faintest with 2nd magnitude, 9 arc-seconds and sets at 5:47 PM. Saturn, 5° above Mercury, is brighter with zero magnitude, 15 arc-seconds and sets at 6:03 PM. Both will soon depart the evening sky, so observers are advised to take last looks; binoculars may help.

Aquarius contains Jupiter and Neptune. Jupiter is found 20° above Saturn, shines with minus 2nd magnitude, a large 34 arc-seconds and sets at 7:48 PM. Fainter Neptune, 17° above Jupiter, glows with 8th magnitude, a small 2 arc-seconds and sets at 9:16 PM. Uranus occupies southern Aries, 49° above Neptune, shines with 5th magnitude, larger with 3 arc-seconds, highest at 6:39 PM and sets at 1:37 AM. Uranus is stationary on Tuesday evening.

The Southeastern Dawn sky presents 2 bright planets. Mars rises in Ophiuchus at 5:20 AM, glows with first magnitude, 4 arc-seconds and 12° high and sets at 2:08 PM. Venus, in Sagittarius, rises at 6:08 AM, blazes with minus 4th magnitude, a very large 59 arc-seconds in size but a thin 4% crescent, also 12° high and sets at 4 PM.

Many constellations are ancient, generated by Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian legends from time immemorial. The Zodiac: Leo, Cancer, Orion, and others are prime examples. Not all constellations have been around so long or remain unchanged. Some undergo modification. Scorpius once possessed large claws; Julius Caesar is said to have cut off these claws and created the constellation Libra. There once was the large constellation Argo Navis. This star group celebrated the ancient legend of Jason, his ship and crew, who made fantastic voyages in search of the Golden Fleece. Alas, Argo is no more; the ship was broken up into its components: Carina, the Keel; Puppis, the Stern; and Vela, the Sail. These formations still exist and can be seen in early spring. Others disappear completely. The astronomer LaLande created Quadrans out of space between Hercules, Bootes, and Draco. His invention did not catch on; however, the annual meteor shower that occurs around New Year is still called “The Quadrantids,” because it originates from this barren area. Other invented constellations did take. As explorers opened routes to the New World and the Orient, they encountered new asterisms and named them for the high technology of the era: Antlia, the Air Pump; Circinus, the Compass; and Sextans, the Sextant. Most of these “new” constellations lie in southern skies, not visible from the Capital District.

Skywatch Line for Friday, January 14, through Sunday, January 16, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, January 14, through Sunday, January 16, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:24am and sets at 4:45pm; Moon sets at 4:51am and rises at 1:52pm.

Fading Mercury is low in the west-southwest in twilight, with Saturn near it.

Venus is out of sight. Next week it will begin emerging low in the dawn.

Mars, at +1.5 magnitude in the feet of Ophiuchus, is low in the southeast in early dawn. To its right or upper right, Mars-colored Antares twinkles a little brighter at magnitude +1.0. Mars and Antares are nearly 13 degrees apart on Saturday morning.

Jupiter, at magnitude –2.1 in Aquarius, shines brightly in the southwest at dusk. Spot Fomalhaut, magnitude +1.2, two fists at arm’s length to Jupiter’s lower left.

Saturn, at magnitude +0.7 in Capricornus, is that same distance to Jupiter’s lower right.

The Winter Football, also known as the Winter Hexagon and Winter Circle, is an asterism composed of the brightest stars in the constellations of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Auriga, Gemini and Canis Minor. Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Castor and Pollux, and Procyon form the Winter Circle. After dusk, the huge pattern will stand upright in the southeastern sky, extending from 30 degrees above the horizon to overhead. The Milky Way passes vertically through the asterism. The hexagon is visible during evenings from mid-November to spring every year. The waxing gibbous Moon will cross the giant shape this weekend, from Friday to Sunday.

On Sunday, the motion of the dwarf planet designated (1) Ceres across the background stars of Taurus will pause while it completes a retrograde loop that began on October 8, 2021. On Sunday night, the magnitude 8.1 dwarf planet will be located in western Taurus, a slim palm’s width below the bright Pleiades star cluster, or Messier 45. After Sunday, Ceres will resume its regular prograde motion eastward.

Zero-magnitude Capella high overhead, and equally bright Rigel in Orion’s foot, have almost the same right ascension. This means they cross sky’s meridian at almost the same time, around 9pm. Therefore, whenever Capella passes its very highest, Rigel always marks true south over your landscape, and vice versa.

The Summer Star, Vega, is still barely hanging in. Look for it over the northwest horizon during and shortly after nightfall. The farther north you are the higher it will be. If you’re as far south as Florida, it’s already gone.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 12 and 13, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 12 and 13, written by Alan French.

The Sun sets at 4:44 P.M. on Wednesday and rises at 7:25 A.M. on Thursday. Sunset on Thursday is at 4:45.

Reaching first quarter last Sunday, a waxing gibbous Moon now rises early in the afternoon and sets after midnight. On Wednesday the Moon rises at 12:47 P.M. and is high toward the southeast as darkness falls, appearing 79% illuminated. It rises at 1:17 P.M. on Thursday and will be toward the east southeast as night falls, with 86% of its face in sunlight. The Moon will reach full early next Monday night.

Jupiter shines brightly in the southwestern sky soon after sunset. Dimmer Saturn is lower, farther to the west, and harder to spot, but provides a good landmark for finding elusive Mercury, the innermost planet. Because Mercury orbits closest to the Sun, it never emerges high into dark skies and many people have never seen Mercury.

To spot Saturn and, especially, Mercury, you’ll need a good view low to the southwest and extending about 15 degrees toward the west. (A fist held at arm’s length spans 10 degrees across the knuckles.) Depending on the clarity of the sky, binoculars may be needed to spot Saturn and Mercury.

At 5:15 P.M. on Wednesday Saturn will be 20 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter, in about the 5 o’clock position. Mercury will be just under 3 ½ degrees to the lower right of Saturn, at about the 4 o’clock position. Mercury will be just under 9 degrees above the horizon. If both are invisible by eye at 5:15, the darker skies at 5:30 P.M. may improve the view and reveal them to your eyes. Mercury will then be 6 ½ degrees above the horizon. Mercury sets at 6:12 P.M.

The geometry will be essentially the same on Thursday night, with the pair just slightly lower in the sky and Saturn and Mercury a little farther apart. Mercury is rapidly fading and moving lower, so catch it now. After the 15th it will probably be impossible to spot.

Cold winter nights are good times to watch for a ring around the bright Moon, formed by ice crystals high in the sky, reflecting moonlight. The daytime skies provide opportunities to see a similar ring around the Sun, or sun dogs, bright patches of light well to either side of the Sun. You can see some of the more common ice halos to watch for at Atmospheric halos (

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 10th, and 11th, 2022

This is the Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 10th, and 11th, written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 4:41 PM; night falls at 6:22. Dawn begins at 5:44 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:25.

Monday’s 8-day-old Moon occupies Cetus, rises at 11:59 AM in the Southeast, appears 29 arc-minutes in size, 61% illuminated and sets at 1:44 AM, Tuesday. Tuesday’s Moon rises in Aries, appears the same size but 70% lit and sets at 2:47 AM, Wednesday. Note that Monday’s Moon lies 7° below Uranus and on Tuesday it lies 5° above Uranus.

Capricornus houses Mercury and Saturn. Around Civil Twilight (5:13 PM), Mercury blazes low, sized 7 arc-seconds, shining with minus 2nd magnitude, 7° high and sets at 6:09PM. Saturn follows Mercury, twinkling with zero magnitude, 15 arc-seconds, and sets at 6:26 PM. Both are very low and separated by 3°, requiring binoculars. Note that Mercury climbs higher while Saturn sinks. Mercury’s presence in the evening sky is short-lived and will soon disappear into the Sun’s glare. Both can be seen in the same binocular field between January 10th and 15th.

Aquarius, in the Southwest, holds both Jupiter and Neptune. Jupiter glares with minus 2nd magnitude, appears a large 34 arc-seconds and sets at 8:08 PM. Observers can see the Great Red Spot (a giant storm) on Jupiter, on Monday at 7:54 PM. Neptune is found 18° above Jupiter, glows with 8th magnitude, a tiny 2 arc-seconds and sets at 9:42 PM.

Uranus, in Aries, as we mentioned, is close to the Moon on both nights. It shines with 5th magnitude, a small 3 arc-seconds, highest at 7:06 PM with 60°, and sets at 2:05 AM. If one can find a very dark spot, Uranus is visible to the naked eye.

There are two comets in the Southwest. Comet Leonard appears only 2° above the horizon. At Civil Twilight, Comet Borrelly appears in Cetus, gleaming with 8th magnitude, rises at 11:52 AM, highest at 5:12 PM with 37° and sets at 10:35 PM.

Mars is the sole “morning star.” It rises in Ophiuchus at 5:44 AM, glitters with 1st magnitude, 4 arc-seconds, 3° high and sets at 2:16 PM. Again, binoculars will help.

Winters in the Northeast are notoriously cloudy. However,when skies are clear, the night sky presents a riot of brilliant stars and constellations that seem close enough to reach out and touch. In fact, twenty-three of the fifty brightest stars are visible in tonight’s sky. Orion, the Dogs and Taurus account for the majority of the brightest stars. Sirius is not only brightest on this list, but also second only to the Sun in luminosity; it is also the leading light of Canis Major, the Large Dog. About half of the list lies relatively close to us; the other half is intrinsically brighter, though further away. So, if it is clear, bundle up and enjoy Nature’s sky show.

Skywatch Line for Friday, January 7, through Sunday, January 9, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, January 7, through Sunday, January 9, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:26am and sets at 4:38pm; Moon rises at 10:55am and sets at 10:30pm.

The Moon and planet Neptune sit 7 degrees apart an hour after sunset on Friday. Neptune requires binoculars or a small telescope to observe. It sits just less than 19 degrees east-northeast of Jupiter. The solar system’s outermost planet, Neptune, is currently about 3.3 degrees northeast of 4th-magnitude Phi (ϕ) Aquarii in the constellation of Aquarius.

Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation, 19 degrees east of the Sun, on Friday at 6am. It is now shining at magnitude –0.5 and still visible in the evening planetary lineup in the west. At sunset, Mercury is now 14 degrees high in Capricornus, just under 6 degrees west-southwest of Saturn. Venus drops away to leave Mercury shining alone, approaching Saturn. Venus reaches conjunction, 5 degrees north of the Sun, on Saturday.

Mars, faint at magnitude +1.5, has just passed Mars-colored Antares low in early dawn. Look for them in the southeast very far below Arcturus.

Jupiter, magnitude –2.1 in Aquarius, shines in the southwest at dusk. Spot Fomalhaut, magnitude +1.2, some 20 degrees to Jupiter’s lower left. Saturn, magnitude +0.7 in central Capricornus, is about the same distance lower right of Jupiter. Altair sits way off to the right of Saturn and Jupiter, by 3 or 4 fists at arm’s length. Farther above the horizon, about 65 degrees high an hour after sunset, is the Square of Pegasus, drawn from stars Markab, Algenib, Alpheratz, and Scheat.

The enormous Andromeda-Pegasus complex runs from near the zenith way down toward the western horizon in the evening. Just west of the zenith, spot slightly orange, Andromeda’s high foot, 2nd-magnitude Gamma Andromedae, or Almach. Andromeda is standing on her head. About halfway down from the zenith to the west horizon is the Great Square of Pegasus, balancing on one corner. The top corner is Andromeda’s head. From the bottom corner run the stars outlining Pegasus’s neck and head, ending at his “nose”, 2nd-magnitude “Enif”, due west. The name “Enif” comes from the Arabic word for “nose”. Enif is also a slightly orange star.

In December, January and February evenings, our evening sky faces away from the center of our Milky Way galaxy. We look toward our galaxy’s outskirts at this time of year. We’re also looking toward the spiral arm of the galaxy in which our Sun resides, the Orion Arm. It’s also called the Orion Spur, Local Arm, Orion-Cygnus Arm, or the Local Spur. It’s not one of the primary spiral arms of the Milky Way. Our local Orion Arm is some 3,500 light-years across and approximately 10,000 light-years in length. Our solar system resides within this this Orion Arm. We’re located close to the inner rim of this spiral arm, about halfway along its length.

Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 5 and 6, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Wednesday and Thursday, January 5 and 6, written by Alan French.

The Sun sets at 4:36 P.M. on Wednesday and rises at 7:26 A.M. on Thursday. Sunset on Thursday is at 4:35. Our days continue to lengthen.

Reaching new last Sunday, a crescent Moon now graces the early evening sky. As darkness falls on Wednesday night, look for a slender, 13% illuminated, crescent low toward the southwest. Bright Jupiter will be six degrees above the Moon, and the pair will be a lovely sight. With the proper choice of a foreground, they’ll make a fine target for photographers.

By Thursday night, the Moon will appear 22 percent in sunlight. The line between the bright portion of the Moon and darkness, the terminator, is now the line of sunrise, slowly but steadily marching across the lunar landscape. The Moon’s journey around the Earth exposed more of its visible face to the Sun, and also moved it eastward against the starry background, placing it just over 11 degrees to the upper left of Jupiter.

The Moon sets at 8:08 P.M. on Wednesday and 9:21 on Thursday. As the sky darkens each night, see if you can see the larger portion of the Moon that is not in sunlight. The gentle glow of that portion of the Moon is called earthshine, because it is illuminated by the sunlight reflected by our Earth. When the Moon is a slender crescent, the Earth is nearly full in the Moon’s sky, so earthshine is at its brightest. As the lunar crescent grows, the Earth appears increasingly gibbous from the Moon, so earthshine dims. Combined with the increased brightness of the lunar crescent, earthshine becomes harder to see.

If you face north and look high in the sky at about 9:00 P.M. you’ll see a bright star almost at the zenith. This is Capella, the brightest star in Auriga, the Charioteer, and the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Like many bright stars, it is bright because it is one of our nearer neighbors, lying only 42 lightyears away.

Ancient charioteers looked after the king’s horses and their livestock. On old star charts Auriga is often shown holding a goat, and Capella in Latin means “little goat.” The small triangle of stars to the upper left (southwest) of Capella is known as “The Kids.”

The star pattern that forms Auriga is easy to recognize, it’s formed by a pentagon of stars, including Capella. When looking high in the north at 9:00 P.M. now, the other stars stretch above and right of Capella. The third brightest star in the pentagon, Menkalinan, is almost directly east of Capella. The second brightest, Elnath, is just a little east of being due south of Capella, appearing above and a bit to the right. Although officially residing in Taurus, the Bull, marking the tip of his northern horn, Elnath is also part of Auriga’s outline. It is one of only two stars having designations in two constellations, the other being Alpheratz, which has “dual citizenship” in Andromeda and Pegasus, although officially residing in Andromeda.

Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 3rd, and 4th, 2022

This is the Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday January 3rd, and 4th, written by Joe Slomka.

The Sun sets at 4:34 PM; night falls at 6:16. Dawn begins at 5:44 AM and ends with the Sun rising at 7:26.

Southwestern Capricornus houses the Moon on both nights. Monday’s 1-day-old Moon rises at 8:36 AM, appears 33 arc-minutes in size, 2% illuminated, 2° high at 5:16 PM and sets at 5:33 PM. Tuesday’s Moon rises at 9:24 AM, 32 arc-minutes, 7% lit, 14° high at 5 PM and sets at 6:51 PM. Monday’s Moon lies just below Mercury; Tuesday’s Moon is beneath Saturn. The Moon sets early, clearing the sky for observation.

This first week of the year is packed with astronomical events.
Monday, the annual Quadrantid meteor shower takes place. The “Quads” peak at 3:40 PM with 120 meteors per hour; however, that number drops off in 4 hours to about 25 per hour. Sky watchers are advised to watch between 3 AM and Dawn on the 4th. The meteors appear from the Northeast between Draco and Bootes.

There are two relatively bright comets in our Southwestern sky. First is Comet Leonard, shining with 6th magnitude, rises at 11:23 AM, 5° high at 5 PM and 22° East of Mercury; it sets at 5:59 PM. Leonard has been flaring to 3rd magnitude; it may require an unobstructed horizon. Comet Borrelly glows with 8th magnitude, rising at 12:25 PM, highest at 5:26 PM and sets at 10:28 PM. Borrelly appears about 5° West of Beta Ceti and 18° East of Neptune and 27° high at 7 PM.

Finally, Earth is closest to the Sun on Tuesday. It is only 147,105,052 km (91,406,841 miles) away and also the latest sunrise for our latitude.

Capricornus entertains Mercury and Saturn, besides the Moon. Mercury is the first planet in the evening sky, glowing with minus zero magnitude, 6 arc-seconds and sets at 5:55 PM. Saturn is next, shining with zero magnitude, 15 arc-seconds, 6° high at 6 PM and sets at 6:50 PM.

Aquarius accommodates Jupiter and Neptune. Jupiter glares with minus 2nd magnitude, 21° at 6 PM and sets at 8:28 PM. Telescopic viewers can see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot at 7:04 PM, Monday. Neptune, 19° North of Jupiter, glimmers with 8th magnitude, 2 arc-seconds, 36° high at 6 PM and sets at 10:09 PM.

Uranus, in Aries, shines with 5th magnitude, 3 arc-seconds, highest at 7:34 PM and sets at 2:33 AM. Mars, in Ophiuchus, rises in the Southeast at 5:27 AM, shines with 1st magnitude, 4 arc-seconds and is 13° high at 7 AM.

January 2, is the Christian feast of the Epiphany, otherwise known as “Three Kings Day.” Who were these kings? Most likely they were Magi from Babylon. Babylonians were famous for their astronomy. By 2000 BC, they identified all five visible planets, the major constellations, the zodiac and the Saros cycle of eclipses. These priest-astrologers were powerful and respected.

These dedicated sky watchers would certainly have noticed any new object or event. While some think that a comet or supernova may have been the “Christmas Star,” the prevailing opinion is that it may have been an astrological event. Most likely being a triple conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter during the year 7 BC. During the course of the year, Jupiter appears to: chase Saturn, catch up and pass it, turn around, catch up and pass Saturn again, and, finally, catch up with Saturn once more before sailing eastward past it. This startling series of events took place in Pisces, a significant constellation. While we know the planets to be worlds like our own Earth, to the ancients, stars and planets were messengers from the gods. When two planets, associated with the most powerful gods, keep meeting, the Magi knew something significant was about to happen. These scholars were also familiar with their neighbors. A search of Jewish documents provided the inspiration to set off for that distant land and a possible meeting with a new god-king.

Skywatch Line for Friday, December 31, 2021 through Sunday, January 2, 2022

This is Dudley Observatory’s Skywatch Line for Friday, December 31, through Sunday, January 2, written by Sam Salem.

On Friday, Sun rises at 7:26am and sets at 4:31pm; Moon rises at 5:03am and sets at 2:22pm. New Moon occurs on Sunday at 1:33 p.m. This new Moon will occur less than a day after lunar perigee, resulting in large tides around the world.

The Moon and Mars both are visible on Friday morning, just 4 degrees apart in the southeastern sky an hour before sunrise. Look for a hint of earthshine, sunlight reflecting off our planet to illuminate the portion of the Moon’s face still in shadow, on the delicate crescent Moon. Mars, far and faint at magnitude +1.6, is passing Mars-colored Antares, very low in the southeast in early dawn. Together with the Moon, the three form a small isosceles triangle on the sky.

On New Year’s Eve, four naked-eye planets, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, and Jupiter, are now congregating in the dusk sky. Magnitude –4.3 Venus now stands lowest, 11 degrees high at sunset. Venus sets around late twilight by New Year’s. In a telescope Venus is a thin crescent. Get your scope on it in the blue daytime before sunset. Mercury, at magnitude –0.8, is 1 degree higher than Venus. Saturn, at magnitude 0.6 in Capricornus, is nearly 19 degrees due east of Venus. Jupiter, magnitude –2.1 in Aquarius, shines in the south-southwest at dusk about three fists at arm’s length upper left of Venus.

The Quadrantids meteor shower runs from December 30 to January 12 every year. Named for a now-defunct constellation called the Mural Quadrant. Quadrans Muralis, Latin for mural quadrant, was a constellation created by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in 1795. It depicted a wall-mounted quadrant. It was between the constellations of Boötes and Draco, near the tail of Ursa Major. In 1922, Quadrans Muralis was omitted when the International Astronomical Union formalized its list of officially recognized constellations. Quadrantids meteors always travel away from the shower’s radiant, which lies in the northern sky beyond the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle. This shower commonly produces bright fireballs. It is produced by particles from an asteroid designated 2003EH. The shower’s most intense period, when up to 50 to 100 meteors per hour can appear, lasts only about 6 hours surrounding the peak, which is predicted to occur on Monday, around 4pm. With the peak on Monday afternoon in the Americas, the optimal times for viewing Quadrantids there will be before dawn on both Monday and Tuesday, although fewer Quadrantids will be seen. The peak night will be moonless worldwide.

Sirius, the Dog Star, might also be called the New Year’s star. It reaches its highest point in the sky around the stroke of midnight. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog. It’s the brightest star in Earth’s night sky. Its name, derived from Greek, means sparkling or scorching.