Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, January 9th and 10th, 2017

This is the Skywatch Line for Monday and Tuesday, January 9th and 10th.

The Sun sets at 4:40 PM; night falls at 6:21. Dawn breaks at 5:44 AM and ends with sunrise at7:25.
The twelve-day-old Moon is the brightest thing in the evening sky. At civil twilight, it is moderately high in the southeastern sky, near the bright star Aldebaran. Tuesday evening, finds it near Orion’s club. The Moon is best observed at 9:44 PM on Monday, and 10:44 on Tuesday. It sets during Dawn.

Venus, in Aquarius, is the next brightest planet high in the South. It blazes at minus 4.4 magnitude and appears half-lit in our telescopes. Mars, also in Aquarius, appears 9 degrees to Venus’ left. The Red Planet glows at 0.9 magnitude and appears a tiny 5.5 arc-seconds in size. Venus sets at 8:40 PM, Mars at 9:28 PM.

At nightfall, Neptune, also in Aquarius, is sandwiched between Venus and Mars. It is 2 degrees to Venus’s left, and 6 degrees to Mars’ right. Under dark skies, Neptune appears as a blue-green dot near brighter star Hydor. Neptune sets at 8:54 PM. Uranus, in Pisces, also appears blue-green, glowing at magnitude 5.8 and appearing 3.5 arc-seconds in size 34 degrees distant from Mars. Uranus sets after Midnight.

The star Algol, in Perseus, dims for two hours centered on 9:19 PM Tuesday. The star normally dims one full magnitude, visible to the unaided eye.

Jupiter rises. after Midnight. It glows at minus 2 magnitude and appears 36 arc-seconds in size. It is best observed at 5:58 AM.

Mercury and Saturn join Jupiter in the brightening dawn sky. Saturn rises at 5:26 AM, shines at 0.5 magnitude appears 15 arc-seconds in size and low in the east. Mercury follows behind Saturn by rising at 5:49 AM, and also very low in the East, about 9 degrees above the horizon.

Yesterday, January 8th, was the Christian feast of the Epiphany, otherwise known as “Three Kings Day.” But, who were these “kings?” Most likely they were Magi from the eastern empire of Babylon. Babylonians were famous for their astronomical skill. By 2000 BC, they identified all five visible planets, the major constellations, the zodiac and the Saros cycle of eclipses. These priest-astrologers were very powerful and respected throughout the known world.
These dedicated sky watchers would certainly have noticed any new object or event in the night sky. 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: the 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 with it, pass it, turn around and catch up with and pass Saturn again, and finally catch up with Saturn one more time before sailing eastward past it. This startling series of events took place in Pisces, a significant constellation. While we now 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.

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