For all of January 2016, four of the five naked eye planets can be seen in the morning sky (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). In the final days of the month, Mercury joins the party, making it possible around 6 a.m. in late January to see all five naked-eye planets at the same time.
Planet By Planet
In early January Jupiter rises in the east at 11:30 p.m. and is high in the south at daybreak. At the end of January, Jupiter rises in the east by 9:30 p.m. and shines in the southwest as day dawns. The planet shines at minus 2 magnitude, brighter than any star.
Throughout the month, Venus hovers low in the eastern sky before break of day. At minus 4 magnitude, it outshines all other sky dots. Venus rises at 4:20 a.m. in early January and is about 1/4 th of the way up the eastern sky as day breaks 6 a.m. By January 31, Venus rises around 5 a.m., and is 20 degrees above the eastern horizon (“the width of two fists”) at dawn.
The ringed planet rises at 5 a.m. in the east in early January, and by 3 a.m. at end of the month. The planet is quite bright, at 0.5 magnitude, and you can use much-brighter Venus to spot it. From January 1-8, Saturn can be found just below Venus, which is the brightest sky dot; for the rest of the month, look for Saturn above Venus.
The red planet rises in the east at 2 a.m. in early January, and at 1 a.m. at end of the month. Mars is still a rather dim amber dot, at 1.25 magnitude. To find Mars, draw a line between the two brightest dots in the sky, Venus (near the horizon in the predawn hours) and Jupiter (high in the south). Mars is the slightly-red dot halfway between the brighter planets. Mars is just to the left of the slightly brighter light of the star Spica at the start of January, and 20 degrees (“two fists”) to the left of Spica by the end of the month. There is a nice contrast between the orangeish color of Mars and the bluish-white color of Spica.
Mercury begins the month in the evening sky, hovering low in the west for the first few days of January. Look for it right where the sun went down; it shines around 0 magnitude, but can be hard to spot since it’s not dark enough to see it till 6:30 p.m. and since the planet sets by 7:15 p.m. While we lose Mercury from the evening sky by about January 5, it pops up in the morning sky at the end of the month. In the last days of January Mercury rises in the east around 5:30 a.m. and is washed out by the rising sun at 6:30 a.m., as it’s about ten degrees (“one fist”) above the eastern horizon. In this morning appearance, Mercury hangs below brighter Venus.
The Morning Planetary Parade
Interesting as the planets are individually, it’s the parade of planets in the predawn sky that really stands out January 2016.
Early in January, around 6 a.m., look for the blazing light of Jupiter high in the south; it will be three-quarters of the way between the south horizon and the very top of the sky. From Jupiter, look over to the eastern horizon. Find the planet Venus; at 6 a.m. it will be about 20 degrees above the eastern horizon, or the width of two of your fists held at arm’s length. At minus 4 magnitude, it is by far the brightest dot in the sky.
Once you have drawn a line between the two really bright planets, you can find the other planets. Mars will be the slightly orange dot almost exactly halfway between Venus and Jupiter. At 1.25 magnitude, Mars is only as bright as a bright star. In fact the bright blue star Spica, just to Mars’s right, shines more brightly than Mars.
Now, go back to blazing Venus, low in the east, and look down below it. Saturn appears about 8 degrees (slightly less that one fist’s diameter) below Venus, shining at 0.5 magnitude. Much as Mars is paired with a star to its right, so is Saturn; look just to the right of Saturn and you’ll find the reddish star Antares.
To add to this gathering, the moon will be just below Jupiter on the morning of December 31, and then to the left of Jupiter on January 1; between Jupiter and Mars on January 2; just above the planet Mars on January 3; between Mars and Venus on March 4 and 5; and a slender crescent above Venus on January 6.
The Dance Continues: January 7-27
By January 7, the planet Venus will appear close to Saturn. On the 7 th (i.e., just before daybreak on January 7), find Venus low in the west at 6 a.m. Saturn will be just below Venus. On the 7 th, look below Saturn for a tiny sliver of a very old crescent moon.
On January 8, Venus and Saturn will be in a tight gathering, with Venus only about 1/3 of a degree (less than a moon’s width) above Saturn. On the following morning, January 9, Venus will be about 1/3 of a degree below Saturn. In fact, Saturn and Venus will be appear to be closer to each other on that morning than at any time in the last ten years.
As the month continues, Venus will appear a little lower in the predawn sky each day, but will remain easy to find due to its brightness. The other planets span the morning sky. From January 9 to 27, look for Venus near the horizon; then Saturn, Mars and Jupiter as go higher and higher in the sky.
January 28-31: The Rare Chance to See All Five Naked-eye Planets at Once!
This show of morning sky will be completed by the last week of January, when Mercury appears below Venus just before daybreak; making it possible to see all five naked-eye planets at one time.
Go out around 6 a.m., between January 28 and 31. Find Venus low in the east. It will be about one fist’s diameter above the horizon and incredibly bright. Look down below Venus, and you will find Mercury, just rising at 6 a.m. and shining brightly at 0.3 magnitude. Mercury rises at 5:30 a.m. on January 31 and is lost in the breaking day by 6:30 a.m., so you only have an hour to catch it.
Draw a line from Venus, which is again low in the east, to Jupiter, which is high in the southwest. Jupiter will be the only dot of light that is less bright than Venus. Along that long line between the two brilliant planets, look for Mars, which will be almost halfway between Venus and Jupiter; and for Saturn, halfway between Mars and Venus.
As with the start of the month, the waning moon can again help mark the planets at the end of January. On January 28, the moon is just to the left of Jupiter; on January 28 th and 29, the moon in between Jupiter and Mars; and on the 31 st, the moon is just to the right of Mars.
Other Sky Events in January
January 3-4: Quadrantid Meteor Shower
Best viewing for this annual shower should be in the predawn hours on January 4 (12:01 a.m. ‘til dawn). While there is a waning crescent moon rising at 2:30 a.m., it should not provide much interference with viewing. In a dark location you could see up to 20 meteors per hour. To view this, or any, meteor shower, just find a dark location (as little city light as possible) and get comfortable (a lawn chair is a good idea).
March Sky Map
Like all of our monthly maps, this one is good for 10 p.m. on the first day of the month, 9 p.m. for the middle of the month, and for 8 p.m. at the end.
Moon Phases (Hawaiian Time Zone):
Third Quarter: January 1 & January 31
New: January 9
First Quarter: January 16
Full: January 23