January 2024
The Backyard Astronomer
Adam England

Dancing Planets

The Backyard Astronomer by Adam England

Mercury is a unique specimen within our solar system. Orbiting every 88 days, this closest rocky body to our sun has no geological activity and virtually no atmosphere. Its surface is pockmarked with testimonies of destruction, with nothing to erode the signs of billions of years of impact events, making it a dense, grey, blemished world.

The ancients knew of Mercury, and many cultures named it relative to its proximity to the sun and its quick movements across the sky. Because it’s in so close, it’s often not visible to terrestrial viewers, but on the morning of January 12 it will be 23.5 degrees from the sun, its greatest western elongation. Look to the eastern horizon in the hour before sunrise to catch a view of this elusive wanderer.

On the evening of January 14 Saturn will make a close approach to the moon in the constellation Aquarius. To astrologers, this lunar conjunction with the ringed planet may impart a pragmatic and practical approach to financial stability, but to astronomers it means a fun opportunity to observe the waning crescent moon next to the famous rings of Saturn.

Binoculars or a small telescope is all you need for this event, with just 40x magnification to resolve the rings separate from the planet. The waxing crescent phase is also a great time to look at the highlighted craters of the moon. Get out early this evening, as Saturn will begin to set in the western hills at around 8pm.

Just a few nights later, on the evening of January 18, Jupiter will make a close approach to the moon in the constellation Aries. A first-quarter moon will spend the evening with the King of Planets, and your binoculars or small backyard telescope should be able to resolve the four Galilean moons: Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, and Io. Those last two, Europa and Io, will be in a conjunction of their own that night, passing extremely close to one another as viewed from here. With larger scopes of 100mm or more, and the luck of a clear night, you may be able to observe the red and white bands of clouds that circle the planet, as well as its most defining feature, the Great Red Spot. Like a high-pressure hurricane, this storm averages 1.3x the diameter of Earth, with wind speeds up to 432km/h (268 mph). If early astronomical observations were correctly recorded of the same storm, it has been in existence since at least 1665.

If you would like to learn more about the sky, telescopes, or socialize with other amateur astronomers, visit us at prescottastronomyclub.org or Facebook @PrescottAstronomyClub to find the next star party, Star Talk, or event.

Adam England is the owner of Manzanita Financial and moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, and interplanetary conquest consultant. Follow his rants and exploits on Twitter @AZSalesman or at Facebook.com/insuredbyadam.