January 17, 2021: Venus slowly slides into bright sunlight. Step outside to see starry mornings. In the evening sky, Mercury is low in the sky after sunset. The moon is near a fish. Mars approaches the planet Uranus.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 7:15 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:48 p.m. CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
You may still find Venus very low in the sky about 30 minutes before sunrise.
As Venus fades from the morning sky, but still nearly two months before it begins its evening appearance, the predawn sky will be without any of the Classic 9 (Mercury – Pluto) planets.
Step outside about an hour before sunrise. The sky has a few bright stars. One of them is Spica, over one-third of the way up in the west-southwest. The star’s name means “ear of corn.” The star is less-known as Alazal – “the unarmed prop.”
Spica is part of Virgo. The constellation is large, taking nearly 3 hours to rise, although Hydra – the water snake – fully rises in over 7 hours. Hydra’s head is below Cancer – the space between Leo and Gemini seemingly lacking bright stars – and extends to the eastern edge of Virgo, beneath the constellation. Near Spica is Corvus the Crow. On many star charts, the bird rests on the snake’s back.
The Virgo constellation was associated with feminine fertility figures that were driven to the underworld during winter, to emerge in spring to bring food and nourishment to the world.
In his book, The Stars in Our Heaven, Peter Lum describes Virgo as “a formless constellation and its stars are difficult to trace; it has no distinguishing features. It is supposed to resemble a figure of a maiden, her wings, the soft draperies of her robe, her outstretched hand, and the [ear of corn]. She rises upright and graceful, spends most of her time as she crosses the sky on her side, and ends up by setting upside down, head first” (p. 173).
Spica can be used to approximate the time of the first day of spring, not within hours but the general date. When the full moon appears near Spica, this occurs at about the beginning of spring.
Spica is a bluish star. Your binocular will amplify the star’s color. Its distance is around 250 light years. The star is intrinsically very bright. It shines with the brilliance of 2,200 of our suns.
As Jupiter and Saturn slide into bright evening twilight and their solar conjunctions, Mercury is about 6° up in the west-southwest. Find a clear horizon and use a binocular to spot the speedy planet.
The crescent moon is higher in the sky, to the upper left of Mercury. As the sky darkens further, locate the western fish of Pisces. The shape is made by about half a dozen dimmer stars that make an oval pattern. The line of rope (stringer) that connects the fish extends to the upper left of the fish.
Mars is higher in the south-southeast. It is 9.2° to the lower right of Hamal, Aries’ brightest star.
Mars is approaching the planet Uranus. Use a binocular to locate 19 Arietis (19 Ari on the chart). The Red Planet is 1.3° to the lower right of that star. Use that distance as a scale to locate Uranus, 2.0° to the lower left of Mars.
The planet Uranus has an aquamarine tint and looks like a star through a binocular. Through a telescope, a magnification of about 100x is needed to see the spherical nature of the planet.
Read about Mars during January.
Detailed Note: One hour before sunrise, find Spica (α Vir, m = 1.0) 36° above the south-southwest horizon. Thirty minutes after sunset, Mercury is 6.0° up in the west-southwest. The crescent moon (4.8d, 23%) is to the speedy planet’s upper left, over 30° in altitude. As the sky darkens further look for Pisces western fish (the Circlet), a somewhat oval group of 3rd and 4th magnitude stars that is 12° to the upper right of the lunar crescent. Mars (m = 0.2) is over 62° up in the south-southeast, 9.2° to the lower right of Hamal (α Ari, m = 2.0), 1.3° to the lower right of 19 Ari, and 2.0° to the upper right of Uranus.
Read more about the planets during January.
February 19-21: The bright moon moves through the constellation Taurus. Use a binocular to see the starry background with the moon.
February 18, 2021: The moon, waxing toward its First Quarter moon phase, is high in the southwest after sunset. Planet Mars is 3.8° to the upper right of the moon. Mars is parading eastward compared to the starry background in eastern Aries as it heads toward the Taurus border.
February 6, 2021: Before sunrise, look east-southeast for the waning crescent moon. It is 4.5° to the upper left of Antares – the rival of Mars.