2022, December 26:  Moon Points to Saturn in Evening Planet Display, Mars-Aldebaran Conjunction

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December 26, 2022:  The five bright planet display continues after sunset.  The moon is near Saturn. Mars passes Aldebaran.

2021, January 15: The thin waxing moon with earthshine, reflected sunlight from Earth’s features gently illuminates the lunar night.

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by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunrise, 7:17 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:26 p.m. CST.  Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.

Daylight is slowly growing longer, although slowly.  Latest sunrise time (7:18 a.m. CST) begins on the 28th and lasts through January 10th.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot’s transit times, when it is in the center of the planet in the southern hemisphere: 5:17 UT, 15:13 UT; Dec. 27, 1:09. Convert the time to your time zone. In the US, subtract five hours for EST, six hours for CST, and so on.  Use a telescope to see the spot.  Times are from Sky & Telescope magazine.

Here is today’s planet forecast:

Morning Sky

Chart Caption – Late December: Cassiopeia, the Queen, is above the northern horizon at one hour before sunrise.

With the bright planet display in the evening sky, no planets shine from the morning celestial sphere.

Cassiopeia the Queen is low in the northern sky.  Like the Big Dipper, she is a circumpolar constellation, one that never sets.  During the night, the stars far in the north seem to pivot around Polaris, the North Star.  As they approach the horizon in the north-northwest, they do not set, but slowly turn under Polaris and rise into the north-northeastern sky again.

Cassiopeia is nearly on the opposite side of the northern sky from the Big Dipper.  The Queen’s morning location indicates that the dipper is high in the sky.

Cassiopeia is part of the Perseus – Andromeda – Medusa myth.  Her vanity caused Neptune to send a sea monster to ravage the coastline.

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2022, December 26: Saturn and the crescent moon are visible through a binocular during evening twilight. Look for earthshine on the night portion of the moon.

This evening could provide the best display for the five-evening planets.  The crescent moon, 18% illuminated, is 5.0° to the lower left of Saturn.  The crescent and Saturn are in the same binocular field of view and the Ringed Wonder is easily visible without the optical assist.  During the past few evenings, the fifth brightest among the visible planets stood alone in the south-southwestern sky.

The crescent is showing earthshine on its nighttime portion, reflected sunlight from Earth’s oceans, clouds, and land.

At forty-five minutes after sunset, the lunar crescent is about 25° up in the south-southwest with Saturn nearby.

Begin looking ten to fifteen minutes earlier for Venus and Mercury.  Look from a location with a clear view toward the southwest. An elevated structure or a hilltop helps with the view across potential obstructions. 

Chart Caption – 2022, December 26: Forty-five minutes after sunset, four bright planets and the crescent moon are visible.

At this time, brilliant Venus is about 5° up in the southwest.  If the sky is clear and unobstructed, the planet is visible without a binocular, but the optics may help with the initial identification. 

Mercury is 2.7° to the upper left of brilliant Venus.  At 30 minutes after sunset, a binocular is likely needed to see Mercury, but the two planets are easily in the same binocular field of view. 

During the next 15 to 20 minutes, Venus and Mercury are low in the sky that darkens each minute.  Mercury becomes visible as well as Saturn near the moon’s crescent.

Farther eastward, Jupiter is about halfway up in the south.  It is visible earlier during twilight.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 26: Mars is in the eastern sky, with Aldebaran and Capella, after sunset.

Mars is in the east-northeast, with Aldebaran and Capella visible as the sky darkens.

The five planets and the moon are along an imaginary arc from the southwest to the eastern sky.  This imaginary line is the plane of the solar system. Extend your arm and trace the arc from Venus eastward through the planets and ending with Mars in the eastern sky.

After Mercury becomes more difficult to see as the year closes, the next time the five planets are visible simultaneous occurs again during October 2028.  Currently, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars continue to shine during evening twilight until about February 1, 2023, when the Ringed Wonder disappears into the sun’s glare.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 26: Mars is 8.0° from Aldebaran when the sky darkens.

This evening, Mars passes Aldebaran for the second conjunction in a triple conjunction series.  At two hours after sunset, bright Mars is nearly halfway up in the eastern sky.  It is 8.0° to the upper left of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus.  The star along with the Hyades star cluster makes the head of the Bull.

Mars appears to be moving westward or retrograde compared to the sidereal backdrop.  This illusion occurs when our faster-moving world moves between the more-distant planets and the sun.  The Red Planet continues to retrograde until January 12. Then, it reverses its direction and moves eastward again.  The third Mars-Aldebaran conjunction occurs on January 30th.

Jupiter (NASA Photo)

For sky watchers with telescopes, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is visible in its prime location in the southern hemisphere at 7:09 p.m. CST.  The long-lived atmospheric disturbance is visible nearly an hour before and after the best time.  From Chicago, the planet is about halfway up in the southwest and higher in the sky for those farther westward.

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