2022, December 28: Bright Planet Display Finale


December 28, 2022: Not until 2028 are the five bright planets visible again.  Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars are strung across the evening sky.  The opportunity to see them is quickly ending.

Photo Caption – 2020, March 30: One day before their conjunction, Mars is 1.2° to the lower right of Saturn. Jupiter is 5.6° to the upper right of Mars.


by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Chicago, Illinois:  Sunrise, 7:18 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:27 p.m. CST.  Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.

Sunrise is at its latest time this morning.  This continues through January 10th.  This does not occur on the solstice.  Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle and the planet is tilted.  This causes the latest and earliest solar times not to coincide with the solstices.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot’s transit times, when it is in the center of the planet in the southern hemisphere: 6:56 UT, 16:52 UT; Dec. 29, 2:48 UT. 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: The Little Dipper with Polaris is in the north before sunup.

With the planets in the evening, bright stars dot the morning sky.  An hour before sunrise, look for Polaris, about halfway up in the north for sky watchers at the mid-northern latitudes.  The star is nearly above Earth’s North Pole and the moniker “North Star” is attached to the star because it seemingly does not move.

At this hour the Big Dipper is high in the north.  On the accompanying chart, two stars at the end of the dipper’s bowl are shown.  Nicknamed “the Pointers,” Merak – meaning “the back of the great bear” – and Dubhe – “the loins of the great bear”, make an imaginary line that generally points toward Polaris.

Because of its importance to basic navigation, Polaris is thought to be the brightest star.  It is 48th on the list of brightest stars.  Yes, there is a list of them along with the nearest stars that can be found in the appendices of astronomy books.

From urban and suburban locations, the stars that make the Little Dipper’s handle and two stars in the bowl are difficult to see.  Kochab and Pherkad complete the dipper.  During the night they move in an arc around Polaris as Earth rotates.  Together they are known as “The Guardians of the Pole.”  They seem to be walking patrol to protect Polaris from theft.

The Little Dipper is nearly between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.  The larger dipper is high in the sky and the Queen is low in the north this.  Together with Cepheus and Draco, these constellations are always in the sky and are known as circumpolar stars.

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: Venus and Mercury through a binocular after sundown.

The five-planet exhibition continues across the evening sky from the eastern skyline to the southwest horizon.  Add in Uranus and Neptune, and while we are standing on Earth, the modern solar system with eight larger planets is on display.

Begin around 30 minutes after sundown.  Brilliant Venus is over 6° up in the southwestern sky to the right or north of the southwest directional point.  At this level of twilight, it is visible to the unaided eye, though binocular helps with the initial identification.

Once found, put Venus in the center of the field of view. Mercury is 1.5° to the upper right of Venus.

Mercury is rapidly fading in brightness after it passed its greatest elongation a week ago.  While it is higher than Venus in the sky, it is slightly brighter than Saturn.  When can you see Mercury this evening without a binocular?  During the next fifteen to twenty minutes, the planet pair descends toward the horizon in a darkening sky.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: Venus, Mercury, Saturn, crescent moon, and Jupiter are visible after sunset.

At forty-five minutes after sundown, Jupiter is halfway up in the south, 8.2° to the upper left of a waxing crescent moon that is 38% illuminated. The moon reaches its evening half phase (First Quarter) tomorrow evening at 7:21 p.m. CST.

Saturn, about 30° up in the south-southwest, is halfway from the lunar crescent to brilliant Venus.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: After sundown, Mars is in the eastern sky with Aldebaran and Capella.

The fifth planet, Mars is one-third of the way up in the east, with the stars Aldebaran and Capella nearby.  The planet is considerably brighter than this stellar pair.

The five planets and the moon are along the arc of the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system. From Venus to Mars, they span 136°.

Uranus and Neptune are in the sky at this hour, but the sky is likely too bright to see them, even with a binocular’s optical assist. Wait another 15 minutes to look for them.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: Neptune and the crescent moon are in the same binocular field.

Neptune is in the same field of view with the moon.  Before Jupiter resumed its eastward motion after the end of retrograde, Neptune appeared in the same binocular field with the Jovian Giant.  Now, Jupiter is farther eastward and too far away to fit into the binocular field.

This evening Neptune is 3.3° to the upper right of the moon.  It appears as a bluish star. Its globe is visible with higher-power eyepieces in a telescope.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: Uranus is in an Aries starfield. The Pleiades and Hamal are nearby.

Uranus is in an Aries starfield, west of the Pleiades and south of Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation.  The planet is at the limit of human eyesight and might be visible without a binocular from locales without the perpetual glow of outdoor lighting.

The starfield contains stars that are identified by their Greek letters, such as Pi Arietis (π Ari on the chart), Omicron Arietis (ο Ari), Sigma Arietis (σ Ari), and Rho Arietis (ρ Ari).  The chart above shows dimmer stars that make the sidereal backdrop.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: Uranus in an Aries starfield through a binocular.

The same stars are identified in the binocular view of the starfield.  The planet is nearly 1.8 billion miles away and appears brighter than Neptune that is 50% farther away.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 28: After the end of evening twilight, Mars is visible with Taurus.

As the sky darkens further, look for Mars with Taurus, 8.3° to the upper left of Aldebaran, the constellation’s brightest star.  Mars, retrograding against the Bull’s backdrop, passed the star two nights ago.

Retrograde motion is an illusion of the planet backing up or moving westward compared to the starfield when Earth passes between the planet and the sun.  Retrograde continues until January 12th.  Mars passes Aldebaran for the final conjunction in a triple conjunction series on January 30th.

We are at the final time to see five planets simultaneously until October 2028. Late in the month, the planets are in the morning sky, spanning 154°.  From the sunrise point, the order is Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn.

Currently Mercury is fading in brightness and becoming difficult to see without the binocular. After Mercury leaves the scene moving toward morning viewing, the bright four planets are visible simultaneously after sunset until early February.  Venus passes Saturn on January 22nd and Jupiter on March 1st. Venus does not pass Mars during this evening appearance.

Jupiter (NASA Photo)

At 8:48 p.m., when Jupiter is one-third of the way up in the west-southwest sky from Chicago, the Great Red Spot is visible in the center of the Jovian Giant in the southern hemisphere.  The planet is higher for sky watchers with telescopes farther westward.  The spot appears about an hour before the prime time and disappears about an hour afterwards from the planet’s rapid rotation.



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