December 31, 2022: Mercury begins to depart the evening sky, leaving four bright planets – Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on display for New Year’s Eve.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 7:18 a.m. CST; Sunset, 4:30 p.m. CST. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location. Times are calculated from the U.S. Naval Observatory’s MICA computer program.
Sunrise is at its latest time. This continues through January 10th. The length of daylight slowly increases during January to ten hours by the end of the new year’s first month, about 1.5 minutes each day.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot’s transit times, when it is in the center of the planet in the southern hemisphere: 4:27 UT, 14:22 UT; Jan 1, 0:20. 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.
Summaries of Current Sky Events
Here is today’s planet forecast:
With all the bright planets in the evening, and New Year’s revelry changing daily patterns, look for an interesting star cluster before morning twilight begins. During the early morning hours, we look into deep, galactic space away from the clutter of the Milky Way’s wonders.
The chart above shows a somewhat empty space above an imaginary line from bright Arcturus to Denebola, the tail of Leo. It has a smattering of dimmer stars and the reason for the earlier view in a darker sky. It is known as Coma Berenices – Bernice’s Hair. For most sky watchers a binocular is needed to see the star cluster. At about 300 light years, the cluster has about 40 stars, and the widely-cast stellar bundle easily fills the field of view.
On older star charts, it marked the tufty tip of the Lion’s tail. Egyptian queen Bernice promised to Venus that she would cut her hair if her husband returned safely from battle. When that occurred, Bernice cut her hair and placed it on Aphrodite’s alter. When the hair disappeared, the king declared that the bunch of stars that tipped the celestial Lion’s tail where really Bernice’s hair.
Far beyond the star cluster is a batch of thousands of galaxies that is at least 300 million light years. In the photo above nearly every smudge of light is a galaxy except for the dot that has points below the center. The spikes on the star are caused by supports that hold the optics in the telescope.
When we look southward during early winter mornings we are looking toward the depths of intergalactic space, sometimes poetically named the “realm of the galaxies.”
Mercury is retreating into bright evening twilight. Now dimmer than Saturn, the planet is very low when Venus is visible in the southwest. If there’s a clear horizon, Mercury is 4.3° to the lower right of Venus at 45 minutes after sunset. For practical observations we say “Goodbye” to Mercury until it reappears in the morning sky later next month.
This leaves four bright planets in the evening sky. Saturn is 25.1° to the upper left of Venus. It moves slowly eastward in front of eastern Capricornus. Saturn moves slowly compared to Venus and the Evening Star runs down the Ringed Wonder on January 22nd. Venus reaches Jupiter on March 1st.
Look at Saturn through a binocular. It is passing Nashira and moving toward Deneb Algedi. Tonight, the planet is 1.3° to the upper right of Nashira. Each clear evening, note the position of Saturn compared to this starfield. Three dim stars, 42 Capricorni (42 Cap on the chart), 44 Capricorni (44 Cap), and 45 Capricorni (45 Cap), add reference points to the scene to watch Saturn’s eastward motion.
Farther eastward, the bright moon, 70% illuminated, is over halfway up in the southeast, about halfway from bright Jupiter in the south and Mars over 30° up in the east. The moon’s brightness washes out the dimmer stars in the sky.
Mars is 8.3° to the upper left of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. The Red Planet continues the illusion of retrograde until January 12.
At 6:20 p.m. CST, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is in its prime viewing place in the center of the planet in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere. The spot appears center stage every 9 hours, 55 minutes. From Chicago this evening, the planet is halfway up in the south-southwest at this time and in a good viewing place for sky watchers with telescopes across the Americas.
- 2023, October 20: Jupiter’s Double Shadows, Mercury at Superior ConjunctionOctober 20: After midnight, Jupiter’s moons’ shadows dance across the cloud tops. Mercury is at superior conjunction.
- 2023, October 19: Poured Moon, See Planet UranusOctober 19: Sagittarius seems to pour the moon into the sky this evening. Find Uranus with a binocular.
- 2023, October 18: Moon-Antares Conjunction, Bright PlanetsOctober 18, 2023: The moon is near Antares after sunset. Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn are in the sky during the nighttime hours.
- 2023, October 17: Scorpion MoonOctober 17, 2023: The crescent moon is with Scorpius during evening twilight. Venus and Jupiter gleam from the predawn sky.
- 2023, October 16: Venus in Starry ConjunctionOctober 16, 2023: Venus passes a star in Leo before sunrise. A crescent moon is low in the western sky during evening twilight.