2022, December 31: Goodbye, Mercury, Morning Galaxies, Evening Planets

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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.

Photo Caption – 2021, May 29: Brilliant Venus shines from the west-northwest after sunset. Mercury, with some magnification, is visible to the lower right of Venus.

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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.

Here is today’s planet forecast:

Morning Sky

Chart Caption – Early Winter: Coma Berenices is the constellation above a line from Arcturus to Denebola.

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.

Chart Caption – Early Winter: Through a binocular to the Coma Berenices star cluster 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.

Photo Caption – A long-exposure Hubble Space Telescope image shows a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, which lies 320 million light-years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices. (NASA Photo)

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.”

Evening Sky

Chart Caption – 2022, December 31: Forty-five minutes after sundown, Mercury is to the lower right of brilliant Venus.

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.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 31: Saturn with the starfield in eastern Capricornus.

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.

Chart Caption – 2022, December 31: In the southeast, the gibbous moon is nearly midway from Jupiter in the south to Mars in the east.

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. 

Jupiter (NASA Photo)

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.

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