Starstruck

5 Sky Events This Week: Comet Brightens, Mercury Meets Venus

As a new year dawns, watch a comet burn and the stars turn.
View Images

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this amazing view of Jupiter and its monster storm known as the Great Red Spot in 2014. This week sky-watchers get a chance to glimpse the gas giant next to our own moon in the sky.


Happy New Year! As a bright comet blazes across the sky, familiar friends from mythology parade for sky-watchers this week, making stately strides among the stars.

Gemini's arc. As darkness falls on Monday, January 5, look for the waning gibbous moon in the southeastern sky to form a beautiful celestial arc with the lead stars of the constellations Gemini, the Twins, and Canis Minor, the Little Dog.

Stellar standouts Castor and Pollux in Gemini are easy to catch. They hang just to the upper left of the moon, while to its lower right resides Procyon, the brightest star belonging to the Little Dog.

And that superluminous star off to the far right is Sirius in Canis Major, the Big Dog. The brightest star in the entire sky, Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, lies less than 8.6 light-years away, making it the fifth closest star to our own solar system.

View Images

On Monday the moon will form a giant arc across the evening sky with some of the brightest stars in the winter sky.


Moon and Jupiter. Late at night on Wednesday, January 7, check out the bright planet Jupiter parked next to the waning gibbous moon.

The cosmic pair will be separated by no more than 5 degrees, which is equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm's length.

Meanwhile, Regulus—the brightest star in the constellation Leo, the Lion—forms a distinctive triangle with Jupiter and the moon.

Comet Lovejoy brightens. Also on Wednesday after nightfall, hunt down comet Lovejoy as it reaches its closest approach to Earth at some 43.5 million miles (70 million kilometers) away. That happens to be about as close as our neighbor Mars ever comes to our planet.

Predictions call for it to continue brightening from 5th to 4th magnitude for the next couple of weeks, which will make it an easy target for both binoculars and possibly even naked-eye observations for those who know where to look.

That will include you if you keep following this column. Tonight, the comet will be passing within 16 degrees to the right of the bright star Rigel in the Orion constellation.

View Images

This skychart shows comet Lovejoy near Orion, the hunter, marked by the bright blue star Rigel.


Heads up! For astrophotographers, however, the real photo op will be on Sunday, January 18, when Lovejoy brushes past the famous Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Long-exposure images should capture the comet's tail sweep right over the Pleiades, 400 light-years distant.

This oddball conjunction should be quite a sight even for binocular viewers and should help newbie sky-watchers hunt down the comet if they haven't seen it before. Check out some detailed finder charts here.

View Images

Look for Venus and Mercury just after sunset on Saturday night.


Moon and Regulus. By the next evening, Thursday, January 8, the moon will have sunk closer to the eastern horizon into the constellation Leo. Watch as Luna joins 79-light-years-distant star Regulus, the pair again appearing only 5 degrees apart.

Venus and Mercury conjunction. On the evening of Saturday, January 10, Venus and Mercury come together in their closest conjunction in the sunset sky. Look for them in the southwestern sky at dusk less than 1 degree apart.

Both Mercury and Venus are on the far side of the sun from us now, putting Mercury 18.6 light-minutes away from Earth and Venus 19.4 light-minutes away.

View Images

This illustration shows the location of Mercury and Venus in their respective orbits in relation to Earth’s position.


Happy hunting!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.

Comment on This Story