Three Dawn Planets On A String

Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson is currently around magnitude +10.5 and visible in 8-inch and larger telescopes. It’s expected to get bright enough to see in binoculars this spring. Click the photo to read my guide to comets in 2017. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

My fingertips are still tender after today’s happy morning. I drove out to the country in hopes of seeing three comets — V2 Johnson, ER61 PANSTARRS and U1 NEOWISE — before dawn. I tracked them all down from an icy road in the –24°F shivery silence, my fingers curled around hand warmer packets inside lined gloves.

My hunt for these fuzzballs completed, I eagerly pointed the telescope at Jupiter. Like an insistent child, it had been trying to get my attention all morning. I couldn’t resist because you never know what Jove might bring to the table for clouds, spots and moons. Three of its four moons lined up on either side of the squat planet with the fourth, Ganymede, joining the crew a few minutes later when it reappeared after being hidden by Jupiter’s disk in occultation.

Jupiter gleams above Spica in the southern sky Sunday morning around 6:30 a.m. The glow of nearby Duluth, Minn. colors incoming clouds pink. Credit: Bob King

As Venus dominates the evening sky in the company of fainter Mars, so too does Jupiter light up the morning sky in the company of Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. The two are just 4° apart high in the south at dawn. With the sun rising after 7:30 from many locations, they’re easy pickings even as late as 7 a.m. Take a look the next clear morning and compare their colors while you’re at it. Venus shines white against Mars’ red at dusk, and Jupiter appears the palest of yellows against blue-hued Spica.

This map shows the sky from the central U.S. (latitude +40° N) an hour before sunrise on Jan. 9. Mercury remains about 6 degrees to the lower left or east of Saturn for the next week or so. Planets, the moon and the sun all follow along the ecliptic which cuts across the zodiac constellations. The ecliptic defines the plane of the solar system. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

By sheer luck, a narrow gap between trees in the southeastern sky revealed Saturn in brightening twilight. Saturn is just returning to the morning sky after being in conjunction with the sun and lost in the daylight glare.  Located in the “13th” zodiacal constellation, Ophiuchus, seeing it reminded me of summer, the time when both constellation and planet will be plain as day in the evening sky. There are many weeks between now and then. Saturn will use all of them to slowly distance itself from the sun and rise higher in a darker sky.

As you can see, Saturn is very low in the southeast in twilight in mid-January. It will rise steadily higher over time, becoming a lot easier to see in just a couple weeks. Credit: Bob King

How I’d wished I checked on the planets more closely before driving off into the frigid morning. I missed Mercury! Yes, it’s low and not really bright, but I’m sure I would have seen it in binoculars about 6° (half a fist) to the lower left of Saturn.

Mercury’s January apparition won’t be a great one, but it sticks close to Saturn for the next week or so as it slowly grows brighter and a little higher and easier to see. As long as you have a place with a good view to the southeast, I encourage you to have a look for these two planets, one so near the sun and the other so far. Add in Jupiter, and you’ve got a planetary trifecta!

2 Responses

  1. Norman Sanker

    Hey Bob, I managed to find Comet 45P on January 5, fighting the first quarter Moon and light pollution to the west. A few days later, I took my best shot at Neowise under “ideal” conditions for my location, with no luck. So: Neowise disappears into the dawn…then what? Your comments implied that it would not return to the evening sky, nor the morning sky, not in the northern hemisphere, nor in the southern. Where oh where is Comet Neowise? Thanks for all your great work, and forgive me if I’ve misunderstood.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Norman,

      In hindsight I should have added more detail. The comet will move well to the south of the sun and fade, so it won’t be visible evermore for northern hemisphere skywatchers. From the southern hemisphere NEOWISE will appear again very low at dusk in late Feb., but at 12 magnitude and fading, the comet may not be visible visually.

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