Start Your Day With Mercury

Now’s a great time to see the planet Mercury (lower left) at dawn. This photo, which also includes Saturn, was taken on Jan. 15 about an hour before sunrise. Credit: Bob King

These late sunrises make for fun surprises. The other morning I got up around 6:30 to look for the planet Mercury, now making a pleasing appearance in the southeastern sky at dawn. After a short drive to a location with a wide open horizon facing that direction, I watched the little planet climb above a line of distant trees not far from Saturn. It was 6:45. I arrived back home shortly after 7, and it hit me, that’s the time I normally get up, walk the dog and eat breakfast.

Here’s the current lineup of morning planets shown for Thursday Jan. 19 about an hour before sunrise. The half moon will gather with Jupiter and Spica in the south-southwestern sky that morning. Stellarium

The take-away? I had a fun morning of planet watching and lost next to no sleep! You can only do this in winter, and January is the best month because the sun rises later now than at any other time of year. In spring and summer, morning skywatching entails getting up at 3 for a slice of dark sky followed by a fitful sleep before arising again for school or work. But in mid-winter, the sun doesn’t come up till 7:30 from many locations.

I encourage you to take advantage of January’s generosity. Even as I write this, the sun has “reversed course” and is beginning to rise a bit earlier each morning. Besides the three planets themselves, the waning moon spices things up when it pairs up with each in attractive conjunctions in the coming week.

On Thursday morning, as you’re getting ready for work, duck outside to see the last quarter moon poised above Jupiter and Spica. The neat triangle they make looks flat but varies in “depth” from 248,584 miles for the moon to Jupiter’s 488.3 million miles out to Spica’s 1.56 quadrillion miles. Knowing the distances, try to mentally impose a third dimension an the scene that morning.

The waning crescent moon visits Saturn and Mercury en route to new moon next week. Stellarium

Then on the 24th, the thinning lunar crescent glides north of Saturn, followed on the 25th by a scenic pairing with Mercury. Saturn gradually pulls away from the sun and rises higher and higher into darker skies, while Mercury is currently at greatest elongation west of the sun. That means its apparent distance from the sun is at maximum, making now the best time to see the planet. As seen from Earth, Mercury rubber-bands back and forth from evening to morning sky and back again like a ball on a ping-pong paddle. We typically get a couple of weeks centered on greatest elongation to view the planet at its best.

Besides the planets and ever watchworthy moon, there’s a possibility for northern lights tomorrow night (Weds. Jan. 18) from nightfall till about 9 p.m. Central time for observers living in the northern U.S. , Canada and northern Europe. A high speed stream of protons and electrons pouring from a coronal hole on the sun are on their way and may tunnel into our magnetosphere, the giant, teardrop-shaped magnetic domain surrounding  our planet. Keep an eye on the northern sky that night.