by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — This week, after long nights observing Jupiter and Saturn in our skies, both of the gas giants lie on the far side of the sun. Their orbits will now take them behind the sun, and out of the night skies.
Saturn has already been lost to the glare, and Jupiter will soon follow.
Mercury is rising higher into the evening sky for a time, but in its short orbit, will begin to descend again as it comes closer to Earth in its inside orbit.
Mars is falling behind Earth as well, setting earlier every night, and will soon be setting shortly after midnight. When Mars sets, there are no visible planets in our skies to view until the rise of Venus in the early morning hours.
Venus is now outracing us around the far side of the sun, growing more distant, and sinking lower in the morning sky, rising later each day.
So with the earlier setting of Mars, and the later rise of Venus, there is an increasingly long time during our nights when no planet is visible in our sky.
This week, the planetless duration will be about five hours and twenty four minutes, between when Mars sets just after midnight, and when Venus rises just before dawn.
Even more distant Uranus is in on the plans, as it lies close to Mars this week, and will set mere minutes after the red planet. Uranus may be viewed in binoculars, if you focus in on Mars this week, and look for the faint, tiny blue dot of the distant ice giant, down and to left of Mars.
Next week, we will go about a dozen minutes longer without a planet in our skies, and as Venus is soon lost to the glare of the early morning sun, there will be no morning planets, until Saturn begins to emerge in the morning on its distant journey around the far side of the solar system, followed by more brilliant Jupiter.
With no readily visible planets in our morning skies, we will go about eighteen hours without a planet, until Jupiter begins to emerge from the morning glow.
Our Perseverance spacecraft comes ever closer to Mars, closing in for a landing on the red planet. A month from now, it will be preparing to land, after traveling more than six months to reach Mars, with a scheduled landing date of February 18. It has already traveled 255,525,552 miles on its epic journey of over 300 million miles to reach Mars.
But for our views of the planets, you better catch them while you can. Soon, all but Mars will essentially be lost to the glare of the sun, for a time, being difficult or impossible to view from Earth.
With our dark skies here, they only need to be clear, so keep your eyes on the skies from sunset to sunrise.
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Astronomical Times and distances of naked-eye objects for this weekend:
Sun Set = 5:05 p.m.
7 minutes later than last week
91.446 million miles from Earth
33,240 miles further than last week
Saturn Set = 5:34 p.m.
24 minutes earlier than last week
1.018 billion miles from Earth or
1,018.943 million miles from Earth
1,754,816 miles further than last week
Jupiter Set = 5:49 p.m.
20 minutes earlier than last week
563.158 million miles from Earth
2,001,708 miles further than last week
Mercury Set = 6:23 p.m.
30 minutes later than last week
106.538 million miles from Earth
12,450,872 miles nearer than last week
Moon Set = 8:55 p.m.
1 hour 3 minutes later than last night
243,690 miles from Earth
15,163 miles further than last week
3,061 miles further than last night
Mars Set = 1:08 a.m.
10 minutes earlier than last week
97.842 million miles from Earth
6,151,145 miles further than last week
Venus Rise = 6:12 a.m.
10 minutes later than last week
150.006 million miles from Earth
1,996,746 miles further than last week
Sun Rise = 7:12 a.m.
2 minutes earlier than last week
91.449 million miles from Earth
34,458 miles further than last week
3,039 miles further than last night
We’ve gained 10 minutes of daylight since last week. Our nearest planetary neighbor currently is Mars. First Quarter moon occurs on Wednesday, January 20th, at 2:01 p.m.
Spot The International Space Station! This week’s best opportunity for viewing is Tuesday, January 19th at 5:35 p.m. First appearing from the South-Southwest for a total of 6 minutes.
Note: Times are local Mountain Time. Actual sundown is about a dozen minutes earlier than calculated sunset. Along the front range, differing times vary depending on your distance from the mountains.
William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.