Sky Watch

Venus Ready to Play Peekaboo

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 30, 2005; Page B08

Venus is the comeback planet of the new year. In January's sky, it suddenly falls, then rapidly rises.

"Now you see it. Now you don't. Now you see it again," said Geoff Chester, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

As the sun sets in early January, Venus can be seen in the west-southwestern sky. In fact, on Jan. 1, Venus is easily seen near the thin, new crescent moon , which is to the south of the bright planet. Over the next several days, Venus slowly sinks toward the sun and gets lower on the horizon.

In the middle of the month, Venus has all but vanished, obscured by the sun's glare. However, sky gazers are in luck, thanks to celestial mechanics: The planet hides in the sun's glare for a few days, then returns to morning glory in the eastern sky.

By Jan. 20, look to the east when Venus begins rising about 6:20 a.m., approximately 50 minutes before sunrise. At month's end, the effervescent Venus rises around 5:20 a.m., and the sun rises two hours later.

When it is visible to watchers of the evening and morning skies, Venus is a negative fourth-magnitude object -- more than bright enough to see from anywhere in the metropolitan area.

Mars is still an impressive sight. After dark, find the reddish planet (zero magnitude, bright) in the east-southeastern sky. Late in the evenings, find it in the southern and then western heavens. Our neighboring planet sets in the west-northwest after 3 a.m. now, and at the end of January it sets after 2 a.m.

Saturn -- with impressive rings as viewed through a telescope -- now rises in the east-northeast after 7 p.m. By late January, Saturn (zero magnitude, bright) rises in the eastern sky at dark and is visible all night in the constellation Cancer .

Jupiter is now a morning object as it hangs out in the southeastern sky. As the month progresses, this gassy planet becomes a negative second-magnitude (very bright) object and is higher in the south-southeastern sky in the hours before dawn.

The year 2005 has become a little longer. On New Year's Eve, a leap second will be added to the world's clocks. Here in Washington, the official second will be added by the U.S. Naval Observatory at 6:59:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It is the first leap second added in seven years and the 23rd leap second added since 1972.

Down-to-Earth Events

Jan. 5 -- Astronomer Elizabeth Warner previews the top cosmic events for 2006 at the University of Maryland Observatory astronomy open house, College Park. After the lecture, view the heavens, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; .

Jan. 7 -- Joel Tohline, a Louisiana State University professor, explains "Contact Binary White Dwarfs Exchanging Matter" at a special meeting of the National Capital Astronomers at the University of Maryland Observatory on Metzerott Road, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information: .

Jan. 14 -- Astronomer Harold Williams discusses news from the latest American Astronomical Society convention at the regular meeting of the National Capital Astronomers, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information: .

Jan. 20 -- Astronomer Rachel Kuzio de Naray explains "The Observing Process" at the University of Maryland Observatory astronomy open house, College Park. Check the cosmos afterward with a telescope, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; .

Jan. 26 -- Is the universe in motion and picking up speed? Alan Guth, physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains "Cosmic Inflation and the Accelerating Universe" at the Carnegie Institution auditorium, 1530 P St. NW, 6:45 p.m. Information: .

Jan. 28 -- Family Day at the National Air and Space Museum celebrates "Milestones of Flight: Apollo 11." Touch a moon rock and find out how Apollo 11 carried it back to Earth. Learn how the astronauts from the Apollo missions lived and played in space. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Information: .

Jan. 28 -- Forget celebrities, think thermonuclear fusion. Find out about heavenly nurseries in "How are Stars Born?" at the Montgomery College Planetarium, Takoma Park. Parking is available in the faculty lot. 7 p.m. Information: 301-650-1463; .

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at