Sky Watch

Venus Returns at Dusk

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 1, 2007; B06

The planetary cast assembles on January's stage, and the opening scene for 2007 marks the return of the evening star.

Magnificent Venus, a solar system scene-stealer by anyone's judgment, is found in the west-southwestern sky at dusk. It beams brilliantly at a strong negative 3 magnitude, bright enough to be seen from the well-lit urban areas of the District.

This effervescent planet, the brightest sky object aside from the sun and the moon, resides in the constellation Aquarius. The sun and Venus start the month about 10 degrees apart. By the end of January, Venus and the sun are about 16 degrees apart; this means we'll be able to see Venus longer in the evening heavens.

Near Venus, later in January, the fleet Mercury will make an appearance. Now it hides in the sun's glare. The shy planet emerges late in the month, and it can be seen above the west-southwest horizon at dusk.

Large and gaseous, the ringed-planet Saturn sits above the front legs of the constellation Leo (the lion) in the east-northeastern sky. It ascends the heavens about 8:30 p.m., and this planet is visible at zero magnitude (easily seen from the city). Late in the evening, Saturn should be easy to spot high in the east. In late January, the ringed planet rises at the dinner hour, making it even easier for observers to find.

In the morning, we'll find Jupiter. The gaseous king climbs the east-southeastern sky starting about 5 a.m. and rises until the sunrise washes it out. Jupiter can be seen at a strong first magnitude, and now it is above and slightly to the east of the bright star Antares. On Jan. 15, the sliver of a waning moon snuggles near Antares (which has a reddish tint) and Jupiter. Keep watching, and on that same morning you'll see a dim Mars rise and hug the southeastern horizon. Our neighboring red planet is trying to make a comeback.

And although it feels like winter, the Earth reaches its closest point -- in its orbit -- to the sun at 3 p.m. Jan. 3, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Down-to-Earth Events

Friday -- Astronomer Greg Piepol discusses "The Amazing Sun" at the University of Maryland's observatory open house in College Park. After the lecture, participants can scan the sky through a telescope, weather permitting. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555 or http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Jan. 13 -- Jeffrey Plescia of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab discusses the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater at the National Capital Astronomers meeting at the University of Maryland observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. http://www.capitalastronomers.org.

Jan. 20 -- Rachel Osten, who uses radio telescopes to study the violent world of M-dwarf stars, gives a public lecture at the University of Maryland's observatory open house in College Park. Participants can view the heavens through a telescope, weather permitting. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555 or http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Jan . 25 -- Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars rover mission, gives the lecture "Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet." At the auditorium, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1530 P St. NW. 6:45 p.m. 202-328-6988 or http://www.carnegieinstitution.org.

Jan. 27 -- The planetarium program "How are Stars Born?" at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park. 7 p.m. http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at postskywatch@aol.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company