This is the winter holiday edition of the Griffith Observatory Sky Report for the two-week period ending Wednesday, January 4, 2012. Here is what’s happening in the skies of Southern California:
Comet Lovejoy, which survived its very close approach to the sun last week, is now a magnificent object at dawn as seen from the south of the equator. Unfortunately, for those of us in Los Angeles, the comet is not visible from the northern hemisphere. We will have to content ourselves with the pictures posted on the Internet from “down under” on Spacweather.com.
The moon is new on Christmas Eve and reaches first quarter phase on New Year’s Eve. It will last be seen in waning crescent phase on the morning of the 23rd, and emerges, waxing, into the evening sky on the 25th.
The planet Venus is impressive in the southwest starting at sunset. Venus sets later each evening, slipping below the southwest horizon at 7:10 p.m. on December 21 and at 7:38 p.m. on January 3. Through a telescope, Venus appears 85-percent illuminated–gibbous in phase–and 13 arcseconds in diameter. The moon is to the lower right of Venus on December 26.
Jupiter, in Pisces the Fishes, is the second brightest planet. It shines high in the southeast during evening twilight. The giant planet appears 45 arcseconds wide through a telescope. The gibbous moon poses above Jupiter on January 2.
Rust-hued Mars is now the brightest object in Leo the Lion and can be found in the east late at night. Mars best placed for observation high in the south at about 5:00 a.m. Through a telescope, the planet appears 9 arcseconds wide, with its north polar cap tilted towards us. Because the Martian day is 37 minutes longer than ours, observing the planet every morning will gradually bring different Martian features into view. On the 24th, Sinus Meridiani will be centered on the disk. On the 31st, Syrtis Major will be facing us.
Planet Saturn appears 10 degrees to the right of Virgo the Maiden’s brightest star, Spica, in the morning sky. Saturn is moderately high in the southeast at dawn. Through a telescope, the north side of its rings appears to be tilted 14 degrees in our direction.
The innermost planet, Mercury, can be found about 10 degrees above the southeast horizon at 6:30 a.m. until about January 1. The moon is 8 degrees to the right of Mercury on Thursday, the 22nd.
Free public viewing of the sun during the day and of the moon, planets and other celestial objects at night, is available in clear weather through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes before 9:45 p.m. Check our website for our holiday schedule. The next public star party of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and the Sidewalk Astronomers is scheduled for Saturday, January 28.
The Sky Report is updated every Wednesday. It can be read-and now heard-on our website by following the Sky Information links. From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.