This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report through February 3rd, 2016. Here’s what’s happening in the skies of southern California.
The rising time of the waning moon advances from 9:02 p.m. on January 27th to 2:24 a.m. on February 3rd. The phase of the moon through this period is gibbous through the 30th, last quarter on the 31st, then crescent. The next new moon is on February 8th.
All five bright planets are visible together in a rare group appearance before dawn. They become visible, one by one, when they rise into the eastern sky and move slowly in an arc westward, starting with Jupiter, the second brightest planet, by 8:50 p.m., Mars at 1:00 a.m., Saturn at 3:15 a.m., Venus at 5:00 a.m., and Mercury, about 30 minutes later.
Because Mercury rises at the same time that dawn starts, the best time to see it is when it is high enough so as not to be dimmed by our atmosphere and before the brightening light of dawn overwhelms it. This “window of opportunity” to see Mercury happens between 6:00 and 6:20 a.m., and is also the best time to see all five bright planets. Mercury will be above the east-southeast horizon, and will be less than ten degrees–the angle equivalent to how large your clenched fist looks when held at arm’s length–to the lower left of the brightest planet, Venus. Golden Saturn, in the constellation Ophiuchus the Snake Handler, is located to the upper right of Venus. Farther to the upper right from Saturn and in the southern sky, is orange Mars, in Virgo the Maiden. Along the same line and high in the southwest is Jupiter, in the constellation Leo the Lion. You can also see a bright, blue-white star midway between Mars and Jupiter. This is Spica, the brightest star of Virgo.
The moon will move along this line of planets, starting near Jupiter on January 27th and 28th. It appears close to the star Spica on January 30th before passing Mars on the 31st and February 1st, then appears above Saturn on the 3rd. The climax of the moon’s passage along the line of planets will happen when it poses next to Mercury and Venus on February 6th. This event will be described in more detail in the next Sky Report. More information about the line-up of bright planets is available on our special webpage.
The International Space Station will outshine all visible celestial objects, reaching magnitude -3.0, when it passes 286 miles from Griffith Observatory on the evening of February 1st. From the Los Angeles area, look for the ISS as it becomes visible above the west-southwest horizon at about 6:33 p.m. The ISS is highest in the sky three minutes later, at 6:36 p.m., when it appears 60 degrees high in the northwest. You can follow the satellite for nearly another two minutes until it rapidly fades from view as it reaches the earth’s shadow, 26 degrees high in the north-northeast.
Free views of the sun during the day and of the moon, planets, and other celestial objects at night are available to the public in clear weather through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes from Tuesday through Sunday before 9:30 p.m. Check our website for the schedule. The next public star party on the grounds of Griffith Observatory, hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, the Sidewalk Astronomers, and the Planetary Society, will take place on Saturday, February 13th.
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From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org