This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report through January 4th, 2017. Here’s what’s happening in the skies of southern California.
The planet Venus is the brightest celestial object in the sky after the sun and moon, and it can’t be missed after sunset as it blazes from its position high in the southwest sky. The gibbous phase of Venus is now easy to see through nearly any telescope.
The planet Mars appears within the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer, and is the bright orange object that appears to the upper left of Venus. On December 31st, the ghostly blue disk of the distant planet Neptune will appear in the same telescopic field of view with Mars. By 8:00 p.m. on that night, the planets will appear only 5½ arc-minutes from each other, and by the time Mars and Neptune set at Los Angeles, at 9:35 p.m., their separation will have closed to within 3 arc minutes of each other, an angle equal to a tenth the apparent diameter of the moon. Seventy-six minutes later, observers in Hawaii will have the chance to see the appulse–the least separation of these planets–of only 1.2 arc minutes. The moon poses near Venus and Mars between January 1st and 3rd.
Planet Jupiter, the second brightest planet, is in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. Jupiter is highest in the sky at the start of dawn, when it is 49 degrees above the southern horizon. The waning crescent moon is close to Virgo’s bright star, Spica, and Jupiter on the morning of December 23rd.
After being hidden in the glare of the sun since late November, the ringed planet Saturn first becomes visible in the morning sky on January 1st, when it is five degrees high at 5:30 a.m., the start of civil twilight. It will gradually become easier to see on subsequent mornings.
The Quadrantid meteor shower reaches its peak in moon-free conditions, between 11 p.m. on January 2nd, and dawn, at 5:30 a.m., on the 3rd. The shower is named for the location of its radiant, the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant. This is now within the modern borders of Boötes the Herdsman, near the handle of the Big Dipper, and is high in the northeast sky before dawn. The shower is expected to be the strongest of the year. Up to 70 mostly faint meteors may be seen under ideal, dark observing conditions. The West Coast is the favored region for observing the shower’s brief maximum, which peaks at dawn.
The moon is waning crescent in the morning sky through December 27th. New moon is on the 28th. The waxing crescent moon is visible in the evening sky starting on December 30th.
The international agencies that deal with time keeping have decided to end the year with a leap second. This means that the last minute of December 31st, Universal Time, will be 61 seconds long instead of 60 seconds long. In the Pacific Standard Time zone, the leap second will occur on the 31st between 3:59 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.. You can then count the seconds as an audio tick on shortwave time station WWV, or see it displayed on the National Institute of Standards and Technology website www.time.gov. Occasional leap seconds are needed to keep time as reckoned by the sky in alignment with the unwavering precision of atomic clocks.
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 free 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, January 7th.
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From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org