This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report through February 1st, 2017. Here’s what’s happening in the skies of southern California.
The planet Venus blazes high in the southwest sky after sunset. Venus displays a crescent phase that can be seen with the aid of nearly any telescope, and the planet is one of the objects featured through Griffith Observatory’s public telescopes.
The orange-hued planet Mars is visible to the upper left of Venus where it can be seen easily starting 30 minutes after sunset. Venus sets in the west at 9:01 p.m., and Mars follows, setting about 25 minutes later.
As the evening sky darkens, a bright star in the southeast may grab your attention as it twinkles and flashes different colors. This star is Sirius of the constellation Canis Major the Large Dog, and it is the brightest nighttime star. The twinkling and colors are effects caused because our turbulent atmosphere distorts the otherwise steady light of Sirius before it reaches our eyes. Sirius appears bright compared to other stars, in part, because it produces 25 times the amount of light as our sun. The main reason is because it is fairly close to us, about 8.6 light years away. The only star system outside of our solar system that is closer and that can be seen by the unaided eye is Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away, but it is too far south to be seen from the latitude of Los Angeles.
Earth’s revolution around the sun causes the stars of the night sky to shift westward at the rate of about one degree per night which is equivalent to about 4 minutes. As a result, at Los Angeles, Sirius crosses the meridian in the south at 10:16 p.m. on Wednesday the 25th, and at 9:48 p.m. a week later.
The planet Jupiter is noticeably fainter than Venus but is slightly brighter than Sirius, and can first be seen in the east at about 11:15 p.m. Jupiter appears above the constellation Virgo the Maiden’s brightest star, Spica. Use a telescope to see Jupiter’s banded cloud structure and the planet’s four largest moons.
Jupiter is high in the southern sky at 6:00 a.m., which is also the best time to see the planets Saturn and Mercury against the dawn. Together with the bright red star Antares of Scorpius the Scorpion, the objects make a line that can be traced from upper right to just above the horizon at lower left in the order Antares, Saturn, and Mercury.
The moon is new on Friday, January 27, making this a good weekend to escape the city lights and to view the night sky from a wilderness dark sky location. The moon is visible in waning crescent phase before sunrise until the 26th, when it appears to the lower left of Mercury. The moon will appear in the evening sky as waxing crescent starting on Sunday the 28th.
The International Space Station should be spectacular from Los Angeles on Saturday evening, January 28th. The brilliance of the space station will rival that of Venus as the ISS crosses the sky from the southwest to the northeast between 6:03 and 6:09 p.m. The orbiting laboratory and home to an international crew of six astronauts will be 71 degrees above the southeast horizon at 6:06 p.m.
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, February 4th.
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From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.