Mercury reaches greatest elongation east on January 31st and is visible as an evening object for observers during the later half of the month. For Northern Hemisphere observers, this is the most favourable evening apparition of the year and therefore the best chance in 2014 to catch a glimpse of this illusive world after sunset. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury is not well placed but observers may still be able to spot the planet extremely low down just after sunset at the end of the month.
From northern temperate latitudes, the planet should be visible above the southwestern horizon from about January 20th until the first week of February. During this time Mercury climbs higher and higher in the evening sky until January 31st, the date of greatest elongation east. On this day, Mercury is positioned 18 degrees east of the Sun. For example from London, England (51.5N), Mercury appears about 10 degrees above the horizon, 45 minutes after sunset and shines at magnitude -0.7. Before this date, Mercury will be brighter and theoretically easier to locate, but on the other hand closer to the horizon. The illuminated phase of Mercury decreases from 90 percent on January 19th to 55 percent on January 31st.
The planet remains visible into the first week of February but more difficult to detect as it fades quickly in brightness.
The long evening apparition of Venus reaches an end at the beginning of January. During the first few days of the month, the planet remains visible as a dazzling beacon low down towards the west-southwestern horizon just after sunset. At magnitude -4.3, it's unmistakable due to its brilliance. It displays a very thin crescent phase of only 3 degrees with a large apparent size of about 60 arc seconds. A few days later on January 11th, this evening apparition draws to a close as Venus reaches inferior conjunction.
However, it's not long before Venus re-appears in the morning sky. From about January 18th, it should be possible to spot the planet in the pre-dawn sky when it appears a few degrees above the horizon just before sunrise. At the end of the month it's much easier to catch Venus when it's higher in the sky with a magnitude of -4.6, apparent size of 51 arc seconds and illuminated phase of 12 percent.
On January 24th, Venus reaches perihelion at 0.718 AU (approx. 107 million km or 66.7 million miles) from the Sun and on January 29th, the waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees south of Venus.
Mars continues to gain in brilliance and apparent size as it heads towards opposition in April. The planet continues direct motion through Virgo, increasing from magnitude +0.8 on January 1st to magnitude +0.3 on January 31st. During this time period, it's apparent size increases from just below 7 arc seconds to nearly 9 arc seconds.
Now rising around midnight, it's possible to start serious telescopic observations of the famous "Red planet". However, the apparent size is small compared to that of Jupiter and Saturn and hence requires good seeing, high magnifications and preferably at least a medium sized (200mm - 8 inch) telescope to make out prominent markings.
On January 3rd, Mars reaches aphelion and is located 1.666 AU (approx. 249.2 million km or 154.9 million miles) from the Sun. Later in the month (Jan. 23rd), the waning gibbous Moon passes 4 degrees south of Mars and five days later on January 28th, Mars passes 5 degrees north of Spica (α Vir - mag +1.0), the brightest star in Virgo.
Jupiter reaches opposition on January 5th and is visible all night, rising in the east when the Sun sets and setting when the Sun rises the following morning. At magnitude -2.7, the largest of all planets in the Solar System is a dazzling sight, dominating the night sky as it moves retrograde amongst the stars of Gemini.
This year at opposition, Jupiter is located 4.21 AU (629.87 million kilometers or 391.38 million miles) from Earth which corresponds to an apparent size of 47 arc seconds. The planets current declination of +23 degrees favours Northern Hemisphere observers where Jupiter appears higher in the night sky with a longer period of visibility. For those at southern latitudes, the planet appears lower down and much closer to the horizon, but still unmistakable due to its brilliance.
A pair of binoculars will reveal the planets disk, appearing creamy off-white in colour although very small. Also visible are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the four large Galilean moons. As they orbit Jupiter they are constantly changing position and sometimes all four are visible, but on other occasions some or all of the satellites will be temporarily obstructed and hidden as they pass behind or in front of Jupiter's disk.
When viewed through a telescope, Jupiter is an awesome sight. A 80mm (3.1 inch) telescope shows the main northern and southern equatorial cloud belts and other finer details along with the Galilean moons. Larger telescopes reveal much more including smaller belts, ovals, festoons, darkenings and of course the famous "Red Spot".
On January 15th, the full Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn is now an early morning object visible towards the east-southeast. It's currently located amongst the stars of mid-Libra. At the beginning of the month Saturn rises about 4 hours before the Sun from northern temperate latitudes and only slightly less from locations further south. By months end the planet rises some 6 hours before the Sun.
Saturn shines at magnitude +0.8 during January with an apparent size of about 16 arc seconds. On January 25th, the last quarter Moon passes 0.6 degrees south of Saturn. An occultation is visible from New Zealand and the southern tip of South America at 13:58 UT.
Uranus is located in Pisces and moving direct just southeast of the "Great Square of Pegasus". The planet is visible during the first half of the night but sets before midnight.
At magnitude +5.9, Uranus is a very easy binocular or small telescope target. Although its relatively easy with high powers to show the disk of Uranus, the apparent size is only 3.5 arc seconds and hence spotting any surface details is difficult even with the largest amateur telescopes.
On January 7th, the first quarter Moon passes 3 degrees north of Uranus.
Neptune, mag. +8.0, is visible as soon as it's dark enough for a short time after sunset during the first part of January. This represents the last chance to catch a glimpse of the most distant planet before it reaches solar conjunction in February. As the month progresses it will become increasing more difficult to spot the dim planet before its lost to the twilight sky.
Neptune is located in Aquarius and positioned almost 3 degrees west of Sigma (σ) Aqr (mag. +4.8) and 3 degrees south of Ancha (θ Aqr - mag. +4.2).
On January 5th, the waxing crescent Moon passes 5 degrees north of Neptune.
Solar System Data Table January 2014
|Date||Right Ascension||Declination||Apparent Magnitude||Apparent Size||Illum. (%)||Distance from Earth (AU)||Constellation|
|Sun||5th Jan 2014||19h 02m 23.2s||-22d 39m 46.9s||-26.8||32.5'||100||0.983||Sagittarius|
|Sun||15th Jan 2014||19h 45m 53.0s||-21d 12m 35.2s||-26.8||32.5'||100||0.984||Sagittarius|
|Sun||25th Jan 2014||20h 28m 17.3s||-19d 04m 48.7s||-26.8||32.5'||100||0.984||Capricornus|
|Mercury||5th Jan 2014||19h 20m 53.0s||-24d 11m 27.5s||-1.2||04.8"||99||1.413||Sagittarius|
|Mercury||15th Jan 2014||20h 31m 29.2s||-20d 58m 45.4s||-1.0||05.1"||94||1.314||Capricornus|
|Mercury||25th Jan 2014||21h 36m 02.4s||-15d 24m 20.5s||-0.9||06.0"||77||1.127||Capricornus|
|Venus||5th Jan 2014||19h 44m 17.5s||-17d 34m 26.8s||-4.7||61.6"||02||0.271||Sagittarius|
|Venus||15th Jan 2014||19h 18m 27.3s||-16d 18m 24.9s||-4.7||62.1"||01||0.269||Sagittarius|
|Venus||25th Jan 2014||18h 59m 11.3s||-15d 48m 08.8s||-4.7||56.6"||07||0.295||Scutum|
|Mars||5th Jan 2014||12h 51m 59.9s||-03d 09m 48.2s||0.8||07.1"||90||1.325||Virgo|
|Mars||15th Jan 2014||13h 07m 12.5s||-04d 37m 07.9s||0.6||07.6"||91||1.225||Virgo|
|Mars||25th Jan 2014||13h 20m 38.5s||-05d 51m 15.1s||0.4||08.3"||91||1.125||Virgo|
|Jupiter||5th Jan 2014||07h 06m 47.6s||22d 41m 02.0s||-2.7||46.8"||100||4.210||Gemini|
|Jupiter||15th Jan 2014||07h 01m 01.8s||22d 51m 10.9s||-2.7||46.6"||100||4.227||Gemini|
|Jupiter||25th Jan 2014||06h 55m 39.7s||22d 59m 55.9s||-2.6||46.1"||100||4.275||Gemini|
|Saturn||5th Jan 2014||15h 14m 43.1s||-15d 46m 32.4s||0.8||15.9"||100||10.429||Libra|
|Saturn||15th Jan 2014||15h 17m 57.5s||-15d 57m 34.5s||0.8||16.2"||100||10.287||Libra|
|Saturn||25th Jan 2014||15h 20m 41.2s||-16d 06m 13.2s||0.8||16.4"||100||10.133||Libra|
|Uranus||5th Jan 2014||00h 32m 26.2s||02d 45m 23.4s||5.8||03.5"||100||20.110||Pisces|
|Uranus||15th Jan 2014||00h 33m 09.5s||02d 50m 26.1s||5.9||03.5"||100||20.279||Pisces|
|Uranus||25th Jan 2014||00h 34m 10.2s||02d 57m 19.0s||5.9||03.4"||100||20.440||Pisces|
|Neptune||5th Jan 2014||22h 21m 17.4s||-10d 58m 46.6s||7.9||02.2"||100||30.618||Aquarius|
|Neptune||15th Jan 2014||22h 22m 24.2s||-10d 52m 20.9s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.738||Aquarius|
|Neptune||25th Jan 2014||22h 23m 38.6s||-10d 45m 12.4s||8.0||02.2"||100||30.836||Aquarius|