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Mercury

Mercury the nearest planet to the Sun is visible as both an evening and morning object during January. The small elusive planet can be seen for the first few days of the month low down above the southwestern horizon after sunset (mag. -0.3). During this time it's slightly easier to spot Mercury from tropical and southern locations. However it doesn't take long before the fading planet draws into the Sun and is lost to the bright twilight glare.

On January 14th, Mercury passes through inferior conjunction. Subsequently it re-appears in the morning sky and may be seen towards month's end low down above the ESE horizon, 45 minutes before sunrise (mag. +0.0). Much brighter Venus (mag. -3.9) is positioned 7 degrees west of Mercury.

Venus

Venus is now fading in brightness but continues to be visible as a brilliant morning object before sunrise towards the southeast (Northern Hemisphere) / east-southeast (Southern Hemisphere). The planet starts the month at magnitude -4.1, ending it at magnitude -3.9. Although now limbering towards the lower end of its brightness range it remains unmistakable, a dazzling beacon of light hovering above the horizon.

At the start of January, Venus rises up to 3 hours before the Sun although from northern temperate latitudes the visibility period shortens considerably as the month progresses. By the end of January it reduces to just over an hour. From Southern Hemisphere and equatorial regions it still rises up to 2.5 hours before the Sun at months end.

On January 6th, Venus passes 6 degrees north of red supergiant Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0). The following day the thin 10% illuminated waning crescent Moon forms a nice pairing with Venus. Finally on January 9th, Venus makes a close pass north of Saturn (mag. +0.6). The minimum separation of 5 arc minutes is equivalent to only 1/6 the apparent diameter of the Moon. Venus acts as a useful guide in locating the much more distant and fainter Saturn.

The phase of Venus increases from 77 to 85% as the month progresses.

Venus, Saturn and the Moon - 1 hour before sunrise on January 7th as seen from mid Northern latitudes (credit:- Stellarium)

Venus and Saturn during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Venus and Saturn during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Earth

Earth reaches perihelion or closest point to the Sun on January 2nd at a distance of 147.1 million kilometres (91.4 million miles).

Mars

Mars begins the New Year in Virgo as a mag. +1.2 morning object rising between 2am and 3am local time from northern temperate latitudes but rather earlier from locations further south. As the month progresses the planet brightens to mag. +0.8 with its apparent size increasing from 5.6 to 6.8 arc seconds.

This year promises to be a great year for "Red planet" watchers with the highlight occurring on May 22nd when opposition is reached. On this day Mars will shine at magnitude -2.1 and therefore easily brighter than all of the night time stars. Its apparent size will be a healthy 18 arc seconds. In addition there is no hiding of Mars this year, for the whole of 2016 it will be at some time of the night always visible.

The waning crescent Moon passes 1.5 degrees south of Mars on January 3rd.

Mars during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Mars during January 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Jupiter

Jupiter is located in Leo and continues to increase in brightness and apparent size as it heads towards opposition in March. The Solar System's largest and dominant planet is a brilliant morning object that rises before midnight at the start of January, improving by a couple of hours by months end.

Binoculars will reveal the off white or creamy coloured disk of Jupiter but without detail. Also visible are the four large Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). They continuously change position as they orbit the planet. Sometimes all four are visible at once but on occasions some satellites will be hidden from view as they pass in front of or behind the giant planet's disk.

Jupiter and Ganymede as seen by Hubble Space Telescope on April 9, 2007 (credit:- NASA/ESA)

This month Jupiter brightens from magnitude -2.2 to -2.4 and it's apparent size increases from 39 to 42 arc seconds. On January 8th, it reaches its first stationary point which signals the start of the 2016 opposition period. Afterwards the planet commences retrograde motion.

The waning gibbous Moon passes 1.4 degrees south of Jupiter on January 28th.

Jupiter as seen during the early hours of the morning from Northern temperate latitudes on January 28th, 2016 (credit:- Stellarium)

Jupiter during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Jupiter during January 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Saturn

Saturn, mag. +0.6, is now an early morning object moving direct amongst the stars of Ophiuchus. With a declination of 20 degrees south the beautiful ringed planet is currently better seen from southern and tropical latitudes where it rises 2 hours before the Sun at the start of the month. The visibility period increases as January progresses with the planet visible a couple of hours after midnight by months end. For northern temperate based observers the visibility of Saturn is not quite as good.

Through a telescope Saturn's most famous feature are of course its spectacular rings and even a small telescope will show them. They are currently displayed wide open with a 26 degree tilt. In addition small scopes will also show the brightest Moons including Titan, Rhea, Tethys and Dione.

The thin waning crescent Moon passes 3 degrees north of Saturn on January 7th. As previously noted on January 9th brilliant Venus (mag. -4.0) moves just 5 arc minutes north of Saturn.

Uranus

Uranus is moving direct in Pisces southeast of the "Great Square of Pegasus" and 2 degrees south of mag. +4.3 star epsilon (ε) Psc. The distant cold ice giant is visible during the first half of the night, now setting around midnight. At magnitude +5.9 it can just be seen with the naked eye but dark Moonless skies away from light pollution are required. For most observers this is seldom the case and binoculars or a small telescope are needed to spot the seventh planet from the Sun.

Any quality made telescope at high powers will show the disk of Uranus, which appears green in colour and has an diameter of 3.5 arc seconds. The small apparent size means spotting any surface details is difficult even with the largest of amateur scopes.

On January 16th, the first quarter Moon passes 1.5 degrees north of Uranus.

Uranus during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Uranus during January 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Neptune

Neptune, mag. +8.0, is an early evening object located in Aquarius that's visible above the western horizon for a short time as soon as it's dark enough. As January progresses Neptune will become more difficult to spot as it battles against the bright twilight sky. This month also offers the last realistic chance to catch a glimpse of the most distant planet in the Solar System before it reaches solar conjunction next month.

Neptune is positioned 30 degrees southwest of the "Great Square of Pegasus" and two degrees northeast of sigma Aqr (σ Aqr - mag. +4.8). The planet varies little in brightness from our perspective and even at opposition it's not bright enough to be seen with the naked eye but can be spotted with binoculars and small scopes.

The waxing crescent Moon passes 2 degrees north of Neptune on January 13th.

Neptune during January 2016 (credit:- freestarcharts)

Neptune during January 2016 - pdf format (credit:- freestarcharts)

Solar System Data Table January 2016

 DateRight AscensionDeclinationApparent MagnitudeApparent SizeIllum. (%)Distance from Earth (AU)Constellation
Sun5th Jan 201619h 00m 07.8s-22d 43m 04.0s-26.832.5'1000.983Sagittarius
Sun15th Jan 201619h 43m 41.5s-21d 18m 01.8s-26.832.5'1000.984Sagittarius
Sun25th Jan 201620h 26m 09.7s-19d 12m 12.3s-26.832.5'1000.984Capricornus
Mercury5th Jan 201620h 11m 47.9s-19d 43m 10.3s0.208.2"300.818Capricornus
Mercury15th Jan 201619h 37m 24.3s-18d 24m 27.3s5.210.1"010.667Sagittarius
Mercury25th Jan 201619h 02m 39.3s-19d 39m 53.6s0.608.8"280.761Sagittarius
Venus5th Jan 201616h 20m 46.0s-19d 35m 05.6s-4.014.0"781.191Scorpius
Venus15th Jan 201617h 12m 19.1s-21d 29m 39.3s-4.013.3"811.252Ophiuchus
Venus25th Jan 201618h 05m 08.3s-22d 24m 07.3s-4.012.7"841.310Sagittarius
Mars5th Jan 201613h 55m 51.9s-10d 15m 28.1s1.205.7"911.645Virgo
Mars15th Jan 201614h 16m 38.5s-12d 05m 49.3s1.106.1"911.545Virgo
Mars25th Jan 201614h 36m 59.1s-13d 46m 41.3s0.906.5"901.444Libra
Jupiter5th Jan 201611h 36m 16.2s03d 56m 10.3s-2.239.5"994.988Leo
Jupiter15th Jan 201611h 36m 07.4s04d 00m 09.6s-2.340.7"994.845Leo
Jupiter25th Jan 201611h 34m 47.9s04d 11m 37.3s-2.341.8"1004.716Leo
Saturn5th Jan 201616h 40m 11.4s-20d 31m 21.8s0.615.4"10010.826Ophiuchus
Saturn15th Jan 201616h 44m 31.7s-20d 39m 04.6s0.615.5"10010.726Ophiuchus
Saturn25th Jan 201616h 48m 29.9s-20d 45m 30.9s0.615.7"10010.605Ophiuchus
Uranus5th Jan 201601h 01m 20.0s05d 51m 18.2s5.803.5"10019.907Pisces
Uranus15th Jan 201601h 01m 48.1s05d 54m 36.5s5.803.5"10020.079Pisces
Uranus25th Jan 201601h 02m 34.8s05d 59m 49.2s5.903.5"10020.247Pisces
Neptune5th Jan 201622h 37m 40.4s-09d 31m 12.3s7.902.2"10030.533Aquarius
Neptune15th Jan 201622h 38m 42.3s-09d 24m 57.9s8.002.2"10030.663Aquarius
Neptune25th Jan 201622h 39m 52.5s-09d 17m 54.9s8.002.2"10030.772Aquarius