Our Friendly Skies

January 01, 2009|By ROD MARTIN / Brish Planetarium and ANDY SMETZER / Tristate Astronomers

Visible evening planets

Venus is very bright in the west.

Jupiter is very low in the southwest early in the month.

Mercury is visible low in the southwest early in the month.

Visible morning planets

Saturn rises in mid-evening and is high at sunrise.

For more information about the visible evening planets and nighttime sky, download the planetarium's podcast "Skylights" from

Solar system

So long, it's been good to know 'ya, seems an appropriate saying for the planets and their visiblilties this month. Jupiter and Mercury disappear after short appearances, Mars never does show up, and Saturn loses its rings, visually that is.

At magnitude -4.3, Venus is by far the brightest nighttime object except the moon. It reaches its greatest elongation from the sun on Jan. 14. That is when it appears to be farthest from our star. This entire month Venus will shine like a bright beacon in the southwestern sky.


Jupiter says adieu as it sinks into the evening twilight. It is visible low early this month, but reaches conjunction on Jan. 24 when it aligns with the sun. It will re-emerge into the morning sky later this winter.

On the other hand, the very elusive Mercury should be visible early in the month. On Jan. 4, Mercury reaches greatest elongation and is within a degree and a half of Jupiter in the evening twilight. It will pull away from Jupiter for a few days before disappearing by mid-month. It reaches inferior conjunction on Jan. 20.

Saturn rises around 10:30 p.m. early in January and by 8:30 late in the month. It is in the constellation Leo the Lion all year. It is high in the south as morning twilight begins. The rings are now tilted less open than over the past year because of our viewing angles, so it will not appear as bright in the sky. The rings will appear thinner through small telescopes this year than anytime for 15 years.

Mars is too close to the sun to see this month.

Uranus offers a good opportunity on Jan. 23, when it appears a little more than a degree south of Venus. Use binoculars to see the faint "star" just below the brilliant Venus. That's Uranus that night.

Sun and moon

According to Kepler's Second Law, the orbits of objects are ellipses. That means that at times an orbiting object is closer, and thereby moving faster, and at other times farther away, and moving slower. The Earth reaches its perihelion, or closest point, on Jan. 4 at about 91,400,000 miles. In July, Earth will actually be 3.1 million miles farther from the sun. It seems strange that Earth is closer to the sun during the winter, but seasonal changes are caused by the tilt of Earth, not its distance from the sun. A good thing is that since we are now closer to the sun, Earth moves faster so winter is actually shorter.

On Jan. 1, the sun rises at 7:32 a.m. and sets at 4:58 p.m., for nine hours and 26 minutes of daylight.  By Jan. 31, the sun rises at 7:19 a.m. and sets at 5:30 p.m., for 10 hours and 11 minutes of daylight.

The sun enters the astronomic boundaries of Capricornus from Sagittarius on Jan. 19.

The moon reaches first quarter on Jan. 4, full on Jan. 11, last quarter on Jan. 17, and new on Jan. 26. There will be an annular solar eclipse on Jan. 26, but you will need to be near the Indian Ocean to see it.

Brish Planetarium/Tristate Astronomers

Since this is the 40th anniversary year of the planetarium, many good previous programs will be shown this year. Except for January and February, programs will be changed monthly.

The public program is "The Stargazer." The program will be presented from Jan. 6 through Feb. 24.

"The Stargazer" takes us on a journey to the stars and through the universe through the eyes of the noted astronomer educator Jim Kaler. Dr. Kaler's portion is taped and not live, but included in the program is a live tour of the night sky presented by Rod Martin, planetarium director.

Programs are held Tuesday evenings at 7 when schools are in session, unless noted otherwise. Admission costs $3 for adults, $2 for children and students, and senior citizens with a WCPS gold card are admitted free.

The Tristate Astronomers meet monthly in the planetarium. For more information about schedules and special events for the club, go to

The planetarium is at the Central Offices of the Washington County Public Schools on Commonwealth Avenue off Frederick Street in Hagerstown.

The planetarium's Web site is and the phone number is 301-766-2898.

Stay up to date with public programs and take a tour of the night sky with "Skylights," the Brish Planetarium's monthly podcasts on and "Skylights" are made possible by Antietam Cable Television, The Herald-Mail Co., and the Washington County Public Schools Public Information Office.

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