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Catch the Planets in the Nighttime Sky Before They Leave the Stage

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Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

If you’ve had a few minutes and looked to the southwest over the last few months, maybe you’ve noticed and stared at the long line of bright planets that have stretched across that part of the sky since the summer and fall.

There’s some uncertainty, but it’s thought that our word planet came to us from the Greek word planetes, a reference to how these few objects appeared to wander among the other stars. Other than their strange movement, the ancients had no way of knowing that these wanderers were anything different than the other lights in the night, let alone other nearby worlds orbiting the sun.

As with most things, these wandering planets come and go. After all these months with us, it’s time for our neighbors to leave the night sky. This gives us another chance to see them the way the ancients did. It’s tough to be together these days, but we can still enjoy the nights and draw a line back through time all the way to when the first people looked up and wondered.

So, let’s head out after sundown. As this year turns into next, we can watch the bright planets sink lower into the dusk than the night before. This is both because our view on them is changing, but also because our daylight hours are starting to stretch out, little by little, now that we’re past the winter solstice.

The phases of the moon chart for January.

First leaving the stage is Venus. As the year starts, our solar system’s second planet will move too close to the sun and be tough to spot. On Jan. 9, it crosses into the morning sky, where it will join Mars, which has been waiting there for the last few months. Venus won’t be back into the evenings until next December.

Speedy Mercury rises higher into the night for a few days at the start of the year. Mercury is always a fun challenge because it moves fast and never gets very far from the sun in our sky. It’ll be alongside Saturn, which will look dusty and stubborn through the twilight. While we’re here, let’s try to catch the beautiful sight of a young crescent moon as it sweeps through from Jan. 4-6.

Mercury drops from the evenings until April on the 23rd. Saturn follows behind it and slips out of the nights around the 31st.

By the end of the month, Jupiter is the only planet left in our nights. It follows the others and leaves the evenings by mid-February. With a snap, we’re without any planets in the night sky until the warm months return, other than Mercury’s brief April visit.

It’s always a bit sad when the planets leave the night, but it’s amazing to see them parade away. These times let us watch the solar system do its thing, just like people have for millennia, and hopefully will for millennia more. If there’s one thing we can be sure about, it’s that the planets will be back soon.

Thanks for reading this year, and thanks to my friend Bob Kelly for his help with the dates in this article. Be safe, be well and happy new year!

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org.

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