Novice observers wishing to see outermost planet Neptune with small telescopes often have difficulty locating it, not because it’s excessively faint — slightly brighter than magnitude +8, so 10×50 binoculars will reveal it under dark, moonless skies — but due to its star-like appearance. Higher magnifications will reveal its pale blue 2.2-arcsecond disc, distinguishing it from background stars of similar brightness. However, a very convenient celestial marker in the form of a close conjunction with planetary sibling Mars makes locating Neptune very easy in a telescope on Monday, 19th January.
Set against the constellation backdrop of Aquarius low to the southwest at the time of their closest approach — which is, of course, a line of sight effect — Mars will be 2.06 astronomical units (191 million miles; 307 million km.) distant and displaying a tiny 4.6-arcsecond gibbous disc, while Neptune is a colossal 30.75 AU (2859 million miles) away!
Observers in the British Isles should have their binoculars or telescopes setup facing an unobscured southwest horizon by 5:30 pm GMT as twilight fades enough for the stars to be visible. As you observe this planetary juxtaposition with an angular separation of just ¼° in the eyepiece, contemplate the contrast in physical makeup of these two worlds — Mars is rocky and more Earth-like though half the size of our planet, while Neptune is gaseous and four times the size of Earth.
For an even greater image contrast, brilliant Venus also passes just ¾° away from Neptune on the evening of February 1st. More on that next month.