It currently pays to be an early riser if you wish to view the planets, for it’s all happening at dawn in the skies of Western Europe. Observers in the UK wishing to get the best views should find a location that offers an unobstructed southeasterly aspect where, if you are blessed with clear skies between 7am GMT and sunrise, you could see Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in addition to a waning Moon.
Jupiter is the bright magnitude -1.8 ‘star’ in the constellation of Libra currently visible in the south-southeast around 7am GMT. Look carefully at the Solar System’s largest planet over the next few mornings and you’ll notice another celestial body closing in on it: Mars. At magnitude +1.4, the Red Planet is presently nineteen times fainter than Jupiter.
Mars passes just 12 arcminutes (that’s one-fifth of a degree, or 40 percent of the full Moon’s diameter) south of its larger planetary sibling in the small hours of Sunday, 7 January. By civil dawn in the British Isles that day the gap between the pair will have widened to 14½ arcminutes, or slightly less than half the apparent size of the full Moon. Don’t miss Jupiter and Mars in the same telescope field of view at magnifications up to about 175x!
While the gap between Mars and Jupiter widens after 7 January, keep your eye on the waning lunar crescent. The 24-day-old Moon joins the planetary pair for a glorious conjunction in the southern sky on Thursday, 11 January. The conjunction is so close that owners of binoculars magnifying up to 10x will have no difficulty seeing the trio in the same field of view, but it will still look fabulous with the naked eye.