Our transition weeks from 2013 to 2014 are filled with amazingly brilliant evenings.
We get to see special appearances of Venus, Jupiter, the moon and the International Space Station. Those major lights are accompanied by the brightest stars and constellations of any season.
Venus leaving, Jupiter arriving. Venus, the brightest planet, is making a spectacular exit from the evening sky.
Each night, Venus will set a bit sooner after the sun. It sets around 6:45 p.m. today, 6:15 p.m. Monday and 5:40 p.m. by Jan. 6.
Meanwhile, Jupiter, the second-brightest planet, arrives to rise each night in the east-northeast sooner after sunset: 5:40 p.m. today and 5:05 p.m. (rather bright evening twilight) Monday.
Venus starts appearing dimmer these next few weeks for two reasons: 1) It appears deeper in the sun’s bright afterglow; 2) As it approaches our line of sight with the sun, less of its sunlit side is visible to us. But this second factor is what makes Venus spectacular in telescopes soon after sunset: The planet displays an ever-thinner but ever-longer crescent phase.
This crescent is so long or tall you might be able to glimpse it in steadily-held binoculars this week. And the thinness is stunning. The Earthward face of Venus is only about 10 percent lit tonight, 5 percent Monday and 2 percent Saturday, Jan. 4. On that date, Venus is just 5 degrees (half your fist’s width at arm’s length) above the west-southwest horizon 30 minutes after sunset.
Jupiter soon will be visible from dusk to dawn and late at night will be high. By about 8 p.m., Jupiter will be high enough to reveal lots of sharp details in its clouds to observers using telescopes.
If you get a telescope for Christmas, look for Jupiter. After Venus sets, it will be the brightest point of light in the sky — all night long. To the right of Jupiter will be brilliant Orion with his three-star belt and, below Orion, the brightest star, Sirius.
Space station overhead. The ISS (International Space Station) makes a fairly rare pass directly over southern New Jersey this Saturday. It will outshine even the then-low Venus and Jupiter when it passes overhead.
The ISS is much dimmer when it first appears low in the northwest about 5:39 p.m. and when last visible low in the northeast about 5:45 p.m. But its slowly gliding light will be brilliant when it passes around 5:42 p.m.
New Year’s Day record-thin moon. About 20 minutes after sunset on Jan. 1, the moon probably will be just too thin and low above the west-southwest horizon (more than a fist-width lower right of Venus) to be glimpsed even in telescopes from New Jersey. But the next day, the lunar crescent will be easy, floating well upper-left of Venus.
The life and death of Comet ISON. Soon after it was discovered in September 2012, experts thought Comet ISON might rival the full moon in brightness when it passed stunningly close to the sun on Thanksgiving Day 2013.
One expert even estimated the comet could stretch a bright tail halfway across our sky around Christmas 2013. ISON was going to pass directly above the Earth’s orbit on Dec. 26.
But now only a cloud of fine debris, probably not detectable, is passing over us. Comet ISON took about 5½ million years to fall in toward the sun from almost halfway to the nearest star. But, after an exciting mid-November flare-up, it took only a few hours for its passage less than one sun-diameter from the sun to vaporize its smaller-than-expected icy nucleus.
Two Mondays from now, I’ll discuss the great eclipses, planet-pairings, meteor showers and more predicted for 2014 — plus the prospects for a major sun-grazing comet that won’t disappoint in the years ahead.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.