Sun rises at 6:34am
Sun sets at 5:47pm
Moon phase: first quarter, waxing crescent
Moon rises at 9:43pm
Your New Year’s resolution could be to learn the skill of star hopping! Star hopping is when you use a known star or constellation’s alignment to point the way to another celestial body. This weekend, you can star-hop to the planet Neptune.
Neptune, the eighth and farthest planet from the sun, is the only major planet that you absolutely can’t see without an optical aid. Even so, you can easily locate Neptune’s place in the sky – thanks to the two planets that you can see: Venus and Mars.
First look for dazzling Venus, the brightest star-like object in the evening sky, in the southwest at nightfall. Then seek out the much fainter yet clearly visible “star” above Venus. That’s the red planet Mars, which pales next to Venus but is still rather easy to see with the eye alone. An imaginary line from Venus through Mars lands right on Neptune. It’s very close to Mars, so just search the sky with your binoculars or scope directly beyond the red planet. This is called a conjunction of Mars and Neptune. Depending on where you live worldwide, the twosome will appear closest together this evening or on January 1, 2017. Right now, these two worlds almost touch one another on the sky’s dome, easily seen within a single binocular or telescopic field of view.
Neptune will most likely look star-like and possibly blue in color. If you’re using binoculars, you may need to mount them to steady the view. A low-powered telescope may prove to be more advantageous for seeing this dim world. If you have a good scope, look for Neptune’s moon, Triton. The real thrill is just to glimpse Neptune, no matter how modest its appearance. Seek out Neptune with an optical aid as soon as darkness falls, when all these planets are highest up for the night. All three worlds will sink downward in the west as evening deepens.
The brightest true star in the sky is…good, yes, Sirius, aka the Dog Star. Sirius is easy to identify. Follow the line of Orion’s belt to the left, look for the brightest star and that will be Sirius. It’s in the constellation of, what else? Canis Major or The Big Dog!
Tonight, December 31, is a special night – the end of a calendar year. And it’s a special night for Sirius, too. This star’s official midnight culmination – when it’s highest in the sky at midnight – comes only once every year, and tonight’s the night!
Sirius will be out for most of New Year’s Eve night, just look to the east-southeast about the same time you note the waxing crescent moon beneath the planets Venus and Mars at nightfall. Sirius’ presence as the New Year’s star is a yearly event. The New Year always begins with Sirius’ culmination at the midnight hour. It’s a fun sky event to watch for, if you happen to be outside at midnight tonight. Happy New Year!
Thank you for keeping up with the Night Sky articles. If you are out later on in the week, each star rises about four minutes earlier each day than written here, and the moon rises 50 minutes later. Night Sky is researched and compiled by Lisa Davis-Burnett. Earthsky.org is a key resource for information and images. Questions or comments? Email [email protected]