Quadrantid meteor shower peak before dawn on January 3, 2022 | SkyNews
Quadrantid meteor shower peak before dawn on January 3, 2022 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

This Week’s Sky: December 27, 2021 to January 2, 2022

Venus and Mercury spend the week dancing after sunset, while the Moon and Mars meet. Also, look for the Quadrantid meteor shower.

Tuesday, December 28 – Inner planets dance (after sunset)

Inner planets dance on December 28, 2021. | SkyNews
Inner planets dance on December 28, 2021 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

For about an hour after sunset on the evenings surrounding Tuesday, December 28, look low in the southwestern sky for a conjunction of Mercury and Venus. Each night, magnitude -0.7 Mercury will be ascending, while 31 times brighter Venus drops sunward. At their closest on December 28, Mercury will be positioned several finger widths to the lower left (or 4.25 degrees to the celestial south) of Venus, close enough to share the view in binoculars (green circle). Seen in a telescope, Venus will show a slim crescent phase. But Mercury will appear nearly fully-illuminated because Venus is closer to Earth than the Sun, while Mercury is on the far side of the Solar System. Take care to avoid pointing optical aids west until the Sun has fully set.

Friday, December 31 – Old Moon near Mars and Antares (pre-dawn)

Old Moon near Mars and Antares on December 31, 2021. | SkyNews
Old Moon near Mars and Antares on December 31, 2021 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

Low in the southeastern sky on the morning of Friday, December 31, the slim crescent of the old Moon will shine above and between the reddish dot of Mars and the bright star Antares. The trio, with Mars on the left (celestial east), will be less than five degrees apart, close enough to share the view in binoculars (green circle). You can observe them from the time they rise, at about 5:30 a.m. local time, until sky brightens before sunrise. At about 18:30 UTC on Friday morning, observers in parts of southern Australia, Tasmania, Antarctica, the South Georgia Islands, the southern tip of South America, and the Falkland Islands can see the Moon occult Mars.

Saturday, January 1 – Inner planets dance again (after sunset)

Inner planets dance again on January 1, 2022 | SkyNews
Inner planets dance again on January 1, 2022 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

To kick off 2022, the inner planets Mercury and Venus will shine together low in the southwestern sky after sunset on Saturday, January 1. Magnitude -0.71 Mercury will be positioned a slim fist’s diameter to the upper left (or 8 degrees to the celestial east) of 23 times brighter Venus. The two planets will set about an hour after the sun. On the following evenings, Mercury will shift higher while Venus descends. Once the Sun has completely set, it will be safe to view the planets in binoculars (green circle) and telescopes. Under magnification, Mercury, situated on the far side of the Sun from Earth, will exhibit a 70-per-cent-illuminated disk. But Venus will show a razor-thin sliver because it will be positioned between Earth and the Sun.

Sunday, January 2 – New Moon (at 18:33 UTC)

New Moon on January 2, 2022 | SkyNews
New Moon on January 2, 2022 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

At 1:33 p.m. EST or 18:33 UTC on Sunday, January 2, the Moon will officially reach its new Moon phase. At that time, it will be located in Sagittarius and approximately 4.3 degrees south of the Sun. While new, the Moon is travelling between Earth and the Sun. Since sunlight can only reach the far side of a new Moon, and the Moon is in the same region of the sky as the Sun, our natural satellite becomes completely hidden from view for about a day. This new Moon will occur less than a day after lunar perigee, resulting in large tides around the world.

Sunday, January 2 – Watch Algol brighten (at 7:42 p.m. EST)

Watch Algol brighten on January 2, 2022 | SkyNews
Watch Algol brighten on January 2, 2022 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

In the constellation of Perseus, the star Algol, also designated Beta Persei, represents the glowing eye of Medusa from Greek mythology. It is among the most accessible variable stars for skywatchers. During a ten-hour period that repeats every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes, Algol dims by half and then re-brightens, because a companion star orbiting nearly edge-on to Earth crosses in front of the much brighter main star, reducing the total light output we perceive. Algol normally shines at magnitude 2.1, similar to the nearby star Almach in Andromeda. But at its minimum, Algol’s magnitude 3.4 is similar to the star Rho Persei (ρ Per), which is located just two finger widths to Algol’s lower right (or 2.25 degrees to the celestial south). On Sunday, January 2 at 7:42 p.m. EST (or 00:42 UTC on January 3), a fully dimmed Algol will sit nearly overhead in the eastern sky. Five hours later the star will shine at full intensity from a perch halfway up the western sky.

Monday, January 3 – Quadrantid meteor shower peak (before dawn)

Quadrantid meteor shower peak before dawn on January 3, 2022 | SkyNews
Quadrantid meteor shower peak before dawn on January 3, 2022 (Chris Vaughan, Starry Night Education)

Named for a now-defunct constellation called the Mural Quadrant, the Quadrantids meteor shower runs from December 30 to January 12 every year. Quadrantids meteors always travel away from the shower’s radiant, which lies in the northern sky beyond the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle. This shower commonly produces bright fireballs because it is produced by particles from an asteroid designated 2003EH. The shower’s most intense period, when up to 50 to 100 meteors per hour can appear, lasts only about 6 hours surrounding the peak, which is predicted to occur on Monday, January 3 around 21:00 UTC (or 4 p.m. Eastern and 1 p.m. Pacific time). With the peak on Monday afternoon in the Americas, the optimal times for viewing Quadrantids there will be before dawn on both Monday and Tuesday, although fewer Quadrantids will be seen. Observers in eastern Asia will have the best show before dawn on Tuesday morning, when the shower’s radiant will be high in the northeastern pre-dawn sky during the peak of the shower. Happily, the peak night will be moonless worldwide.

Chris Vaughan is a science writer, geophysicist, astronomer, planetary scientist and an “outreach RASCal.” He writes Astronomy Skylights, and you can follow him on Twitter at @astrogeoguy. He can also bring his Digital Starlab portable inflatable planetarium to your school or other daytime or evening event. Contact him through AstroGeo.ca to tour the Universe together.

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