Orion and Jupiter in prime position to greet 2024

Alan Pickup

Author: Alan Pickup

The maps show the sky at 21:00 GMT on the 1st, 20:00 on the 16th and 19:00 on the 31st.

The unmistakable constellation of Orion joins Jupiter in prime position in the evening sky as our year begins. Of the other naked-eye planets, Saturn is dipping lower in our south-west at nightfall, Venus is brilliant as ever, but sinking inconveniently low before dawn where Mercury emerges briefly in the twilight.

David Brett, 24-12-2023

Although it dims a tad from magnitude -2.6 to -2.4, Jupiter is conspicuous high in the south-east at nightfall, progressing into the south-west by our star map times to be replaced a little lower down in the south-east by Orion. The giant planet continues westwards to set in the west-south-west six hours after our map times. At midmonth, the Jovian disk appears 42 arcseconds wide if viewed telescopically, its extended apparent size being the reason that it does not twinkle, unlike all stars. Some 25° to the east (left) of Jupiter is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster, while roughly midway between them is Uranus, visible through binoculars at magnitude 5.7.

Low in the north at our map times is the radiant point for the Quadrantids meteor shower. This point, marking the direction from which Quadrantids meteors appear to diverge, lies in northern Bootes and trails the Plough’s Handle as it climbs higher into the north-east later in the night. The shower is already underway as 2024 begins and lasts until the 12th. At its height, expected at around sunrise on the 4th, more than 80 meteors per hour might have been counted by single observer under ideal dark conditions. This year we must contend with moonlight as dawn approaches on that morning, but the shower brings many bright meteors, and even fireballs, so it is well worth braving the cold.

The Sun is closer to the Earth (147,100,633 km) on the 3rd than at any other time in 2024 and is now climbing northwards again. Edinburgh’s sunrise and sunset time change from 08:44/15:49 on the 1st to 08:10/16:43 on the 31st.

The Moon stands below and left of Regulus in Leo in the east as we ring in the New Year and reaches last quarter above-right of Spica in Virgo on the morning of the 4th. It stands closer to the left of Spica on the next morning and is a waning earthlit crescent below and to the right of the brilliant Venus on the 8th.

Venus rises in the south-east at 05:33 on the 1st and by 06:40, only 90 minutes before the Sun, on the 31st. Now edging around the far side of its orbit, it shows a shrinking gibbous disk through a telescope. It dims very little from magnitude -4.1 to -4.0, and while bright enough to be followed until sunrise, its altitude in the south-south-east at that time halves from 14° to only 7° this month.

Binoculars may help us spy Mercury below and to the left of Venus at present. Until the 14th, the little innermost planet rises in the south-east more than 90 minutes before the Sun and stands 3° or 4° high one hour before sunrise, its separation from Venus falling from 19° to 11° while its brightness improves from magnitude 0.6 to -0.2.

The Moon is new on the 11th and its slender crescent, only 7% illuminated and showing strong earthshine, is impressive low down in the south-west at nightfall by the 13th. On that evening it stands 12° below-right of Saturn which, at magnitude 0.9 in Aquarius, is otherwise the brightest object in this area of sky. Look for Saturn 4° to the right of the 15% sunlit Moon a day later when the planet’s disk appears 16 arcseconds wide with the rings 36 arcseconds wide and tipped at 9°.

The Moon reaches first quarter in the 18th, passing only 2° above Jupiter on that evening. It continues eastwards to lie alongside the Pleiades on the 20th and close to Pollux in Gemini on the 24th before reaching full phase north of the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer on the 25th. It meets Regulus again two nights later.

M45 Pleaides by Pat Devine using ASERO data

The Pleiades in Taurus is the best-known star cluster in our sky and, although it is also known as the Seven Sisters, keen sighted observers should be able to count more than seven member stars. Use binoculars, and our view is transformed with many additional members. All lie around 444 light years (ly) away and formed together from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust around 100 million years ago. Similar star-formation is underway right now within the greenish haze of the Orion Nebula, another tempting binocular target which stands some 1,350 ly away and below Orion’s Belt.

Rather closer at 153 ly, but older at perhaps 600 million years, is the V-formation Hyades star cluster which lies beyond the red giant star Aldebaran, the bloodshot eye of Taurus.

A chain of fainter and more distant star clusters stretches between southern Auriga and Gemini, to the right of the horns of Taurus which are identified as the stars Elnath and Zeta on our rather cluttered south star map. The pick of these is M35, the 35th entry in Charles Messier’s 18th Century list of (mainly) fuzzy celestial objects – the Pleiades being M45 and the Orion Nebula, M42.

M35 lies at the feet of Gemini and is almost as wide as the Moon. At magnitude 5.3, it is visible as a round smudge to the unaided eye on a dark night, though we need binoculars to begin to show its individual stars at their distance of almost 3,000 ly. Further north in Auriga sit M37 and M36, both about a magnitude fainter than M35 and more than 1,000 ly further away. M38, fainter still at magnitude 7.4, is more of a binocular challenge though it lies at a similar distance. All four clusters may be less than 350 million years old, with their component stars destined to go their own way eventually as the clusters disperse and disappear.

Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan on 18-12-2023, Mark Phillips using ASERO data

Here is an update on the two telescopic-brightness comets I mentioned in last month’s note. Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks begins the year in Cygnus, some 12° to the east of Vega, and around the 10th magnitude, though recent outbursts appear to have taken it to better than magnitude 9. As it tracks eastwards, it passes 7° south of Deneb on the 21st and may become brighter than magnitude 8 by the month’s end.

Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan stood 1.4° south-west of the star Chertan in the hindquarters of Leo when it reached perihelion, 189 million km from the Sun, on Christmas Day. Possibly about magnitude 8 or 9 as 2024 begins, it tracks some 15° eastwards into Virgo during January and may fade only a little. It passes 2.3° south of Denebola in the tail of Leo on the 7th and 2.2° south of M87, the dominant galaxy in the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, on the 29th, albeit with the bright Moon too close for comfort in southern Leo.

Diary for 2024 January

  • 3rd 01h Earth at perihelion, closest to Sun (147,100,633 km)
  • 4th 03h Last quarter
  • 4th 09h Peak of Quadrantids meteor shower
  • 5th 00h Moon 2.0° N of Spica
  • 6th 08h Venus 6° N of Antares
  • 7th 06h Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan 2.3° S of Denebola
  • 8th 15h Moon 0.7° N of Antares
  • 8th 20h Moon 6° S of Venus
  • 9th 18h Moon 7° S of Mercury
  • 11th 12h New Moon
  • 12th 15h Mercury furthest W of Sun (24°)
  • 14th 10h Moon 2.1° S of Saturn
  • 15th 20h Moon 1.0° S of Neptune
  • 18th 04h First quarter
  • 18th 21h Moon 2.8° N of Jupiter
  • 20th 14h Moon 0.8° S of Pleiades star cluster
  • 21st 08h Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks 7° S of Deneb
  • 24th 20h Moon 1.7° S of Pollux
  • 25th 18h Full Moon
  • 25th 21h Moon 4° N of Praesepe star cluster
  • 27th 17h Moon 4° N of Regulus
  • 29th 06h Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan 2.2° S of galaxy M87

This is an extended version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on 30 December 2023, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.