April 07, 2020

Venus, Mercury, moon form close-knit trio on horizon

In 1994 the lunar orbiter Clementine discovered evidence for ice beneath the moon’s barren surface. There is even some evidence that small amounts of surface ice may lurk in the perpetual darkness found at the bottoms of craters near the Moon’s south pole. The possibility stemmed from an anlysis of reflected radio signals bounced off the floors of craters at the pole.

Next month a probe called the Lunar Prospector is due to orbit the Moon and hopefully find the answer to this question that is of great importance to the possibility of future lunar colonies. A low-budget project consisting of donated instruments and hardware, the Lunar Prospector will skim the moon’s surface at an altitude of only a little more than 60 miles. The probe is only the third to the moon in the past 20 years.


MERCURY may be found in the morning sky until mid-month. Look for it low in the southeast an hour before sunrise. The bright star to Mercury’s upper right is Antares.

VENUS is a brilliant point of light low in the southwest at dusk as January opens. It soon disappears into the Sun’s glare to reappear in the morning sky by month’s end.

MARS is on the southwest horizon at dusk. For the first few days of January, it is sandwiched between Jupiter to its upper left and Venus to the lower right.

JUPITER dominates the southwest as the new year opens but gradually slides toward the horizon passing extremely close to Mars on Jan. 20.

SATURN is placed well up on the southern horizon at dusk. Watch as the half-moon passes the ringed planet on the nights of Jan. 4 and 5.

URANUS and NEPTUNE are passing on the far side of the sun during January and are lost to view.

PLUTO starts the new year as it ended the old one, a lost cause even for viewers with telescopes and finder charts.


Maine Skies took a trip around the zodiac two years ago and it proved popular enough to generate requests for a repeat visit. For the next year, the constellation in which the Sun appears for that month will be featured. The sun enters the constellation of Capricornus on Jan. 19 so we will start with this strange creature who is half goat and half fish. According to legend the god Pan, who had the form of a goat, was playing his pipes when accosted by a demon. Pan jumped into a nearby river, and started to take the form of a fish, to escape. Only his hindquarters changed into a fish tail while his front part remained a goat. Pan was placed in the heavens by Jupiter as the constellation of Capricornus. Despite having no stars of note, this is an extremely old constellation probably having its origins with the Babylonians or earlier. The reason for its prominence is that the winter solstice took place among its stars some 2000 years ago. It has also been known as the Gate of the Gods for legend had it that a person’s soul had to pass through its stars to reach heaven.


1. Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:05 p.m. Note that the moon, Mars, Venus and Jupiter are all congregated tonight in the stars of Capricornus on the southwestern horizon.

3. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks around tonight. This brief shower peaks for only a few hours and there is a chance this will occur during daylight hours spoiling its best display.

4. The Earth is at perihelion, or closest approach to the sun, today at 91.4 million miles. Do you remember why it is colder in winter months when we are closer to the sun?

5. Moon in first quarter, 9:19 a.m.

6. Mercury makes its best current appearance above the sun. Look low in the southeast an hour before sunrise.

12. Full moon, 12:24 p.m. The full moon of January is called the old moon or moon after Yule.

19. The sun enters Capricornus on the ecliptic.

20. Check the extremely close encounter between Jupiter and Mars in the west-southwest tonight at dusk. Sun enters the astrological sign of Aquarius but astronomically has only just entered Capricornus. Moon in last quarter, 2:41 p.m.

26. Venus, Mercury, and the Moon form a close-knit trio on the southeastern horizon about an hour before dawn.

28. New moon, 1:01 a.m.

31. Sunrise, 6:56 a.m.; sunset, 4:42 p.m.

Clair Wood’s astromomy column is a monthly NEWS feature.

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