January is named after the Roman god Janus, who faces both forward and backward at the same time. He is the god of beginnings, and transitions and time.

The days are already getting longer, but you will not really notice that until a week or so into the month, when the latest sunrise has been reached.

There are many highlights in January, and some unusual events will happen in 2016. These include a total solar eclipse over Indonesia on March 9, and a rare transit of Mercury across the face of the sun visible for us right here on May 9 in the daytime.

The major January highlight for us in Maine will be having the five brightest planets visible in the morning sky. Mercury will join an already established quartet by the middle of January. Venus and Saturn will have an extremely close conjunction of just a quarter of a degree on the morning of the 9th, the closest they have been in 10 years. The moon will occult Aldebaran in Taurus, the Quadrantid meteor shower will peak on the 4th, and Comet Catalina should be visible in the morning sky all month.

Jupiter now rises before 11 p.m. and will rise before 9 p.m. by the end of the month. Three of its four large Galilean moons will transit the planet in rapid succession on the morning of the 11th. Jupiter is approaching its opposition, when it will be at its highest, brightest and closest to us, in early March.

The next planet up in the morning sky will be orange Mars. It will rise at 1 a.m. by the end of the month. The red planet is approaching its own opposition on May 22. An opposition of Mars occurs every 26 months.

Traveling down toward the horizon, you will run into brilliant Venus next, now rising in Scorpius around 4:30 a.m. Saturn is rapidly catching up with our sister planet. On the 9th, it will be just over a quarter of a degree above Venus. These planets will be in the same field of view in a telescope. Notice that Venus is 81 percent lit now and getting more illuminated by the sun as it gets farther away from Earth. It will be almost 100 times brighter than Saturn.

Then Mercury will join the parade by the middle of the month. You will see that it looks like a waxing crescent moon now through a telescope, since it will have just passed its inferior conjunction, when it gets closest to Earth.

Starting on Jan. 3, about 90 minutes before sunrise, a waning crescent moon will pass each of these planets in order on successive mornings until it disappears near the sun as a new moon on the 9th. That would be a great time to look for Comet Catalina. I haven’t found this comet yet in the sky, but one recent morning I was treated to something more spectacular. Three planets and a waning crescent moon with its eerie earthshine were lined up on the ecliptic. As dawn steadily brightened the scene, heavy sea smoke drifted over the ocean near the beach as if it were breathing life into the new day. A heavy frost covered each strand of dune grass and everything else on the beach – driftwood, stranded lobster traps and every grain of sand. I could look at the sun safely for half an hour after it pulled free from its liquid horizon since it was filtered by the engulfing and gently drifting sea smoke. It felt like the mysterious dawn of creation itself.

Even though those exact conditions will never exist again, you may be able to see something even more spectacular early in January when there will be four planets, another waning crescent moon, and a comet – plus the Quadrantid meteors, expected to peak at over 100 meteors per hour.

Catalina starts the month next to Arcturus and travels rapidly north at 2 degrees per day. The comet will be close to M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy on the 14th, and to another spiral galaxy, M101 in Ursa Major, on the 16th.

The waxing gibbous moon will occult the brightest star in Taurus, an orange giant named Aldebaran, at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 19. You will need binoculars or a telescope to really appreciate this event and to get a good sense of the moon’s constant eastward motion against the fixed background of stars.


Jan. 1: On this day in 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres. NASA’s ion propulsion Dawn spacecraft is now orbiting Ceres, about 8,000 miles above its surface. Ceres may have a liquid ocean under its surface. NASA has found mysterious white spots that may be huge salt deposits and also a mountain that vaults 4 miles above its surroundings, higher than Denali in Alaska. Both Vesta and Ceres were on their way to becoming planets until their development was mysteriously halted.

Jan. 2: Last quarter moon is at 12:30 a.m. Earth is at perihelion, or closest to the sun, at 91.4 million miles today. The moon is also at apogee, or farthest from Earth.

Jan. 4: The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks this morning. It will originate from the Big Dipper.

Jan. 6: The moon passes near Saturn and Venus this morning.

Jan. 7: On this day in 1610, Galileo discovered Callisto, Europa, and Io, three of Jupiter’s moons. He would discover Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system, six days later.

Jan. 8: Jupiter ends its direct, prograde or eastward motion against the fixed background of stars today.

Jan. 9: Venus and Saturn will be only a quarter of a degree apart this morning, their closest conjunction in a decade. New moon is at 8:31 p.m.

Jan. 14: The moon is at perigee, or closest to Earth, at 229,671 miles.

Jan. 16: First quarter moon is at 1 a.m.

Jan. 19: The New Horizons mission was launched to Pluto on this day in 2006, the same year that Pluto’s classification was changed to dwarf planet. The moon occults Aldebaran tonight.

Jan. 20: Buzz Aldrin was born on this day in 1930. He was the second man to walk on the moon.

Jan. 23: Full moon is at 8:46 p.m. This is also known as the Wolf, Old, or Hunger Moon.

Jan. 27: The moon passes near Jupiter this evening.

Jan. 30: The moon is at apogee, or farthest from Earth, at 251,377 miles.

Jan. 31: Last quarter moon is at 10:28 p.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.