Astronomy Essentials

Your holiday sky guide: Visible planets and more, as the year turns

Visible planets: Labeled planets along green ecliptic line.
Find these visible planets in late December 2021. Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mercury are all clustered near the sunset. Watch for the sun’s innermost planet, Mercury, to come into view near Venus by the year’s end.

Find these visible planets as the year turns (late December 2021 and January 2022):
Venus
Jupiter
Saturn
Mercury
Mars

Plus:
Visible planets, stars, the moon and more
Latest sunrises follow the winter solstice
Earth closest to sun in early January
January 2022 heliocentric solar system
January 2022 visible planets in depth

EarthSky’s 2022 lunar calendars are available now! We’re guaranteed to sell out, so get one while you can. Makes a great gift!

Visible planets, stars, the moon and more

Thin crescent moon near two reddish dots close to green ecliptic line, all labeled.
Mars has been traveling behind the sun from Earth for several months. But late December 2021 is the time to start following the red planet as it heads toward its bright appearance a year from now, in December 2022. Mars should be just visible, with difficulty, in the direction of sunrise, before the sun comes up on the last day or so of 2021. The thin waning crescent moon will aid in your discovery of Mars on December 31. Plus you’ll see a second red starlike object. Don’t be fooled! That is not Mars, but a true star, Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius the Scorpion. Read more about the moon, Mars and Antares on December 31.
Sky chart linking the constellation Orion to the star Sirius.
You can always recognize the star Sirius. It’s the brightest star in the sky. And the 3 prominent Belt stars in the easy-to-see constellation Orion the Hunter point to it. Want to entertain your friends on New Year’s Eve? Give them a quick tour of the heavens and show them Sirius, the brightest star. It has the nickname the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog. Sirius might also be called the New Year’s star. It’ll ring in 2022 by reaching its highest point in the sky around the stroke of midnight. That’s true for every New Year’s Eve. Read more about Sirius ringing in the new year.
alt caption
Following new moon on January 2, 2022, the young moon – a waxing crescent – will return to the west after sunset. It’ll pass 4 planets. Bright Venus will be exceedingly near the sunset glare … will you see it? It’ll be hard. Mercury, too, will be difficult to see when the moon passes by on January 3. But on January 4 and 5, if your sky is clear, you should easily see the young moon near Saturn and Jupiter. Chart by John Jardine Goss.
Chart showing Venus, Mars, crescent moon.
By the morning of January 29, 2022, the crescent moon will form a line with faint Mars and brilliant Venus. Mars is now far across the solar system from Earth, having passed behind the sun as seen from Earth on October 8, 2021. Read more about Mars. Venus is relatively nearby, and very bright, having passed between us and the sun on January 8-9, 2022. Read more about Venus.

Latest sunrises follow the winter solstice

If you get up early, you know that, in late December and early January, your sunrises are still coming very late. In fact, they’re the latest sunrises of the year for people at mid-northern latitudes (say, the latitude of the central U.S.). Overall, the shortest day for either is the winter solstice. But the latest sunrises always follow the solstice. That’s due to an unvarying sequence each year – earliest sunset before the winter solstice (in early December for the Northern Hemisphere), shortest day at the winter solstice around December 21, latest sunrise following the solstice (in early January for the Northern Hemisphere).

This natural order is what we can expect every year, on our tilted Earth, pursuing our elliptical orbit around the sun. Read more about the Northern Hemisphere’s latest sunrises.

Latest sunrises: Multicoloured background with dark lower edge and with a faint beam of yellow on left side.
Susan Ogan in Marblehead, Massachusetts, captured this photo of a sun pillar at sunrise on December 30, 2020. Thank you, Susan!

Earth closest to sun in early January

Earth’s orbit around the sun isn’t a circle. Instead, it’s an ellipse. So it makes sense that Earth swings closest to the sun once each year. For 2022, that moment will happen on January 4, at 6:52 UTC (1:52 a.m. Eastern Time EST). This closest Earth-sun distance is called perihelion, from the Greek roots peri meaning near and helios meaning sun. In early January, we’re about 3% closer to the sun — roughly 3 million miles (5 million km) — than we are during Earth’s aphelion (farthest point from the sun) in early July. That’s in contrast to our average distance of about 93 million miles (150 million km). Read more about Earth at perihelion.

Cartoon by Sara Zimmerman of Unearthed Comics showing Earth in a dance with the sun
Earth is closest to the sun every January and farthest from the sun every July. Cartoon via Sara Zimmerman at UnEarthed Comics. Woo-hoo!

Early January meteor shower: Quadrantids in 2022

New moon aligns with the peak of meteor activity in 2022’s Quadrantid meteor shower, always the year’s first shower. The new moon on January 2 will rise and set with the sun and be absent from the night sky, leaving it dark for meteor-watching. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks around 21 UTC on January 3, 2022 (overnight January 2 to 3 for viewers in North America; translate UTC to your time), according to the RASC Observer’s Handbook. The Quadrantids have a zenithal hourly rate of 120 in a dark sky. And the shower is known for its bright fireballs. But the peak of this shower is extremely narrow, lasting only about 6 hours. To see the Quadrantids at their best, you have to be on the right part of Earth – preferably with their radiant point high in your sky – and under cloud-free skies – at the peak. Will you see the shower’s peak this year? As always, that’s a big maybe! Here’s why there’s wiggle room.

Quadrantid meteor shower: Sky chart showing radial arrows from a point south of Big Dipper.
The radiant point for the Quadrantid meteor shower is far to the north in the sky and so best seen from Earth’s Nouthern Hemisphere. From mid-northern latitudes, the radiant point for the Quadrantid meteor shower climbs over the horizon after midnight.

January 2022 heliocentric solar system

The sun-centered charts below come from Guy Ottewell. You’ll find charts like these for every month of 2022 in his Astronomical Calendar.

View larger. | Heliocentric view of solar system, December 2021. Guy Ottwell explains: “In these views from ecliptic north, arrows (thinner when south of the ecliptic plane) are the paths of the 4 inner planets. Dots along the rest of the orbits are 5 days apart (and are black for the part of its course that a planet has trodden since the beginning of the year). Semicircles show the sunlit side of the new and full moon (vastly exaggerated in size and distance). Pairs of lines point outward to the more remote planets. Phenomena such as perihelia (represented by ticks) and conjunctions (represented by lines between planets) are at dates that can be found in the Astronomical Calendar. Gray covers the half of the universe below the horizon around 10 p.m. at mid- month (as seen from the equator). The zodiacal constellations are in directions from the Earth at mid-month (not from the sun).” Chart via Guy Ottewell.

January 2022 visible planets in depth

Also see the indispensable Observer’s Handbook, from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Venus spent December 2021 sliding sunward, dropping closer to the sunset point as western twilight darkens each day. As the year ends, you might catch Venus exceedingly near the sunset glare. It’ll soon disappear entirely, though, for all but the most experienced and dedicated skywatchers. That’s because Venus is about to move between the Earth and sun in its smaller, faster orbit. It’ll be nearest the Earth-sun line – at inferior conjunction – on January 8-9, 2022.

At inferior conjunction, Venus will officially leave our evening sky, and enter our morning sky.

You might catch Venus on January 3, as the moon sweeps past.

And some veteran observers will be trying to glimpse Venus all the way to January 8-9, the day it passes between us and the sun. If you’re not experienced, best not to try it unless you know how to observe near the sun safely.

So most of us won’t see Venus again until after mid-January. Then, one morning shortly before sunup, as you face east, you’ll notice a surprisingly bright object. Each morning, it’ll rise a little earlier and climb a little higher, before morning twilight drowns it from view. That very bright morniung object will be Venus.

On January 29, a thin crescent moon – what astronomers call an old moon – will join the scene, floating near Venus in the eastern predawn sky.

Aim a pair of well-focused binoculars toward Venus around then. In January 2022 – because it’s nearby and because it’s lighted portion of “day” side is facing mostly away from us – we on Earth see Venus as a tiny crescent.

By the end of January 2022, Venus will be especially bright. It’ll be bright enough to be seen in the daytime. Check this out for yourself by spotting Venus 30 minutes before sunrise. Follow it in the brightening sky by situating yourself so that it appears placed just above a distant reference object such as a utility pole or a tree. Keep it placed above the reference object as the minutes pass. You still will be able to see it after the sun rises, and you can keep following it for the rest of the morning.

Venus was brightest for 2021 around December 3. Another greatest brilliancy for Venus will come on February 12.

Jupiter is the 2nd-brightest planet. As January begins, and Venus disappears, Jupiter will become the evening sky’s brightest “star.” But Jupiter is also sinking toward the sunset glare. From mid-northern temperate latitudes, by the beginning of January, it will appear near the sunset point in early evening for only about 40 minutes after sunset.

Saturn is still near Jupiter in our sky, nearly a year after their late 2020 great conjunction. Saturn is fainter than Jupiter, and its faintness against a background of bright evening twilight will make it harder to spot. Saturn will be shining about as brightly as some of the brighter stars, though, such as Altair, which will be twinkling near Saturn on early January evenings.

Helping to positively identify the Ringed Planet, the thin crescent moon glows immediately south of Saturn on January 4. On the evening of January 5, the crescent moon will glow just south of Jupiter.

We mentioned above that Venus will pass between the sun and Earth on January 9, 2022. Jupiter and Saturn have big, huge orbits, much wider than Earth’s. They can’t go between us and the sun, but instead are aiming now toward the far side of the sun from Earth. And they’ll still be around – briefly, not far from the sunset – as January 2022 begins. But, by the middle of January, Saturn will be lost in bright evening twilight. Saturn will reach its superior conjunction – when it is most directly behind the sun as seen from Earth – on February 4, 2022. We’ll see Saturn next in the east before sunup, beginning around mid-March.

Jupiter will linger in the evening sky into early February. Jupiter will reach its superior conjunction (when it’s most directly behind the sun as seen from Earth) on March 5, 2022. Afterwards, like Saturn, Jupiter will emerge into the dawn sky. That’ll likely happen in late March or early April, depending on your location on the globe (Southern Hemisphere observers will likely spot it sooner than us in the north).

By April 2022 mornings, both planets will be in the east before dawn, beginning another cycle of visibility in our sky. This cycle for these outer planets, by the way, is driven mostly by the length of Earth’s year-long orbit around the sun.

In 2022, Saturn will reach its opposition – when Earth passes between it and the sun – on August 14. Jupiter’s opposition will come on September 26.

Mercury was nowhere to be found for most of December 2021. It was moving around the far side of the blinding sun, as seen from Earth. But on the last several evenings of the year, Mercury’s angular distance from the sun on our sky’s dome should be great enough that’ll we’ll glimpse the planet, briefly, perhaps 30 minutes after sunset, in the sunset direction. You’ll need a sky that’s clear to the horizon in the sunset direction. And you’ll need to know just where to look. One of the charts above shows Mercury in relationship to Venus, Saturn and Jupiter in the western twilight, as December ends.

In late December, as Mercury comes into view, Venus will be almost gone from view, heading into the sunset glare, about to pass between us and the sun on January 8-9. Venus is bright, though. So you’ll spot it just above the western horizon. And, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, much-dimmer Mercury will lie to the left of Venus. You might not notice it at first. It’ll be fainter than Venus. Binoculars will be a great help. If you spot both Venus and Mercury, just imagine, in one view you’ll have seen the two closest planets to our sun!

For this event, Southern Hemisphere stargazers will have no better of a view than Northern Hemisphere observers. But hopefully we’ll all snag Mercury in late December, if we try.

On January 3, the thin waxing crescent moon will float between Mercury and the sunset horizon, helping to identify this sometimes-elusive little planet.

Over the following week, Mercury will climb a little higher as it swings away from the sunset, approaching its greatest apparent distance from the sun in our sky – 19.2 degrees – on January 7. This is Mercury’s greatest eastern elongation. Afterwards, Mercury will drop closer to the horizon each evening. It’ll quickly become lost in the bright twilight after mid-January. Much as Venus does on January 9, Mercury will fly between us and the sun on January 23. It’ll be lost in the solar glare for the rest of the month.

Mars, too, has been traveling behind the sun from Earth. In Mars’ case, it’s been gone for several months. But late December 2021 is also the time to start following the red planet again as it heads toward its bright appearance in December 2022. Mars should be just visible, with difficulty, in the direction of sunrise, before the sun comes up, on the last day or so of 2021. The thin waning crescent moon aids in your discovery of Mars on the final morning of the year.

These early-morning sightings – so near the sun – can be tricky. If you look too early, Mars won’t have risen yet. If you look too late, bright twilight will drown Mars from view. So we advise you to start watching for Mars several days prior to December 31. Look toward the sunrise direction as twilight is beginning to light the sky. The pretty crescent moon, full with earthshine, will be above the horizon, near Mars, on December 31.

Directly below Mars, you’ll likely see a red object. Don’t be fooled! That is not Mars, but Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. Because of its red tint, it’s sometimes mistaken for Mars, the red planet. In fact, the name Antares stems from ancient Greek roots meaning “rival to Ares.” Ares was the Greek name for the Roman Mars, the god of war. Antares got this name because its reddish color can be similar to that of Mars. And sometimes Mars can outshine Antares! But not so in late 2021. Mars – just returning from its sojourn behind the sun as seen from Earth – is at its faintest from our perspective now. It shines at about magnitude +1.5. Antares is slightly brighter at about magnitude +1.

On December 31, the moon, Antares, and Mars ring in the new year by forming an intriguing celestial triangle. This trio is best seen in binoculars. Southern Hemisphere viewers will see this event at a different angle than Northern Hemisphere viewers. From the southern part of Earth’s globe, Mars will lie closer to the horizon than Antares, while the moon will hang just to the left of Antares. No matter. The trio will still be close and a sight to see as the year ends. See the charts above.

January 2022 is the time to begin following Mars in earnest. It’ll grow brighter – and brighter – over the first 11 months of 2022, in other words, for most of the yaer.

By the second half of January, you’ll find both Venus and Mars in the east before sunrise. Venus will be exceedingly bright. Mars will be exceedingly faint. How far apart will they be? Make a fist on your outstretched arm. Place Venus on the left edge of your fist. Mars will be on the right edge.

On January 29, the old moon will join Venus and Mars, forming an intriguing celestial line-up: brilliant Venus, far-dimmer Mars and the glowing crescent moon.

The moon’s monthly journey

Throughout every month – as the moon makes its monthly circuit of Earth – the moon passes near planets and stars, creating interesting scenes in our night sky.

January 3: Immediately after sunset, the thin waxing moon floats to the left of Venus which shines very low above the southwestern horizon. Mercury lies just above the moon. Because of its low altitude in the brightening twilight and because of its thin crescent, the moon will be a challenge to spot.

January 4: The moon lies directly southeast of Saturn and east of Mercury forty minutes after sunset.

January 5: Bright Jupiter appears north of the crescent moon sixty minutes after sunset in the southwest.

January 12: The waxing gibbous moon glows south of the Pleiades and west of the star Aldebaran for most of the night.

January 13: The bright gibbous moon lies immediately north of Aldebaran.

January 14: The almost full moon hangs high above Orion with its bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel all night.

January 16 and 17: The bright moon lies in Gemini near the twin stars of Castor and Pollux.

Overnight on January 19: The waning gibbous moon moves north of the brightest star in Leo, Regulus.

January 24: the almost third quarter moon slides north of Spica, the brightest star in Virgo.

January 27: the waning crescent moon moves among the stars of the “Crown of Scorpius,” and just to the northwest of the bright star Antares.

January 29: the thin waning crescent moon glows with earthshine in the southeast sixty minutes before sunrise. Dim Mars lies directly east of the moon.

Some resources to enjoy

Don’t miss anything. Subscribe to daily emails from EarthSky. It’s free!

Visit EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze to find a dark-sky location near you.

Post your planet photos at EarthSky Community Photos.

Visit Stellarium-Web or TheSkyLive for precise views from your location

The Old Farmer’s Almanac provides specific planet rise and set info (U.S. and Canada)

Timeanddate.com provides specific planet rise and set info (worldwide)

Click here for recommended almanacs to find out precise rise and set times

Translate Universal Time (UTC) to your time

Read: Ecliptic is the sun’s path in our sky

Read: Planet-observing is easy. Top tips here

Check out the indispensable Observer’s Handbook, from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Back by popular demand! Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar for 2022

Great resource and beautiful wall chart: Guy Ottewell’s zodiac wavy chart

Photo of a chair, a large plant, and the zodiac waxy chart above them.
Guy Ottewell’s Zodiac Wavy Chart is a 2-by-3 foot poster displaying the movements of the sun, moon, and planets throughout the year. You can purchase it here.

Which ones are the visible planets?

In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These are the planets easily visible without an optical aid. They’re the planets watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. These planets do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars.

You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.

Visible planets: Silhouette of a man against the sunset sky with a bright planet and the crescent moon.
Skywatcher. Image via Predrag Agatonovic.

Bottom line: All you need to know about finding bright planets, stars and more in December 2021.

Help EarthSky keep going! Donate now.

Posted 
December 24, 2021
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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