What’s Up in the 2016 Night Sky?

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This year may not be as exciting as 2015, a year in which we had two total lunar eclipses. This year there are three lunar eclipses, but all of them are penumbral, which means no one will notice anything unusual about the moon during those eclipses. Hopefully, much of the blood moon lunacy of the past few years quickly will fade.

However, 2016 will be a good year for watching planets. As the year begins, there are four bright planets in the morning sky. Venus is the easiest to find because it’s the third brightest object in the sky (only the sun and moon are brighter). Look for it as an incredibly bright star in the southeastern sky before sunrise. Saturn rises shortly after Venus the first week of the year, but the two come together rapidly. Saturn looks like a bright star too, though not nearly as bright as Venus. On the morning of January 9, Venus and Saturn will be just ½ degree apart. Thereafter, Saturn rises first and gets higher in the sky each morning. However, Venus will begin to move toward the horizon. By late March, Venus will be difficult to see. Watch for Mercury between the end of January and the middle of February. Mercury will appear as a star to the lower left of Venus. On the morning of February 13, Venus and Mercury will appear closest together—four degrees apart.

The other two planets visible in the morning sky are Jupiter and Mars. At the beginning of the year, Jupiter rises an hour or so before midnight. Early in the morning, Jupiter will appear as a bright star in the western part of the sky. It really is easy to find—it will be the brightest star after Venus. Mars will be a bright, reddish star about halfway between Venus and Jupiter.

The first two weeks of February will be a good time to see all five naked-eye planets in the sky at once.

The first two weeks of February will be a good time to see all five naked-eye planets in the sky at once. Early in the morning, Jupiter will be the bright star in the southwest, and Venus will be the bright star in the southeast. Mars will be a reddish star about halfway between Jupiter and Venus, and Saturn will be another star about halfway between Mars and Venus. Of course, Mercury will be to the lower left of Venus. The moon will join the ensemble the first week of February. You will see that the moon and five planets fall in a line across the sky. This is because the solar system is flat—the orbits of the planets lie in nearly the same plane, and the moon’s orbit lies in nearly the same plane too. The first two weeks of February will be an excellent time to see this for yourself.

The best time to view the superior planets (those with orbits larger than Earth’s orbit: Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) is when they are at opposition. This means that they are opposite the sun in our sky. This is the best time to view them, because this is when they are closest to the earth. A planet at opposition is visible all night, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. For Jupiter, opposition is on March 7; Saturn is at opposition on June 2. For Jupiter and Saturn, the closer distance at opposition is only minimally better than at other times. But for Mars, the difference in distance is huge. Near opposition, Mars is about ten times closer to us than when it is at its greatest distance. Consequently, Mars is very poor to look at normally, but near opposition Mars is at its best.

Even small telescopes will reveal the rings of Saturn and the four largest satellites, or moons, of Jupiter.

Mars reaches opposition at intervals of 26 months. This means that it is a little more than two years between good times to view Mars. Mars reaches opposition on May 21. However, due to Mars’ elliptical orbit, Mars actually will be closest to Earth on May 30. Mars will be best for viewing during the months of May and June, so that will be the best time to look at Mars through a telescope. However, be warned that Mars can be very disappointing through a telescope. The larger and higher quality the telescope, the better. But even with a very good telescope at 100x, Mars will appear only about the size that the moon appears to the naked eye. At that point, one can see tantalizing, fuzzy details on the Martian surface. And be sure to look at Jupiter and Saturn through a telescope. Even small telescopes will reveal the rings of Saturn and the four largest satellites, or moons, of Jupiter.

Mars’ elliptical orbit has another important factor. If opposition occurs when Mars is close to perihelion, its closest approach to the sun on its orbit, then Mars is much closer than normal. However, if opposition is near Mars’ aphelion, the most distant point on its orbit from the sun, then Mars appears much smaller. Excellent oppositions with Mars near perihelion occur at intervals of 15–17 years. The last great opposition was in 2003, when Mars was closest to Earth in history. This year’s opposition won’t be quite that good, but it still will be the best Martian opposition in a decade. By the way, the opposition of Mars in 2018 will be almost as good as the one in 2003.

This opposition of Mars offers a good opportunity to watch the apparent motion of Mars through the stars (this would make a great homeschool project). Normally, planets appear to move eastward through the stars each night. However, near opposition, a superior planet appears to move westward through the stars. The normal eastward motion is direct motion, while the reversed westward motion is retrograde motion. This year, Mars will retrograde near the relatively bright stars of the head of Scorpius. Retrograde motion will be between the middle of May and the beginning of July. However, Mars appears nearly stationary for several nights at the beginning and end of retrograde motion.

The project involves plotting the position of Mars every week for so. It would be best to start watching near the middle of March, when Mars, while during direct motion, will pass just above the relatively bright star, β Scorpii (or Beta Scorpii). However, Mars and this star won’t rise until nearly midnight, so you’ll have to look for them sometime after midnight. It might be best to do this early in the morning, before the sky gets bright. Near the middle of May, Mars will once again pass close to β Scorpii, this time while in retrograde. However, this pass will not be as close as the one in March, and Mars will be below the star. Since this is close to opposition, you can see this almost any time after dark. A few days later, Mars passes between the stars β Scorpii and δ Scorpii (or Delta Scorpii). Around August 7, Mars will pass below δ Scorpii, after it has resumed direct motion.

By late summer, Jupiter will disappear from the evening sky, leaving Saturn and Mars. On August 23, Mars and Saturn will be less than five degrees apart, with the bright star Antares two degrees below Mars. Antares means “rival of Mars” because its brightness and red color are similar to Mars. This would be a good time to test this. As Jupiter departs the evening sky, it will be replaced by Venus. Venus and Jupiter will be just 0.2 degrees apart on the evening of August 27. However, they may be difficult to see in the evening twilight. Saturn will depart the evening sky in November. That will leave Venus and Mars in the evening sky to close out the year. However, Mars rapidly will pull away from the earth after its opposition, so by late summer it will appear small in a telescope.

The Perseid meteor shower is the most reliable meteor shower of the year.

The Perseid meteor shower is the most reliable meteor shower of the year, with a nearly guaranteed rate of 60 meteors per hour or more at peak in a dark sky. The peak is on the morning of August 13. Unfortunately, the moon is past third quarter heading toward full at that time, and its bright light will make it impossible to see the fainter meteors. The moon will set a couple hours after midnight on the peak night, so good viewing probably can be had after 2:00 a.m., which is the best viewing time anyway. This is the night that the shower peaks. The meteor shower can be enjoyed for several nights centered on August 13. However, each night the moon’s light becomes more of a problem.

Those are the major highlights for 2016, but you never know when something unusual, such as a comet, may come up. Watch my blogs for any incidental events like that. If you make New Year’s resolutions, why don’t you decide this year to get outside at night away from city lights more often to enjoy God’s beautiful creation?

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