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Planet Watch '22

by Perry Pezzolanella

A starry night sky is always beautiful and often full of surprises, and this year will be no exception. The first half of this year will have the planetary action reserved mainly for the morning sky, but the evening sky will become very busy during the second half, especially closer to the holidays, with at least one bright planet visible every evening. The night sky is always busy with satellites and the International Space Station, beautiful lunar and planetary conjunctions, meteor showers, and possibly an aurora or a surprise comet.

This is another good year for eclipses with two total lunar eclipses visible. The first one of 2022 is the best and occurs during the night of May 15-16 with totality beginning at 11:29 P.M. and ending at 12:54 A.M., lasting 85 minutes with the partial phase starting at 10:28 P.M. and ending at 1:55 A.M. If this one is clouded out, there is another one barely six months later, on November 8 during the wee hours. The partial phase begins at 4:09 A.M. with totality beginning at 5:16 A.M. and ending 85 minutes later at 6:41 A.M. only minutes before sunrise, so the later stage of totality will become washed out from the increasing twilight. The next solar eclipse will be a partial occurring on October 14, 2023, during the early afternoon with the Sun around 22% eclipsed.

A quiet start to 2022 will become very busy as summer arrives. Venus will disappear into the sunset twilight almost as soon as the year begins, leaving Jupiter as the lone beacon for January. There will be no bright evening planets until Mercury peaks above the western horizon shortly after sunset by mid-April, but it will be brief as is drops back into the bright twilight during early May. Neptune can be followed into February and Uranus into March to fill in for the lack of bright planets. Saturn will rise before midnight during June followed by Jupiter by July. Both planets will dominate the evening sky for the rest of the year and Mars will join them during November. Venus will appear very low in the southwest soon after sunset towards Christmas and will once again symbolically portray the Christmas Star. Uranus and Neptune will be at their best from September into early 2023, although never bright. Here is the breakdown for each planet in the evening sky during 2022:

Mercury: This elusive planet is always very low on the horizon and immersed in bright twilight, but it is easiest to see in the evening from April 15-May 6, being highest above the horizon on April 29. Mercury will grow steadily through this period from 6 to 10 arcseconds across as it approaches Earth, but its magnitude will dim from -1 to +2. It will go through phases like a tiny, coppery version of the waning Moon, from nearly full to a thin crescent.

Venus: This is an off year for Venus during the evening as it will be primarily a morning planet all year and will dominate the morning sky from January through October. It may be seen briefly in the evening sky during the first week of January and will become visible again in the evening by December. The magnitude will range from -3.8 to -4.9. In early January, it will be a huge, thin crescent over one arcminute across but will shrink to a nearly full disc barely 10 arcseconds in September, near superior conjunction. Venus will be exceptionally bright during February mornings approaching magnitude -5, the brightest possible.

Mars: This is a fairly decent year for Mars towards the end as it reaches opposition on December 8 and is closest to Earth on December 1 when it will be a reasonable 17.2 arcseconds across and sparkle at magnitude -1.9 near the Gemini-Taurus border. Mars will remain large enough for viewing into early 2023 but will steadily grow smaller and fade the rest of that year.

Jupiter: This will be an awesome year for Jupiter once again as it will remain nearly at its largest and brightest possible. Jupiter is at opposition on September 26 in Pisces and will be 48.8 arcseconds across and blaze at magnitude -2.9. The huge size will allow for plenty of detailed viewing of Jupiter’s clouds including the Great Red Spot. It should be possible to see the tiny discs of the larger moons, Callisto and Ganymede, and to compare their size to smaller Europa and Io. It might even be possible to detect slight color differences among them. Jupiter will become lost in the evening twilight during early 2023 as it fades to magnitude -2.0 and shrinks to 33 arcseconds across.

Saturn: The beautiful rings may be steadily closing with each passing year, but the iconic view remains, and Saturn is still a showstopper at star parties, aided by balmy summer evenings. It is at opposition in Capricornus on August 14 when it will be 18.8 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +0.3. The balmy nights offer the perfect opportunity to examine the rings and detect the Cassini Division. The cloud belts and polar hood are often quite obvious. The largest moon, Titan, shines about 8th magnitude and takes nearly 16 days to orbit once around Saturn providing a fun project to plot its changing position. Saturn will slowly fade to magnitude +0.6 and shrink to about 15 arcseconds across by January 2023 when it becomes lost in the twilight glow.

Uranus: The unusual turquoise hue of Uranus is a rarity in the night sky, but this makes it easier to discern its small disc among the stars. It is at opposition on November 9 in Aries when it will be 3.8 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +5.7. Uranus rises before midnight during September and descends into the evening twilight by April 2023.

Neptune: The icy bluish tint of Neptune is another rare color in the night sky, which makes it easier to distinguish from stars. It is at opposition on September 16 in Aquarius when it will be 2.4 arcseconds across and shine at magnitude +7.8. Neptune will rise before midnight during August and disappears into the evening twilight during February 2023. A finder chart for Uranus and Neptune will appear in the August issue of Telescopic Topics.

Pluto: The challenge of finding and confirming Pluto is a badge of patience and accomplishment. The challenge will only increase during the decades ahead as Pluto dims towards magnitude +15 around 2040 and remains very low along the ecliptic in Sagittarius and eventually lower Capricornus. It is at opposition on July 20 in Sagittarius above a small asterism that looks like a fainter version of the Southern Cross to the east of the Teapot’s handle. Pluto is nothing more than a faint spark at magnitude +14.3 and will be only 0.1 arcseconds across.