2023 is only three weeks old, but we’re already on the verge of seeing the closest naked-eye observable pairing of planets this year.
Venus and Saturn will conjunct Sunday (January 22), appearing close enough to each other in the sky to both be seen through a telescope. The close pairing will also be visible to the naked eye.
These two planets, plus a crescent moon, will present an ever-changing display at dusk during this weekend through early next week. The planets will lower as the twilight deepens, so be sure to have a clear, unobstructed west-southwest horizon for the best view.
Related: Night sky, January 2023: what you can see tonight [maps]
The planetary principles
Anyone looking about an hour after sunset will immediately see Venus, which has been part of the evening sky since late November. As usual, Venus is shining brightly (it is currently at magnitude -3.9).
This is the start of a spectacular nocturnal appearance of Venus, which will literally see her soar high in the skies in late spring while doubling in brightness.
The other planet is Saturn, which is as bright as a first magnitude star; at magnitude +0.8, it would rank twelfth among the list of 21 brightest stars (between Altair and Aldebaran). And yet, despite this very respectable level of brightness, it appears dark next to dazzling Venus; a huge difference in brightness in which Saturn will only appear 1/76 as bright. And Saturn can actually be somewhat difficult to spot in the evening twilight without optical aid. Binoculars will be most beneficial.
But unlike the rise of Venus, Saturn lowers with each passing night and sinks deeper and deeper into the brightening of evening twilight as it approaches the February 16 solar conjunction.
Read more: Saturn: Everything You Need to Know About the Ringed Wonder
A weekend pass
So, during this weekend, watch the bright Venus pass in front of Saturn. On Saturday (January 21), Saturn will stand just over a degree above and very slightly to the left of Venus. This measures about twice the apparent width of the moon.
The next evening (Sunday, January 22), Venus will be just 0.35 degrees left and slightly below Saturn. This is equivalent to a little less than three quarters of the width of the moon; you can place both planets in the same field of view of a low power telescope. Venus appears as a relatively small, featureless gibbous disk. As for Saturn, Murray Paulson in the Observer’s Handbook of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada notes:
“With its incredible ring system, Saturn is perhaps the most spectacular planet in the solar system. The rings are visible even in high-power stabilized (or image-stabilized) binoculars and small spotting scopes.”
In my personal experience, a telescope equipped with an eyepiece magnifying at least 30x will easily bring the rings into view. They are currently tilted more than ten degrees from our line of sight.
Read more: Venus: the second burning planet from the sun
And then there is the moon
In addition to this nocturnal exposure, our closest neighbor in space; an extremely narrow crescent moon (illuminated at 2%) will pass in front of the planet duo during the evenings of Sunday (January 22) and Monday (January 23). You’ll most definitely need binoculars on Sunday to scan the bright twilight sky just half an hour after sunset to initially catch a glimpse of the moon.
Venus should be fairly easy to see, but then there’s the matter of catching Saturn as well as the moon sliver – just a day after the new phase – which will be positioned at the end of a vertical line extending eight degrees below the two planets. (For comparison, your clenched fist held at arm’s length is about ten degrees wide.)
The next evening – Monday (January 23) – the whole setup will have changed drastically.
Look at it in darker west-southwest skies about an hour after sunset. You will immediately notice that Venus has moved to a position about one degree to the upper left of Saturn. And a slightly larger crescent moon (illuminated at 6% and much easier to see) will have swept across the planets and will now be visible about eight degrees to the top left.
Read more: What is the moon phase today? Lunar phases 2023
In reality, they are all widely separated
Finally, keep in mind that when you look at this gathering of the skinny moon and two planets in the evening sky this weekend, that in reality they are all at varying distances from our Earth perspective. In fact, the moon is now about as close to Earth as it will be all year, reaching an extreme perigee distance Saturday (January 21) of 221,700 miles (356,600 km), followed by Venus at around 143 million miles (230 million kilometers). Finally, farthest of all is Saturn, 998 million miles (1.61 billion km).
If you don’t have all the optics you need to get a good look at Venus, Saturn, or anything else in the night sky, our guides to the best telescopes and binoculars are a great place to start. If you’re looking to take pictures of the night sky, check out our guides to the best cameras for astrophotography and the best lenses for astrophotography.
Joe Rao is an instructor and guest speaker at New York’s Hayden Planetarium (opens in a new tab). He writes on astronomy for natural history journal (opens in a new tab)them Farmers Almanac (opens in a new tab) and other publications. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) and on Facebook (opens in a new tab).