It’s late January in Nairobi, at the height of summer in this corner of the world. Nairobi is located a degree below the equator hence experiencing southern hemisphere summer which starts from December 21st to March 21st. As is the norm in summer, daytime skies are almost always devoid of clouds, a blue hue hugging the horizons from sunrise to sunset.
The phenomenon of the sky sans cloud cover extends into the night to the delight of sky gazers. This year, the sky gazing experience has taken a spectacular dimension, with a rare pile up in celestial traffic easily visible through the naked eye. Just after sunset, Venus can be clearly seen in the western sky. That Venus is the 3rd brightest celestial object in the sky (after the sun and moon) and the brightest of the eight planets makes it easily identifiable in the night sky. The planet is visible for about an hour after sunset, slowly descending into the western horizon and getting brighter before setting.The image below shows how you can identify Venus on the evening of January 26th 2012.
Joining Venus in lighting up the evening sky is the solar system’s largest planet Jupiter. Jupiter, the fourth brightest heavenly body, has been clearly visible in Nairobi right after sunset for the better part of the past three months. Look out for a bright object directly overhead after the sun sets. With Venus setting an hour after sunset, Jupiter monopolizes the western half of the sky before setting at around midnight.
At around 11pm, the third planet visible without aid rises in the eastern sky. Mars is approaching its closest position relative to our planet Earth in two years, making it seem brighter and redder than usual. This is the best time to view the red planet. Mars is visible throughout the night, perching itself low in the western sky just before sunrise.
To add to the excitement, Jupiter and Venus are heading for a spectacular conjunction reminiscent of the famous smiley 🙂 phenomenon of December 2008. Each day, Venus climbs higher up the sky taking a longer time to set than the previous day. As such, Venus is seen for a few more minutes each day than the previous day. The opposite is true for Jupiter as it descends down the sky, visible for fewer minutes than the previous day. To put it simply, the distance between Venus and Jupiter at sunset reduces each day as the ‘edge closer’ to each other. This will culminate in the two planets visually appearing to be next to each other or even ‘colliding’ with each other.
Those are three planets effortlessly visible and including earth, four of the eight planets in our solar system seen through the naked eye. I don’t know about you but seeing half of the solar system in one night is something to get excited about. Add this to the fact that the greatest concentration of stars and constellations in the sky (including the famous Orion and the brightest star Sirius) is visible in southern latitudes makes for the some of best sky gazing experiences I have indulged in. With the moon being two days old and setting soon after sunset, tonight would be a good day to make your sky gazing debut soon after the sun sets. Seize the chance. Enjoy.