January 2020 guide to the bright planets

In January 2020, dazzling Venus lights up the early evening sky. Moderately-bright red Mars comes up before dawn. Late in the month, you might catch elusive Mercury at dusk and giant Jupiter at dawn. Ringed Saturn hides in the sun’s glare all month.

Click the name of a planet to learn more about its visibility in January 2020:

Evening planets: Venus (all month) and Mercury (late January)
Morning planets: Mars (all month) and Jupiter (late January)

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Positions of moon on four days with Venus and Mercury at dusk.

The young waxing crescent moon joins up with the dazzling planet Venus by the month’s end. Use Venus and the lit side of the waxing lunar crescent to help guide you to Mercury’s location near the horizon. Read more.

Venus – the brightest planet – blazes mightily in the western sky after sunset. In fact, it’s the only bright planet to light up these January evenings all month long, although Mercury might fleetingly appear at dusk by the month’s end. Given clear skies, it’ll be hard to miss Venus, the third-brightest celestial body to light up the heavens, after the sun and moon, respectively. Some sharp-sighted people can even see Venus in a daytime sky.

Watch for the young waxing crescent moon to join up with Venus on January 27 and 28. You can also use Venus and the lit side of the waxing crescent moon to help you find Mercury at the month’s end. (See sky chart above.)

Venus is in good view from around the world, though it stays out longer after dark at more northerly latitudes.

At mid-northern latitudes, Venus sets about 2 3/4 hours after sunset at the beginning of the month, and about 3 1/3 hours after sundown by the month’s end.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Venus sets roughly 2 hours after sunset all month long.

Mercury might become visible after sunset, either to the eye alone or binoculars, near the month’s end. Starting around January 26 or 27, use the lit side of the waxing crescent moon to find Mercury near the sunset point on the horizon at evening dusk. (See sky chart above.) The more northerly latitudes have the advantage for catching Mercury in late January.

Near the end of the month, at mid-northern latitudes, Mercury sets about 1 hour after sunset..

Near the end of the month, at temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury sets about 3/4 hour after sunset.

Mercury will stay out longer after sunset during the first few weeks of February 2020. Mercury reaches its greatest elongation (18 degrees west from the sun) on February 10. This evening apparition of Mercury favors the Northern Hemisphere.

However, the Southern Hemisphere will enjoy the advantage when Mercury becomes a morning object in March and April 2020.

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Positions of moon on three days with Mars and Antares before dawn.

Use the old waning crescent moon to find the red planet Mars before sunrise on January 19, 20 and 21, 2020. Read more.

Mars is the only bright planet to adorn the predawn sky throughout January 2020.

At mid-northern latitudes, Mars rises about 3 hours before the sun throughout January.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mars comes up about 2 1/2 hours before sunrise in early January, and nearly 4 hours before the sun by the month’s end.

Mars is now in that part of its cycle with respect to Earth in which it’ll hover – modestly-bright and perhaps not at all prominent – in our predawn sky for some months. Mars was in conjunction with the sun, or almost behind the sun as seen from Earth – on September 2, 2019. And now it remains far across the solar system from us, with Earth speeding around in its orbit, trying to catch Mars again. But it’ll be some months before we catch it.

And thus Mars alternates years in being bright in our sky, or faint. 2019 was a dull year, but 2020 will be an exciting one, for Mars! It’ll start slowly, though, with Mars sitting low in the east as the year begins. January, February, March, April 2020 … you’ll still find Mars doing nothing much, low in the east before sunup. Earth will still be far across the solar system from Mars, but rushing along in our smaller, faster orbit, trying to catch up. As northern summer 2020 approaches, Mars will begin to change. It’ll begin to brighten more dramatically as, finally, Earth begins to catch up to Mars. The red planet will appear brightest in our sky – very bright indeed and fiery red – around the time of its opposition on October 13, 2020.

Let the old moon help guide your eye to Mars for several mornings, centered on or near January 20, as shown on the sky chart above.

Positions of crescent moon on 4 days, with Jupiter, Mars and Antares.

By the way, the red planet Mars is easily visible before dawn right now, but this modestly-bright world may fade from view by the time that Jupiter rises into your sky. Read more.

Jupiter – the second-brightest planet – is nominally a morning planet all month long. Despite its brightness, Jupiter sits too close to the glare of sunrise to be visible in early January. By mid-month or so, look for Jupiter to appear above the sunrise point on the horizon as the predawn darkness gives way to dawn. Before sunrise on January 20, 21 and 22, let the slender waning crescent moon help guide you to Jupiter, as shown on the sky chart above.

At mid-northern latitudes, Jupiter rises about 50 minutes before the sun in mid-January and nearly 1 1/2 hours before the sun by the month’s end.

At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter rises about 1 hour before the sun in mid-January and 2 hours before the sun by the month’s end.

Watch for Jupiter to become quite prominent in the morning sky throughout February 2020. On March 20, 2020, Jupiter will catch up with Mars to display a dazzling planetary conjunction in the predawn sky. (See sky chart below.)

Chart: Thin crescent moon and morning planets with Jupiter and Mars extremely close together.

This year, in 2020, the planets Mars and Jupiter are in conjunction on the March 20th equinox.

Saturn sits in the glare of the sun all month long. Saturn passes directly behind the sun on January 13, 2020, to transition from the evening to morning sky. Your first glimpse of Saturn in the morning sky will probably have to wait until February 2020.

What do we mean by bright planet? By bright planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually 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.

silhouette of man against the sunset sky with bright planet and crescent moon.

Skywatcher, by Predrag Agatonovic.

Bottom line: In January 2020, dazzling Venus lights up dusk and early evening sky whereas moderately-bright Mars comes up before dawn. Late in the month, you might catch Mercury low in the west at dusk and Jupiter above the eastern horizon at dawn. Saturn, in the meanwhile, hides in the glare of the sun.

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Bruce McClure