The Night Sky This Month (January 2012)
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Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, glitters in the south
this month. Red Betelgeuse is to its upper right, while white Procyon
stands above and to its left. Capella appears directly overhead this
month at 10 P.M. local time from mid-northern latitudes. Observers
below latitude 35 degrees north will find Canopus due south around 10
P.M. local time, just beneath Sirius.
Innermost Mercury shines at magnitude -0.4 and can be spotted 10
degrees above the southeastern horizon a half-hour before sunrise.
Your best chance to see the planet is in early January, as Mercury
sinks toward the horizon with each passing morning and will disappear
by the middle of the month. Through a telescope, Mercury shows a
6"-diameter disk that is 80-percent illuminated.
Venus is often considered the Evening Star or the Morning Star,
depending on which time of day it is up and dominating the twilight.
For example, until late May 2012, Venus will appear as a brilliant
yellow star in the evening sky, right after sunset. Located 25
degrees above the southwestern horizon half an hour after sundown, it
remains on view until after 8 P.M. local time.
Mars pokes above the eastern horizon around 10 P.M. local time and is
well up in the south before dawn. The planet is on its way to
opposition next March, when it will be at its closest approach to
Earth and will reach a width of 14". Right now, the disk is less than
10"-wide, too small to show features in most instruments.
Jupiter reached opposition to the Sun in late October, 2011, when it
was closest to Earth and at its largest and brightest. Although
Jupiter is now slowly receding from our home planet, it remains
visible well after midnight and looks stunning through a telescope.
The gas giant shines at magnitude -2.6 and lies in a star-barren
region near the border between Aries and Cetus.
Throughout January, Saturn is 40 degrees high in the south as dawn
begins, and gets a little higher every morning. The ringed planet
resides among the background stars of Virgo the Maiden and remains
within 5 degrees of the blue-white star Spica all month.
Uranus lies in the same binocular field of view as Lambda Piscium,
the star that forms the southeast corner of the "Circlet" in Pisces,
and is itself an easy binocular target. The planet glows at magnitude
+5.9 and looks just like a star of that brightness. A telescope easily
reveals its 3.4"-diameter disk, which has a distinct blue-green color.
Seek out Neptune in western Aquarius, 1.5 degrees north of the
4th-magnitude star Iota Aquarii. The distant world lies 2.8 billion
miles from Earth and glows dimly at magnitude +7.9. A 4-inch diameter
telescope is probably the minimum required to see the planet and
resolve its disk, only 2.4" across.
The dwarf planet is barely emerging from the glow of dawn, so it will
be obscured for many observers. It will not be high enough above the
horizon for telescopic viewing until about mid-February.
The best time to observe Vesta is in the early evening, when Aquarius
the Water Bearer - the constellation through which the asteroid tracks
- is highest above the southwestern horizon. Delta Aquarii serves as a
good guidepost for following the slow nightly motion of 8th-magnitude
Vesta, but it may take a few nights of telescopic observing before
you notice the asteroid's movement.
Asteroid 15 Eunomia provides an opportunity to test your observing
skills - spotting it requires a lot of patience and a dark-sky
observing site, far from city lights. The asteroid shines at
magnitude +9 and can be found in Taurus, close to the Pleiades. The
best time to search for it is in the evening, when Taurus is highest
above the horizon.
C/2009 P1 Garradd
Comet Garradd can be found among the background stars of the
constellation Hercules, a few degrees east of the globular cluster
M13, and according to recent reports, it should glow at 7th
magnitude. The key to finding C/2009 P1 Garradd is to start about one
hour before sunrise from a site that has an unobstructed view of the
P/2006 T1 Levy
Comet P/2006 T1 Levy was discovered in 2006 and takes slightly longer
than five years to orbit the Sun on a track that brings it from
Earth's neighborhood out to Jupiter's. The comet is expected to reach
about 7th-magnitude sometime around mid-January and moves quickly
across the evening sky. It starts the month in Pegasus and traverses
both Pisces and Cetus before winding up in Eridanus.
The Quadrantids, a major annual meteor shower, are visible from
December 28 through January 12. The peak of activity is much sharper
than that of most showers, lasting only a few hours; this year the
peak should arrive around 7:00 UT (2:00 A.M. EST) on Wednesday
morning, January 4th. At best over one hundred Quadrantids an hour
can be seen, although the meteors of this shower are not as bright as
other great displays such as the Perseids and Geminids.
The Coma Berenicids
Coma Berenicid meteors come from a radiant very easy to locate, near
the large naked eye star cluster designated Melotte 111. In early
January, the radiant rises about 11 P.M. local time and is nearly
overhead at predawn. This weak shower has no definite peak and lasts
approximately from December 12 to January 23. Although activity is
low (with an average fall rate of three meteors per hour), this
shower still warrants study.
January 1 - First Quarter Moon at 1:15 A.M. EST.
January 2 - The Moon is at apogee, the point in its orbit when it is
farthest from Earth.
January 4 - The Quadrantid meteor shower is at peak activity. The
Earth is at perihelion, its annual closest approach to the Sun.
January 5 - The Moon is 3.1 degrees south of the Pleiades star
cluster at 4:17 A.M. EST.
January 9 - Full Moon at 2:30 A.M. EST.
January 16 - The Moon is 2 degrees south of Spica (Alpha Virginis) at
2:21 A.M. EST. Last Quarter Moon at 4:08 A.M. EST.
January 17 - The Moon is at perigee, the point in its orbit when it
is nearest to Earth.
January 23 - New Moon at 2:39 A.M. EST.
January 30 - The Moon is at apogee, the point in its orbit when it is
farthest from Earth. First Quarter Moon at 11:10 P.M. EST.