January 2012

Happy New Year everybody!  Hopefully some of you got a new telescope or some other toys that you play with under the stars.  Long nights, two great evening planets, and the introduction of the winter constellations make January a good month to get outside and look up at night.


First Quarter Moon - 1st (Visible until midnight)

2nd - Close Encounter - Moon & Jupiter - Look to the southeast after sunset on the 2nd and you'll see Jupiter about 5˚ below the Moon.  Take out come binoculars to see the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and the craters on our own Moon.

4th - Possible Meteor Shower - The Quadrantids are predicted to peak around 2-3 a.m. this morning.  Since the waxing gibbous Moon sets around 3 a.m., which means it'll be pretty good viewing conditions.  If you're feeling extra nerdy, try doing a meteor count.  Instructions can be found at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/meteors.

Some advice for watching:

Find a dark location

Lie down in a reclining chair or swimming pool floaty

Look toward the North (a good time to learn your NCP constellations). That is where the radiant is - where the meteors will appear to be coming from.  Keep a wide eye and try to take in the whole sky, instead of staring at one spot or through binoculars or a telescope.

Check the weather to see if the skies will be clear (weather.com has a good map here)

Adapt your eyes to the dark by staying away from light sources or using a red light if you need to look at a star chart or not trip over something.  The moon will be well lit, so try not to look at that as it will also interfere with your night vision.

Full Moon - 9th (Visible all night - East around sunset, West around Sunrise)

12th-13th - Close Encounter - Moon & Mars - Go out after 11pm and find the gibbous Moon in the East-.  Mars is about 13˚ to the left of the Moon on the 12th, and 9˚ above the Moon on the 13th.  Look for the reddish object under Leo's hind-quarters.

Last Quarter Moon - 16th (Visible from midnight into the morning)

16th - Close Encounter - Moon & Saturn - Look to the southeast before sunrise and find the half-lit Moon.  Saturn will be the bright object about 7˚ to the left of the Moon.  These are really interesting in binoculars, given Saturn's rings and the Moon's craters.

New Moon - 22nd (darkest skies)

25th, 26th - Close Encounter - Moon & Venus - Look SW after sunset.  On the 25th, the very thin crescent Moon will be about 10˚ to the right of Venus and on the 26th, the slightly thicker than yesterday's crescent Moon will be about 7˚ above Venus.

29th, 30th - Close Encounter - Moon & Jupiter - Look to the South after sunset on the 29th and you'll see Jupiter about 7˚ to the left of the almost half-lit Moon.  The next night on the 30th, the Moon will have moved to about 6˚ to the left of Jupiter and is now in its first-quarter phase.

First Quarter Moon - 30th (Visible until midnight - second of the month!)

PLANETS...well, the ones visible with your naked eye

Planets you can see around Sunset - Venus (SW), Jupiter (S)

Planets you can see throughout the night - Jupiter (SàW), Mars (WàSW)

Planets you can see in the Morning - Mars (SW), Saturn (S)

Mercury - Not really worth looking for this month if you're a beginner.

VENUS - Look SW after sunset.  From now until May, Venus will be very prominent, then quickly get lower and disappear by the end of May.  If you're looking with your naked eye, it is the brightest object about 30˚ (three fist-widths) above the southwestern horizon.  Below the horizon after 7:30pm.  Close to the Moon on the 25th and 26th right after sunset in the SW.  If you're looking through a telescope at dusk, you may see it in its gibbous phase right now, half-lit in March, then crescent in May.

Mars - Rising around 11pm or earlier in the East, and rises up and toward the SW by morning.  Look for the constellation of Leo and look for the reddish hued point of light under Leo's hindquarters - use a star chart to help.  Close to the Moon on the 12th and 13th.

JUPITER - Already in the South right at sunset and making its way down and to the West throughout the night, setting around 1am.  Close to the Moon on the 2nd, 29th, and 30thExtra Challenge! Point some binoculars toward Jupiter.  You should be able to see the four moons of Jupiter right next to it - Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto - in different configurations each night.  To see these bright points even better, use a telescope.  You may even be able to see the cloud bands on Jupiter.

Saturn - Look S before sunrise and Saturn will make an appearance up to 35˚ above the horizon. Beautifully near the Moon on the morning of the 16th .

CONSTELLATIONS... (see sky map link at the bottom for a Star Map for this month - or ask Mr. Webb)    Look straight up and you'll see...

After Sunset (sunset is around 5:00pm) - Pegasus, Andromeda - Extra Challenge! Using your naked eye (dark-adapted and in a dark area) or binoculars under normal conditions and a star chart, try finding our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy.  It'll be a faint, but bigger, fuzzy in the constellation Andromeda.

Between Sunset and Midnight - Perseus, Auriga - Extra Challenge! Right in the middle of Perseus is an open cluster called Mel 20.  If you take binoculars and look around Perseus, you'll see plenty of stars, but right in the middle where Mel 20 is, there are a lot more than you can see anywhere else in Perseus, hence they call it a cluster of stars.

Midnight - Auriga, Gemini, and the dimmer Lynx will surround the Zenith, with Auriga and Gemini toward Orion and Lynx toward the Big Dipper (Ursa Major)

Early Morning - Boötes (you can also find the Big Dipper's handle, and starting from the inside of the handle, follow the arc that those four stars make past the last star in the handle about 30˚ or three fist-widths to the next very bright star you find which is Arcturus, the base of the constellation Boötes.  Hence astronomers use the phrase "Follow the Arc to Arcturus")


Winter constellations: Orion is easy to spot as he is rising in the East around 6pm.  You can use Orion to find many other winter constellations.

Using Orion: Find Orion by looking for the three stars in a row that make up Orion's belt in the East after 7pm.  If you draw a line from the left (lowest) star to the right (highest) star and keep going right about 20 degrees (about 2 fists at arm's length) until you reach another very bright star, you will have reached the star Aldebaron in Taurus (the V).  Follow that line a little more (about another fist) and you'll find the Pleiades.

If you start at his belt again, but instead go the opposite way and draw a line from the right (highest) star in Orion's belt to the left (lowest) star, and keep going left about 20 degrees (2 fists again), you'll come to the brightest star in the sky - Sirius - part of Canis Major.

Above these three constellations are Gemini and Auriga.  The brightest stars in each of these constellations form a circle in the sky.  Going clockwise - Aldebaron (Taurus) - Rigel (Orion - bottom right foot) - Sirius (Canis Major) - Procyon (Canis Minor) - Castor & Pollux (Gemini) - Capella (Auriga).  It makes for great stargazing in the winter sky.

Use a sky map from www.skymaps.com to help you out.