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Urban Observing January 2015 January 1, 2015

Posted by aquillam in Astronomy, MichiganAstro, Urban Observing.
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Special events

What better way to start a year then with a comet. Already a naked-eye object at the end of December, comet Lovejoy should brighten more during January, making it a good binocular target for urban skies. It starts the month in the constellation Lepus, just below Orion’s feet. It then travels up past Orion, through Taurus, Aries and Triangulum. On Feb 2, you’ll find it next to Almach, the foot of Andromeda. Look for it especially January 13-20, when you’ll have less interference from the waning moon, and the comet should be at its brightest. Also, it’s not too far from the Pleiades on those days. There’s a great map, not to mention an article with some spectacular pictures, on the Sky and Telescope website.

Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades at 9 PM on January 17.

Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades at 9 PM on January 17.

Some of you will enjoy knowing that perihelion, Earth’s closest position to the Sun, occurs on January 4 this year. Some of you will, of course, be confused because January is the coldest part of winter here in the northern hemisphere. Just remember, it’s the tilt and whoever gets more sunlight, not the distance that counts. After all, it’s summer down south right now!

Meteor showers

The year kicks off with what could be one of the best meteor showers of the year. Unfortunately, the Quadrantids have a very short peak, and the weather in the northern hemisphere at this time of year tends to be terrible for observing. Also, a gibbous Moon interferes this year. Still, with a typical rate of 25 meteors per hour bright enough to see in the glare of the full moon, and a high number of fireballs, this shower is worth a look even for urban observers. The peak should occur at 2:00 UT on January 4, which is 10 PM on January 3 in the eastern standard time zone. The radiant doesn’t rise until 11 PM, but early observers might get the chance to see a few meteors shooting up from the northern horizon.

A full sky map showing comet Lovejoy and the location of the radiant of the Quadrantids meteor shower

The sky on January 3 at 11 PM. The meteor shower radiant is just rising in the NNE, and comet Lovejoy is in the south.

There are a large number of radiants located along the ecliptic from Cancer to Virgo. While none of these is sufficiently active to generate a shower, the overall meteor activity at this time of year is increased. If you have insomnia, or work third shift, this is a good time of year to go out on any clear night between midnight and dawn and look up. For details on a week by week basis, be sure to check out the American meteor Society website: http://www.amsmeteors.org/category/meteor-showers/

Moon

Full: Jan. 5
New: Jan 20

Planets

Mercury and Venus peek out of the sunset twilight together at the start of the month. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on January 14. Being mid-month, you might think that means it’ll be visible in the evening all month, but as it heads back toward conjunction and away from Venus, its apparent motion speeds up, and it vanishes into the glare of the Sun around the 25th. The two planets are less than a degree apart on January 11. A day old young Moon joins the pair on January 21, but it will be difficult to spot even with a telescope. Venus meanwhile heads toward an early February conjunction with Neptune.

Venus and Mercury with the rays of the setting Sun

Venus and Mercury, less than half a degree apart, at 5:45 PM on January 11.

Mars continues its slow progress toward conjunction in late spring. It passes slowly through Capricorn and Aquarius this month. Look for it within 2 hours of sunset. It passes less than a degree from Neptune on the 19th, and there’s a good binocular conjunction of Mars, Neptune and a young Moon on the 22.

The starfield with Mars, Neptune, and Sigma Aquarii  marked.

Mars and Neptune, only 0.5º apart, at 8 PM on January 19. This image is about 1 1/2° across, so It shows what you might see through binoculars or a small telescope.

Mars, Neptune, and a young Moon above Venus on January 22nd at 7 PM.

Mars, Neptune, and a young Moon above Venus on January 22nd at 7 PM.

Jupiter is well up by 10 PM this month. It is in retrograde right now, so look for it between Leo and Cancer, headed slowly closer to Cancer. There is a nice conjunction with the gibbous moon on the 7th.

Jupiter and the Moon in the east at 10 PM on January 7.

Jupiter and the Moon in the east at 10 PM on January 7.

Saturn is the gem of the dawn skies this month. Between Libra and Scorpio, it is best viewed around 7 AM at the beginning of the month, and around 6 AM at the end. There should be a stunning grouping of Saturn, Scorpio’s claws, and a waning crescent moon on the morning of January 16.

Saturn , the lone planet of the eastern predawn skies. Shown here at 7 AM on January 16.

Saturn , the lone planet of the eastern predawn skies. Shown here at 7 AM on January 16.

Deep sky Objects

Early sunsets and clear, dry air make January one of the best months for deep sky observing with a small telescope. Of course, you should definitely bundle up!

The Orion nebula, or M42, is one of the nicest objects. Binoculars are enough to show a hint of fuzz and the cluster of the stars. A small telescope resolves the 4 young type O stars at the core even in very bad skies.

January is a good time to catch the Beehive cluster, or M44, in Cancer. A naked eye object in dark skies, it shows up nicely in binoculars or a small telescope even in badly light polluted skies. Find it by about half way between Castor and Regulus.

The early sunset also means you can still catch the Andromeda galaxy, M31 around 9 pm.

While you’re in that area,be sure to look for the Blue Snowball planetary nebula, NGC 7662. A nebula, sky, or O2 filter help a lot with this in light polluted skies.

Full sky map for 9 PM on January 15.

Full sky map for 9 PM on January 15.

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