Monday, January 9, 2012

Astronomy: The January Night Sky

Here are some objects for the unaided eye for the month of January. All of these objects, although small, should be visible without the help of binoculars or a telescope, so long as you have clear dark skies.

Light pollution is a killer for seeing these objects with your unaided eye. To find out how dark your location is, use the Google Map Overlay of light pollution. If you are in a blue, gray or black area then you should have dark enough skies. You may still be able to see some of these objects in a green location. If you aren’t in a dark sky location you may still be able to see these objects with a pair of binoculars or telescope. Snow will add more light pollution due to light reflecting off of it.

You can find help locating the night sky objects listed below by using one of the free sky charts at (scroll down to Northern Hemisphere Edition and click on the PDF for January 2012). The map shows what is in the sky in January at 8 pm for early January; 7 pm for late January.

If you are not familiar with what you see in the night sky, this is a great opportunity to step outside, look up, and begin learning the constellations. The sky is beautiful and filled with many treasures just waiting for you to discover them. Once you have looked for these objects go through the list again if you have a pair of binoculars handy, the views get better!

New note: Measuring Degrees with your hands, proportionally works for people of all ages. With your arm fully extended out:

Width of your pinky finger is 1°
Width of your ring, middle, and index finger equals 5°
Width of your fist equals 10°
Width from tip to tip of index finger and pinky finger stretched out equals 15°
Width from tip to tip of your thumb and pinky finger stretched out equals 25°

The Moon
January 8th Full Moon

January 10th The Moon is near a cluster of stars in the constellation Cancer known as the Beehive cluster.

January 14th The Moon south of Mars, about 9°.

January 16th Is the Last Quarter Moon below Saturn and the star Spica.

January 23rd Is the New Moon, great night if clear to go out and learn some constellations and do some star gazing.

January 26th The thin crescent Moon will be about 6° from Venus after sunset in the West.

January 30th The Moon will be 6° above the planet Jupiter.

Mercury rises 90 minutes before sunrise in the southeast and will be about 9° above the horizon. Don’t confuse Mercury with the ruddy glow of the star Antares. Mercury may be quite tough to spot with the twilight glow, but if you’re up early enough in the morning it worth giving a look to see if you can spot the innermost planet. Every day Mercury will get closer to the horizon, disappearing by the middle of January.

Venus can be found in the southwest just after sunset all throughout the month of January about 15° above the horizon.

Mars rises after 10pm in the constellation Leo, and nearly 2 hours earlier by the end of the month.
Mars will move into the constellation Virgo by January 14th as it moves slowly eastward in our sky. By January 24th the eastward motion of Mars will come to a halt as the red planet then switches direction and makes it way back into the constellation Leo by the first week of February.
Throughout the month of January Mars will actually double in brightness going from a magnitude 0.2 to -0.5 as we get ever closer to Mars in our orbit. Do not be fooled by any e-mails you may get about Mars being as big as the Moon in the sky, it is a hoax, Mars will never be that large from Earth.

Jupiter will be some 60° above the southern horizon at nightfall shining at a magnitude of -2.5 and will be setting 4 minutes earlier each day as we go through the month of January.

Starting to come up a little earlier, Saturn will be visible in the East around 1:30am within the constellation Virgo at about 6° east-northeast from the constellations brightest star Spica.

The constellation Orion can be seen rising in the East after sunset. This is one of the most well known constellations and within it is one of astronomers favorite nebula; M42 also called the Great Nebula in Orion. If you are in a dark enough location you may be able to see this nebula with the unaided eye. Look for Orion’s belt and look for the 3 stars that are perpendicular to the belt. The middle star in this group of 3 is actually a small cluster of stars within a nebula of dust and debris. This can be seen as a small hazy glow around this middle star.

To the East of the square of Pegasus, attached to it in most drawings of the constellations, is the constellation Andromeda. If you find the bright star Mirach and follow the chain of 3 stars to the North it will bring you to the Andromeda galaxy in clear dark skies.

The constellation Triangulum is to the South of Andromeda. Made up of only 3 stars forming a triangle shape.

A great grouping of stars in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Looking at it has always reminded me of a smaller version of the little dipper. In dark locations you can see anywhere from 5-7 and possibly a few more stars in this grouping. It has also been called the seven sisters and is actually a Messier object, number 45. These are very hot blue and extremely luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years. This grouping of stars has quite a bit of history in mythology. It rises about 45 minutes earlier than Orion in the East.

The Double Cluster, cataloged as NGC 869 and NGC 884 is a beautiful cluster that shows quite a group of stars with the unaided eye which appear faint and fuzzy.
Look for a grouping of stars around the brightest star in Perseus, Mirphak.

Ursa Major
Rising in the North-Northeast after sunset. Mizar and Alcor is a double star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Was once used as a test of good eyesight before glasses. Mizar resolves into a beautiful blue-white and greenish white binary (double star system). They are labeled on the map I linked to above.

Photo Above: Image of the double cluster in Perseus. Taken by Michael Rector.

Michael Rector is an amateur astronomer with his own blog, Adirondack Astronomy.

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Although he now lives in Clinton County, amateur astronomer Michael Rector has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at [email protected]


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