January 2015

Sun and Moon

FULL MOON occurs on the 5th at 06:53 AM. LAST QUARTER (half moon in the morning sky) falls on the 13th. NEW MOON is on the 20th at 15:14 PM. FIRST QUARTER (half moon in the evening sky) falls on the 27th.

On the 20th the young lunar crescent will be visible from a region in the north pacific. It may be visible with optical aid from the western US and north west Mexico. On the 21st the crescent will be visible worldwide apart from the southernmost tip of South America, Australia and New Zealand. An optical aid may be needed to view the crescent in northern Australia.

On the 9th at 20:18 PM the Moon will be at apogee (furthest from Earth) at a distance of 405 410 km. The Moon will be at perigee (closest approach to Earth) at a distance of 359 642 km on the 21st at  22:07 PM.

Planetary and Other Events – Morning and Evening

Mercury is visible in the evening sky close to the Sun at the beginning of the month, but is lost in the Sun’s glare by month’s end as it approaches conjunction. Venus shines brilliantly as an evening star all month. Mars is visible from dusk until around 22:20 PM at the beginning of the month and sets an hour earlier by month’s end. Jupiter is visible from around 22:20 PM at the beginning of the month and is visible until daybreak for the entire month. It rises slightly earlier each night and by month’s end it rises around 20:00 PM. Saturn rises in the early hours of the morning and is visible until daybreak all month. Uranus and Neptune are both visible from sunset. Uranus sets around 00:40 AM at the beginning of the month, gradually setting earlier each night until the end of the month when it sets around 22:40 PM. Neptune sets before 23:00 PM all month and by month’s end it is set before 21:00 PM.

Several meteor showers are active in January. The Puppid-Velids are active from December 5th 2014 to January 7th 2015, peaking on the 29th of December 2014. The alpha Crucids, in the constellation of the Southern Cross (Crux) are active from the 6th January – 28th January, peaking on the 19th. The alpha Centaurids, in the constellation of Centaurus are active from the 28th January to the 21st February, peaking on the 7th of February. Observing prospects for the alpha Crucids are good as they coincide with new Moon. They are best viewed between 00:00 AM and 03:30 AM looking towards the constellation of Crux.  Hourly rates are expected to be around 5 meteors per hour at the maximum.

The Evening Sky Stars

Low in the north in the evening are the stars variously known as the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, or IsiLimela. There are six stars in this cluster which are fairly easily visible to the naked eye, and hundreds that can be seen through a telescope. Located about 420 light years away, this is a group of stars which formed from a cloud of interstellar dust and gas about 120 million years ago. The Pleaides stars easily visible to the naked eye are all more than a 100 times as bright as our Sun – our own Sun only looks brighter because it is 27 million times closer to us! Above and to the right of the Pleiades is another cluster of stars called the Hyades, making up the muzzle of Taurus the Bull. The Hyades are about 150 light years away, and about 600 million years old. Bright orange Aldebaran looks as though it ought to be part of this loose group, but is only located in the same direction and, at only 64 light years away, is less than half as distant. It is, however, the most luminous star within a hundred light years of us.

Low on the northern horizon glitters Capella, brightest star in Auriga the Charioteer. As with other bright stars, the effects of atmospheric refraction can cause it to twinkle vigorously when near the horizon, appearing to flash in multiple colours. In July 1951, a pilot in northern Michigan chased Capella for half an hour under the impression that it was a UFO. Given that Capella is 42 light years away, it is not surprising he did not catch it.

High in the NNE are the brilliant stars of Orion, with the twins (Castor and Pollux), lower in the NE. Below Orion in the ENE (below Orion and to the right of the twins) is Procyon, brightest star in Orion’s smaller hunting dog. At only 11 light years away, Procyon is one of our nearest neighbours. Sirius is even nearer, high in the East in January evenings, at only 9 light years distant, and both have dim companions called “white dwarfs”, which are no larger than planets. The diameter of Procyon’s companion is only about 30% larger than the diameter of our Earth, while Procyon’s diameter is millions of kilometers! A white dwarf is a star that has used up its nuclear fuel, and is slowly cooling down until its crystallises, which typically takes billions of years. It still glows, but only with stored energy. Procyon’s companion, for example, is only 0.06% as bright as the Sun.

Canopus, the second brightest star in the Earth’s skies, is a bit SE of the zenith (the point overhead). South of the zenith is Achernar at the Southern end of the Celestial River, while Fomalhaut is the brightest star in the SW. In the southern half of the sky in January there is a curious blend of birds and water creatures (including the Southern Fish, the Crane, The Toucan, The Phoenix, The Peacock, the Bird of Paradise, the Flying Fish, the Swordfish and the Water Snake), mixed with mechanical and scientific constellations such as the Octant, the Pendulum Clock, the Chemical Furnace, the Microscope, the Engraving Tool and the Eyepiece Reticle. The Southern Cross and Pointers are very low in the SW even from the Cape, and invisible from northern South Africa.

The Morning Sky Stars

Bright stars in the northern half of the sky include Regulus and Procyon in the northwest, orange Arcturus in the northeast. Blue-white Spica is much higher in the northeast. Spica is the brightest of the stars in Virgo, which represents a goddess of ancient mythology. Which goddess is a bit more mysterious, as some claim she was a goddess of the harvest, others a goddess of justice.

The Cross and the Pointers (the two brightest stars in Centaurus) are high in the south in the predawn January sky, with the three stars of the imaginatively named Southern Triangle directly below the Pointers. The Keel, the Sails, the Poop Deck (constellations seen to the right of the Southern Cross while facing south) were once part of the single giant constellation of Argo Navis, the Argonaut’s Ship that sailed to find the Golden Fleece. Just above the Southern Cross and the Housefly are the stars of the great ship Argo as it sails along the Milky Way, accompanied by the dim stars of the Flying Fish. The Milky Way stretches across the morning sky from east to west, a bit south of the zenith, with the bright stars of the Scorpion now rising in the east before dawn. The brightest star in Scorpio, Antares (‘rival of Mars’) appears much dimmer than nearby Venus and Jupiter, and for that matter considerably dimmer than Mars this January, but Mars and Antares are not visible at the same time for comparison.

Still very high in the January predawn sky is Hydra the Water Monster, with the Cup mounted on its back and the Crow flying nearby. The brightest star in Hydra is Alphard, high in the NW in the January predawn sky. At a distance of 175 light years away, Alphard is a giant star 40 times the diameter of our Sun, and would stretch halfway to the orbit of Mercury if placed where the Sun is. Since Alphard is also 400 times as bright as the sun, we’d be crispy is a jiffy!

Nicola Loaring   31 December 2014

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