01 Jan Whats Up – January 2023
In a nutshell…
Moon – Earth Relations
Perigee: 356 569 km on 21/01 at 22h56
Apogee: 406 458 km on 08/01 at 11h19
Mercury is visible for part of the month near the stars of the constellation Sagittarius
Venus is visible near the stars of the constellation Capricornus
Mars is visible near the stars of the constellation Taurus
Jupiter is visible near the stars of the constellation Pisces
Saturn is visible near the stars of the constellation Capricornus
Some easy to identify bright stars
Rigel: blue supergiant in Orion
Betelgeuse: red supergiant in Orion
Procyon: yellowish white star in Canis Minor
Sirius: brightest star in the night sky, located in Canis Major
Antares: red supergiant in Scorpius
Arcturus: red giant in Boötes
Spica: brightest bluish-white star in Virgo
Canopus: yellowish-white star in Carina
Altair: a white star, brightest in Aquila
Regulus: blue–white star and the brightest star in Leo
The Pointers: Alpha and Beta Centauri
Sun and Moon
The Full Moon occurs on the 7th of January at 01h07. The Last Quarter Moon falls on the 15th at 04h10 and the New Moon occurs on the 21st of January at 22h53. The First Quarter Moon falls on the 28th of January at 17h18.
On the 21st of January at 22h56, the Moon will be at perigee (closest approach to Earth) at a distance of 356 569 km. The Moon will be at apogee (furthest from Earth) at a distance of 406 458 km on the 8th of January at 11h19.
Planetary and Other Events – Morning and Evening
The five naked-eye planets are still visible this month. Mercury is located near the stars of the constellation Sagittarius and initially is increasingly difficult to spot due to solar glare. Mercury reaches inferior conjunction on the 7th of January and crosses into the morning sky, becoming visible again a few days later. Venus is located near the stars of the constellation Capricornus. Venus will be near the Moon on the 23rd of January and it will be near Saturn on the 22nd of January. Mars, the red planet, is located near the stars of the constellation Taurus. Mars will be near the Moon on the 3rd, and again on the 30th of January. On the 3rd observers located in Southern Africa have the opportunity to observe the lunar occultation of Mars. Jupiter is located near the stars of the constellation Pisces and will be near the Moon on the 24th of January. Saturn is located near the stars of the constellation Capricornus and will be near the Moon on the 23rd of January.
Several meteor showers are active in January. The alpha Crucids, in the constellation of the Southern Cross (Crux), are active from the 6th of January to the 28th of January, peaking on the 19th. The alpha Centaurids, in the constellation of Centaurus, are active from the 28th of January to the 21st of February, peaking on the 7th of February. They are best viewed between 22h00 and 03:30 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 it 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 a distance of only 9 light years. Both stars 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 it 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, and 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, while others maintain she was 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. Look out for the brightest star in Scorpio, Antares (‘rival of Mars’).
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, Alphard is a giant star 40 times the diameter of our Sun, and it 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!
The evening sky over Cape Town
The evening sky over Johannesburg