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The Night Sky of January

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For January 2014, the Moon will be first quarter on January 7th. It will not interfere with the peak for Quadrantid Meteor Shower on the morning of January 4th, with perhaps 30 meteors per hour coming out of the NE in the morning sky. The first two weeks find the moon waxing in the evening sky. The waxing crescent moon sits 4 degrees north of a very slender crescent Venus on January 2nd.

The full moon, the Moon of the breaking branches, passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter on January 14th. The last quarter moon is on January 24th. The waning crescent moon passes 4 degrees south of Mars on the morning of January 23rd, and then passes just south of Saturn on the morning of January 25th; this will be an occultation for those farther south. By the end of the month, Venus has passed between us and the Sun, and is joined in the morning sky on January 28th. The new moon is on January 30th, and begins the Chinese New Year. It has a nice conjunction with Mercury on January 31st, about 45 minutes after sunset; the moon will be just to the right of Mercury, a good photo op!

Venus is a very slender crescent, low in the SW right after sunset at the start of the month. It passes between us and the Sun at midmonth (but does not actually transit the sunís disk, alas!) and then moves into the dawn for the next several months. Mercury moves into the evening sky at midmonth, and is at its greatest eastern elongation on January 31st, when it is joined by the waxing crescent moon. Mars is distant and faint, in the morning sky moving eastward in Virgo. It passes 5 degrees north of Spica on January 28th.

Jupiter is at its best this month, rising in the NE at sunset on January 5th. It lies in the middle of Gemini, south of the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. Opposition also finds Venus setting about the same time Venus is rising as January starts, so you can spot the two brightest planets on opposite sides of the sky for a few days. It is our featured photo, with EAAA member Rick Johnstonís photo of it showing the famed Great Red Spot, and the two inner Galilean Moons. These four moons are visible in any small scope, and their changing patterns in a matter of minutes are fascinating. Saturn rises about 2:30 AM as January begins, and will reach opposition on May 10th this year. It will be in the faint constellation Libra all year.

The square of Pegasus dominates the western sky. The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the NW. She contains many nice star clusters for binocular users in her outer arm of our Milky Way, extending to the NE now. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the NE corner star of Pegasusíí Square, and goes NE with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the W of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye.

M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant. Overhead is Andromedaís hero, Perseus, rises. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.

Look at Perseusí feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleaides, but about half their distance. Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur). Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew of adventurers.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. The reddish supergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. It is part of a huge spiral arm gas cloud, with active starbirth all over the place. You should be able to glimpse this stellar birthplace as a faint blur with just your naked eyes, and the larger your binoculars or telescope, the better the view becomes.

Last but certainly not least, in the east rise the hunterís two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the SE sky by 7 PM, and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle with shafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers this means the image is blurry; only in space can we truly see "clearly now". At 8 light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida. You must be in south Florida to spot Alpha Centauri on June evenings. Below Sirius in binoculars is another fine open cluster, M-41, a fitting dessert for New Yearís sky feast.

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