Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


The Night Sky of January

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For January 2017, the celestial fireworks begin with the Quadrantid meteor shower, peaking on the morning of January 4th. The meteors will appear to come out of the NE sky. The waxing crescent moon appear just below brilliant Venus in the evening sky on New Year’s evening, and move between Venus and Mars the next evening. The moon is first quarter on January 5th, and full on January 12th. The last quarter moon passes just north of Jupiter and Spica in the dawn sky on January 19th. The waning crescent moon passes just north of Saturn on January 24th, and just above Mercury in the dawn twilight on January 25th. It is back to new again on January 27th. The waxing crescent makes a fine triangle with bright Venus and much fainter Mars on the evening of January 31st, a great photo op!

While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, about December 30th visit the website and download the map for January 2017; it will have a more extensive calendar, and list of best objects for the naked eyes, binoculars, and scopes on the back of the map. There is wonderful video exploring the January sky, from the Hubble ST website at:

Venus reaches greatest eastern elongation, 47 degrees east of the Sun, on January 15th, and appears exactly half lit in telescopes. In the months to come, it overtakes the earth, growing bigger each day, but thinner, as we see mainly the dark shadowed side of a brilliant thin crescent. It will be bright enough to see on a clear afternoon in broad daylight for the next three months, if you know exactly where to look. Mars is much fainter, and fades still more in the SW evening sky this month. Venus will overtake it early in February. Jupiter dominates the dawn, just north of the bright star Spica in Virgo, with both rising about midnight. Saturn comes back into the morning sky, and will make a nice triangle with the waning crescent moon and Mercury to lower left of it on the morning of January 25th, another nice photo op with a clear SE horizon.

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 Pegasus’’ 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 Andromeda’s 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 Perseus’ 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 and our featured photo this month. 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 hunter’s 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 Year’s sky feast.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers visit our website at Join us on Facebook at "Escambia Amateur Astronomers". If you link on FB to our photo albums, you will find over a thousand of the best local astrophoto images from our "Star Shooting" galleries over the last 40 years now posted to view and delight.

Read past issues of the Sky at Night