Sky Notes for January 2014 with James Abbott #stargazing

Jupiter reaches opposition in Gemini on the night of the 5th/6th January when it will be visible all night and attains an altitude of over 60 degrees at midnight. At mag -2.7 and with a disc diameter of 47 arc seconds there should be a wealth of detail visible in telescopes. Under such ideal conditions some people claim to be able to see a faint shadow cast by Jupiter.

Having been a bright “evening star” throughout December, Venus is lost in the solar glare in early January as it ‘catches up’ with the Earth on its faster orbit and passes between us and the Sun on the 11th. It may be possible to see Venus early in the month low in the South West after sunset. The very young Moon will be about 3 degrees from Venus on the 2nd January low down in evening twilight and both will be at a slender phase of just under 3 degrees. The Moon will appear as a very thin crescent 33 times larger than that of Venus. Binoculars should give a good view.

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Mars may be observed after midnight rising in the South East. It brightens significantly throughout the month and by the end of January will be almost as bright as Arcturus which will be about 30 degrees to the left of Mars. Both objects should be a similar orange colour.

The Moon is Full on January 15/16th and the night before that the Moon will pass below Jupiter.

The Quadrantid meteors are active for a short period in early January and this year there will be no Moon interference. Maximum activity is expected on the night of the 3rd/4th with the best chances of seeing meteors being later in the night as the radiant gains altitude. Quadrantids radiate from below the tail of Ursa Major.

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The Quadrantids take their name from an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis. It was removed, along with a few other constellations, from crowded sky maps in 1922 when the International Astronomical Union adopted the modern list of 88 constellations.

Comet Lovejoy (2013 R1) remains an easy binocular object pre-dawn in the East and has turned out to be a much better comet than ISON which disintegrated at perihelion. Deep images of Lovejoy show spectacular tails

Image by Magnabosco and Lai. Click to embiggen.

Under the dark Moon-free skies of late January the full array of the winter constellations are in the South by 9 pm. Many of the brightest stars in winter show colour which relates to the surface temperature of the star, the more white or blue being hotter and the more yellow or red being cooler. These descriptions are relative though. The Sun is a yellowish star with a surface temperature of 5,500 degrees C.

One of the most strongly coloured of the bright winter stars is Betelgeuse – and it is also a variable star with a range of about 1 magnitude. Sir John Herschel recorded in 1836 that its brightness varied compared to the other bright winter stars. We now know that Betelgeuse is a semi-regular pulsating red supergiant, about 425 light years distant and a prime candidate for a supernova in our part of the galaxy.

At midday on January 4th the Earth is at its closest to the Sun along its slightly elliptical orbit, some 3 million miles closer than in July. The difference is not great compared to the mean distance of 93 million miles. However, elements of the Earth’s orbit and its tilt oscillate over many thousands of years and these slow changes are believed to be a driver of the ice ages.

James Abbott is an astronomer, NEAS member and CfDS Regional Information Officer.

You can download a free map of the evening sky here:

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Posted on 3 January, 2014, in Astronomy News, Observing News and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sky Notes for January 2014 with James Abbott #stargazing.

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