March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights for January 2014

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

Jupiter up all night as students return in January. Venus, passing Earth, leaves evening sky, joining Mars and Saturn in morning. Consider a morning sky watch!

Morning and evening twilight charts for each month through the end of 2014, along with charts for plotting the positions of planets in their orbits, and exercises to help students visualize the motion of Spaceship Earth and understand and enjoy the changing visibility of planets and stars, are available online. These twilight charts are drawn for southern California (lat. 34° N, Los Angeles and Palm Springs). Charts for lat. 40° N, more accurate for northern California, are also available at the web link above.

At dusk: The six brightest “stars” in evening mid-twilight, in order of brightness, are: Venus, Jupiter, Sirius (after it appears late in month), Mercury (after it appears around midmonth), Vega, and Capella.

Evening planets:

  • Venus drops below mid-twilight horizon after Jan. 5, but can be followed closer to sunset by careful observers until its Jan. 11 inferior conjunction with the Sun. Venus’ phase narrows from 3% to less than 1% illumination of its disk, over 1 arcminute across. At the start of January, Venus is about to overtake us and does so on Jan. 11. It is on the near side of the Sun, and telescopic observation of the crescent phase confirms this.
  • Jupiter: As we look into the evening sky, we are gazing out the rear window of Spaceship Earth. Jupiter and the surrounding winter stars get higher in eastern sky as month progresses, owing to the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Jupiter is visible all night early in January. Use binoculars in twilight to reveal the giant planet as a disk. It ascends in ENE to E, is at opposition to the Sun on Jan. 5 and reaches peak brilliance at mag. –2.7.
  • Mercury is emerging from the Sun’s far side, and on Jan. 30 it reaches greatest elongation 18° from the Sun. We are leaving slow-moving Jupiter behind. As Orion (marked by Betelgeuse and Rigel) rises higher, Procyon and Sirius follow it into view. Once Sirius has risen, the entire Winter Hexagon Sirius-Rigel-Aldebaran-Capella-Pollux-Procyon-Sirius is in view, and within it, Betelgeuse and Jupiter. Other stars visible are the Summer Triangle sinking into WNW (Altair disappears soon after mid-Jan.) and lonely Fomalhaut sinking into SW.
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At dawn: The five brightest “stars” in morning mid-twilight are: Venus (after it appears around midmonth); Jupiter (until it drops below WNW horizon around midmonth); Arcturus; Vega; and Capella, until it drops below NW horizon.

  • Jupiter can still be seen in the morning sky at the end of January, but then you’ll have to look before the onset of twilight to catch the planet before it sets. Look for an arch of stars above Jupiter in NW to W, comprised of Capella, Castor (not shown, just 4.5° to the right of Pollux), Pollux, and Procyon. Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, is far to upper left of Jupiter.
  • Golden Arcturus is very high in SE to S sky, with Mars, Spica, and Saturn, from right to left, below it. Antares is the reddish twinkling star in SE, to lower left of steady Saturn. Venus first appears above our morning mid-twilight horizon around midmonth and climbs higher each morning at the same stage of twilight.
  • In mid-January, our Spaceship Earth is heading in the direction of Spica. In coming months, as Earth curves around the Sun, it will overtake the slower-moving outer planets: Jupiter in early January, Mars in early April, and Saturn before the middle of May. As a result, these planets, along with their background stars, will progress toward the western horizon in our morning sky, and will appear above our eastern horizon in the early evening sky as Earth passes each one in turn.
  • But Venus is an inner planet. It overtakes us on Jan. 11, as it passes between Earth and Sun. By Jan. 16 it appears 10° to the upper right of the rising Sun. By Jan. 23, this “angle of elongation” increases to 20°, and by month’s end to 29°. It will get no farther than 47° from the Sun at greatest elongation, which will be attained on March 22. If proof of Venus’ location in space is needed, examine it through binoculars and telescopes in January and February, when it’s backlighted, in crescent phase: less than one percent full through Jan. 14, increasing to 2 percent by Jan. 17, to 5 percent by Jan. 22, and 10 percent by Jan. 28.

Consider holding an early morning skywatch, perhaps in your schoolyard starting as early as 1-1/2 hours before sunrise. Solar system highlights include Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites, Saturn’s rings now tipped over 22° from edge-on, the crescent phase of Venus, and the tiny reddish disk of Mars. The best dates in January with the Moon visible occur in the week of Jan. 20-24, or 20-26 if the weekend is included. Even if you wait until the normal time of opening the school grounds, the Moon and Venus are excellent for daytime astronomy. If you fit the low-power eyepiece of your telescope with a single polarizing filter and rotate the eyepiece to darken the blue sky, Jan. 23 and 24 are prime dates.

In morning mid-twilight in January, bright blue-white Vega shines in ENE with fainter Deneb to its lower left. By midmonth Altair appears in east, completing the Summer Triangle.

Every year in mid-January, Altair is 30° due north of the midday Sun, making the star equally visible in morning and evening twilight, low in E at dawn and low in W at dusk. The entire Summer Triangle is visible at both those times, with Vega and Deneb higher and to the north of Altair.

The Moon passes all five bright planets this month. A nearly Full Moon will keep company with Jupiter from dusk until first light of dawn on the night of Jan. 14-15. An hour before sunup on the mornings of Jan. 22 and 23, watch the waning gibbous Moon leapfrog past Spica and the brighter reddish planet Mars just above that star well up in SSW. The Moon is very closely left of Spica on the morning of Jan. 23. The Moon appears at Last Quarter phase (half full) on the morning of Jan. 24, and on the next morning the fat crescent appears just below Saturn. Venus, by then a prominent morning “star” low in ESE, will appear to lower left of the waning crescent Moon an hour before sunrise on Jan. 29. The next morning, look for the last thin old Moon rising to lower left of Venus. Back in the evening sky on Jan. 31, the thin young crescent Moon will appear low in WSW at dusk, a few degrees to lower right of Mercury, which pays a brief visit to evening twilight skies in late January and early February.

Venus switches from evening to morning sky (with an overlap of a few days, when it is visible in both!); and, all this month, an even larger (in apparent diameter) Venus in crescent phase. On Jan. 1, Venus was 15° upper left of the setting Sun. As Venus traverses the near side of its orbit, it will pass only 5° north of the Sun on Jan. 10-11. By Jan. 31, Venus is 29° upper of the rising Sun.

Venus-Jupiter hide-and-seek. This month, these two planets appear in nearly opposite directions in the sky, because Earth overtakes Jupiter on Jan. 5 (creating an opposition of Jupiter, when the giant planet rises at sunset and sets at sunrise), and Venus overtakes Earth on Jan. 11 (creating an inferior conjunction of Venus, when Venus rises and sets nearly together with the Sun).

After Venus emerges into the morning sky, see four planets, in E to W order, Venus rising in ESE, Saturn in SSE, Mars in SSW, Jupiter setting in WNW. If you’re surrounded by mountains, you probably won’t spot Venus until after Jupiter has set. On Feb. 3 Mars will pass within 5° N of first-mag. Spica, the first of a colorful triple conjunction between the red planet and the blue-white star in 2014; the finale of the series occurs on July 13 at dusk. Mars moves on to pass Saturn on Aug. 25. On August 18 at dawn, Venus and Jupiter will appear only 0.3° apart! Quite a difference from this month, when these two most brilliant planets are avoiding each other, on opposite sides of the sky!

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

 

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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