March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Celestial Highlights for January 2015

Posted: Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

updated January 8, 2015, 11:30 am

by Robert C. Victor
twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller

Mercury snuggles up to Venus on Jan. 10, and then backs off. Mars closes in on Venus for next 6 weeks until Feb. 21. Jupiter rises ever earlier in evening, until, starting in late January, Venus-Jupiter can be viewed simultaneously, but low above opposite horizons. Consider an early evening skywatch for the gathering of Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and a predawn skywatch for Jupiter and Saturn!

The Sky Calendar  features illustrations of this month’s attractive gatherings of Moon, planets, and stars.

This January 2015 evening twilight chart plots locations of the five naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter visible at dusk:

The six brightest “stars” in evening mid-twilight, in order of brightness, are: Venus in SW to WSW; Jupiter (but only after it rises in ENE before mid-twilight in last few days of month); Sirius (after it rises in ESE late in month); Mercury (while it’s still brighter than zero mag. through Jan. 19); Vega until it drops below NW horizon late in month; and Capella.

Evening planets: Venus and Mercury appear within 3° of each other in first half of January, and approach to within two-thirds of a degree apart on Jan. 10. This event is a quasi-conjunction, because Mercury appears to approach Venus without overtaking it. Mars, appears as a reddish “star” a little fainter than first magnitude, 24° to 10° upper left of Venus. Jupiter, rising in ENE to E just over three hours after sunset on Jan. 1, rises within half an hour after sunset at month’s end. Jupiter will pass opposition to the Sun on Feb. 6 and reach peak brilliance at mag. –2.6.

As we look into the evening sky, we are gazing out the rear window of Spaceship Earth. The two faster-moving inner planets recently passed on the far side of the Sun, (Venus on Oct. 25, 2014 and Mercury on Dec. 8). At the start of January, both have both moved out far enough to be seen. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 19° from Sun on Jan. 14, but Venus will take until June 6 to reach its maximum angular distance from the Sun, 45°. Both planets will overtake us: Speedy Mercury passes inferior conjunction nearly between Earth and Sun on Jan. 30, and Venus will do so in mid-August. If proof of Venus’ location in 3-D space is needed, examine it through binoculars and telescopes in June and July, just before it exits the evening sky: it will appear backlighted, in crescent phase.

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After Jupiter passes opposition on Feb. 6, we will leave that slow-moving planet behind. Jupiter and the winter stars preceding it will get higher in eastern sky as we pass into February, owing to the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. 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, with Betelgeuse inside, is in view. Jupiter and Regulus follow the Hexagon across the sky. Other stars visible at dusk mid-twilight until mid-January are the Summer Triangle sinking into WNW (Altair departing soon after mid-Jan., and Vega doing so before month’s end), and lonely Fomalhaut sinking into SW.

This January 2015 morning twilight chart plots locations of the naked-eye planets and stars of first magnitude or brighter visible at dawn:

The seven brightest “stars” in morning mid-twilight, in order of brightness, are: Jupiter, sinking in the western sky; Arcturus high in S; Vega in NE to ENE; Capella, until it drops below horizon in far NW; Procyon low in W early in month; Saturn in SE; and Altair, after it appears in E around midmonth.

Look for an arch of stars, the trailing edge of the Winter Hexagon, before it sinks from view in W to NW, below and lower right of Jupiter. The arch is comprised of Procyon, Pollux, and Castor (not shown, just 4.5° to the right of Pollux), and Capella. Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, is not far to upper left of Jupiter.

Golden Arcturus is very high in SE to S sky, with Spica below it. Antares is the reddish twinkling star in SE, below steady Saturn.

In mid-January, our Spaceship Earth is heading in the direction of Spica, the first-mag. star near the Last Quarter Moon, half full in morning sky, on Jan. 13. In coming months, as Earth curves around the Sun, it will overtake the slower-moving outer planets: Jupiter in early February, and Saturn after 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.

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 nearly 25° from edge-on. And the Moon is visible each morning Jan. 5-19 as it wanes from Full to a thin crescent. Best mornings in January with the Moon at a good phase occur in the week of Jan. 12-16. Even if you wait until the normal time of opening the school grounds, the Moon is still fine for daytime astronomy. When the Moon is close to half full, fit the low-power eyepiece of your telescope with a single polarizing filter and rotate the eyepiece to darken the blue sky. January 12-14, with the Moon near Last Quarter (half full) phase, are prime dates.

Morning and evening twilight charts for selected months of 2015, 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 at the links below. These twilight charts are drawn for southern California (lat. 34° N, Los Angeles and Palm Springs).

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.

In early summer, the Summer Triangle will be visible all night: Low in eastern sky at dusk, high up in the middle of the night, and low in the western sky at dawn. So despite its visibility at dusk and dawn in the chill of mid-January, the configuration is appropriately named.

The Moon passes all five bright planets and the five first-magnitude stars of the zodiac this month. See the January 2015 Sky Calendar for illustrations of all these events. Here are just the Moon-planet pairs: The Moon, in waning gibbous phase, appears near Jupiter from late evening until dawn on the night of Jan. 7-8. A waning crescent Moon appears quite close to Saturn on the morning of Jan. 16. After the invisible New Moon of Jan. 20, a thin young crescent will appear near Mercury and Venus at dusk on Jan. 21, and near Mars on the next evening.

The next Full Moon will occur on Feb. 3, with Jupiter nearby all night.

Begin seeing the two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, simultaneously. Starting in late January, they appear just above the horizon in nearly opposite directions in the sky, Venus about to set in WSW, soon after Jupiter rises in ENE. If there are mountains nearby, you may have to wait until sometime in February.

Once you can see both planets simultaneously, keep track evenings until they disappear in late July/early August. On June 30 at dusk, Venus and Jupiter will appear only 0.3° apart! This event should not be missed! Plan to observe it with unaided eye, binoculars, and telescope. You’ll witness quite a change from late January, when these two most brilliant planets stand on opposite sides of the sky!

For more information on sky events in 2015, see these articles and activities.

http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015

(A selection of twilight sky charts for use during months of the best planet gatherings.)

http://www.classroomscience.org/getting-started-in-skywatching-for-school-year-2014-2015

(Scroll down to “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.” Includes planet orbit charts, a data table for plotting planets, and an activity sheet with 15 questions on visibility of stars and planets in 2015-2016.)

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.

 Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit 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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