Jan 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – January, 2015

January Continues the Tradition

By now you have probably heard or read about the connection between various astronomical events and seasonal celebrations. Next month’s sky is a good example of that which the ancients would have found most interesting. We have one planetary close encounter next month with another just beginning. On top of that, the “King of Constellations” begins his seasonal appearance.

The month begins with a pairing of two planets in the west at dusk. The brighter one, Venus, will be easy to find because it is by far the brightest thing in that part of the sky. The other planet, Mercury, will appear as a dim star below Venus. With a clear view of the western horizon, find Venus as soon as it is dark enough and then scan down with binoculars to find Mercury which will appear fifteen times dimmer. Fear not, because if you see anything, it will be Mercury because there is nothing else visible nearby.

The best thing about this event is that it occurs over a period of about three weeks, so there is a good chance for a few clear evenings. In fact, you will want to observe the two planets as many times as possible from January 1 to 21 so you can see them move with respect to each other. They will be closest together on the 10th and 11th and joined by a thin crescent Moon on the 21st.

The crescent Moon will appear spectacularly close to the planet Saturn on the morning of January 16, one hour before sunrise in the southeast. Another Moon-planet encounter occurs when the waning gibbous Moon meets Jupiter on January 7. Look east after ten p.m.

Once you are confident you can identify Venus and Jupiter, continue to pay attention to them as the year progresses. I will be writing about them again in the near future.

Along with all the planetary action, there are some great constellations making their yearly appearances, among them one of the most popular, Orion. Orion has everything – bright stars, cool binocular sights, a great legend, and he just looks cool. With the three belt stars surrounded by four bright stars of his body, he stands out, easily recognized. You can enjoy his beauty with the naked eye while comparing the various colors of the bright stars or spend a good amount of time exploring the belt and sword with a small telescope.

There is much to enjoy this month up in the sky.

This month in history:
Jan. 1: Asteroid Ceres discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi – 1801
Jan. 4: NASA cancels further production of Saturn V rockets – 1970
Jan. 13: First women astronauts selected by NASA – 1978
Jan. 15: Samples of comet dust returned by Stardust spacecraft – 2006
Jan. 27: Apollo 1 astronauts Chaffee, White and Grissom die in fire in capsule-1967
Jan. 28: Seven astronauts killed when Space Shuttle Challenger explodes during launch – 1986