The month of January is named after the Roman god, Janus, who faces backward and forward at the same time. He is the god of gates and doors, beginnings and endings, and transitions. So keep that in mind as we all enter a new and important year.
The two brightest objects in our sky after the sun and moon will be among the highlights for the month. The other one will be the Quadrantid meteor shower on Jan. 3.
Venus will finally disappear into our western evening sky after the first week of the new year. Try to see which evening you can last see it before it goes through inferior conjunction with the sun on the 11th. If the earth, sun, and Venus were still perfectly aligned on that day as they were on June 8, 2004 and June 5, 2012, we would experience another dramatic transit of Venus. The next one won’t be until December 2117.
Through a telescope you will notice that Venus is a very large and very thin crescent now. It will be a full arc minute across on the 11th. That is only 30 times smaller than the full moon, which covers half a degree or 30 arc minutes of the sky. You should be able to discern this thin crescent with just a pair of binoculars or possibly even without any aid. Right after its conjunction you will be able to see Venus again in the morning sky. Look for our sister planet near the waning crescent moon 45 minutes before sunrise low in the southeastern sky on the 28th and 29th.
Jupiter will reach opposition on Jan. 5. That means it will rise at sunset, remain in the sky all night and not set until sunrise. Opposition is always the best time to see a superior planet because it will be closest to Earth, so it will also be at its biggest and brightest for the year. The planet must also be in the middle of its retrograde loop, when it appears to move westward against the fixed background of stars, at opposition.
You can see some more detailed features through a telescope on the surface of this huge gas planet now, which is 10 times the diameter of Earth. There are several zones and belts visible now along with the Great Red Spot, which is a permanent hurricane with 400 mph winds twice the size of the whole earth. This entire planet makes one complete rotation in just 10 hours. You can usually see at least one or two of its four large Galilean moons with just a pair of binoculars.
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks Friday morning Jan. 3. Caused by an asteroid named 2003 EH1, this is one of only two major meteor showers not caused by a comet. At just over a mile across, that asteroid was discovered only 10 years ago and it could be what was left of the nucleus of the comet of 1490. Named after the extinct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which was an instrument used to plot and observe stars, this shower has a very narrow peak of only a few hours, but has been known to produce over 100 meteors per hour. Though the moon won’t interfere this year, this part of our country probably won’t get to see that many meteors this year. Our west coast and Asia are better positioned to catch its narrow peak this year.
Look toward the Big Dipper toward the head of Draco the Dragon to catch most of these meteors. You can expect some bright bolides. Most of these meteors will burn up around 50 miles high in our atmosphere and come in at about 90,000 mph, which is 25 miles per second, or only a little faster than we orbit around the sun.
Mars rises around midnight in the constellation of Virgo. The red planet is slowly getting larger and brighter, but it won’t show any good detail in an average telescope for another month or two.
Mars won’t reach its opposition until June 2014. That will only be its fifth opposition since its great opposition on Aug. 27, 2003, when it was the closest in nearly 60,000 years.
Saturn rises a little earlier each morning and will rise by 1:30 a.m. in the constellation of Libra by the end of this month. It’s also slowly getting larger and brighter, approaching its own opposition in May. Its rings are tilted open at 22 degrees, which is larger than usual.
The Pleiades make an excellent sight high in our winter sky in Taurus this time of year. Shaped roughly like a miniature little dipper, you can usually see at least six of these stars without optical aid.
The most stars anyone has seen without binoculars in this cluster is 18. Try to see how many you can see.
This cluster has about 300 stars and is located about 400 light years away from Earth. That means the actual photons of light that you see next time you look at this little cluster left those young stars when Galileo set up his first telescope to peer into our sky and try to better discern its real nature.
There are many Native American, Inuit and Aboriginal stories about this prominent star cluster. They are named Subaru in Japanese, which means gathered together.
These stars are fairly young at about 100 million years old, which is only 1/50 the age of our own earth and solar system. That means they were born about the time the first flowers emerged on Earth and even the dinosaurs got to see them for about 35 million years. If you took a time exposure of them, you would see intricate blue filaments of light surrounding several of these stars. This is their starlight reflected off tiny grains of interstellar dust as the cluster is plowing through a cloud of hydrogen gas.
Jan. 1. On this day in 1801 Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres. New moon is at 6:14 a.m.
Jan. 2. Venus will be just below a slender waxing crescent moon this evening and the next.
Jan. 3. The Quadrantid Meteor shower peaks.
Jan. 4. Earth is at perihelion, or closest to the sun at 91.5 million miles, only 3 percent closer than at aphelion on July 4 each year.
Jan. 5. Jupiter is at opposition.
Jan. 7. First-quarter moon is at 10:39 p.m. On this day in 1610 Galileo discovered Callisto, Europa, and Io. He would discover Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system at 3200 miles in diameter, six days later.
Jan. 8. Stephen Hawking was born on this day in 1942.
Jan. 11. Venus is at inferior conjunction with the sun.
Jan. 12. On this day in 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft was launched. It would drop an impactor onto the surface of Comet Tempel 1 on July 4 that year, creating a huge crater.
Jan. 14. On this day in 2005 the Huygens probe lands on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. It found lakes of liquid ethane and liquid methane at minus 259 degrees.
Jan. 15. Full moon is at 11:52 p.m. This is also known as the Wolf Moon or Moon after Yule.
Jan. 22. On this day in 2003, Pioneer 10 sent its last signal to Earth.
Jan. 24. Last quarter moon is at 12:19 a.m.
Jan. 25. On this day in 2004 the Rover Opportunity landed on Mars.
Jan. 30. New moon is at 4:39 a.m.