December 29, 2013

What’s up in January: A meteor shower is on the way

By Bernie Reim

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.

click image to enlarge

SKY GUIDE: This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during January. The stars are shown as they appear at 9:30 p.m. early in the month, at 8:30 p.m. at midmonth and at 7:30 p.m. at month’s end. Jupiter is shown in its midmonth position. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.

Sky chart prepared by George Ayers

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.

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