SKY GUIDE: This map represents the night sky as it appears over Maine during January. The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at midmonth, and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end. Uranus is shown at 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 Seth Lockman

The month of January is named for the Roman god Janus, who has two faces since he is facing forward and backward at the same time. Janus is the god of doorways, gates and passages and the god of all beginnings. So let us start over and make this year a much better year than the last one.

The new year begins in spectacular fashion with four of our five brightest planets all nicely lined up in the western evening sky right after sunset, which is a fairly rare occurrence by itself. Then the slender waxing crescent moon will add some grace and beauty to this already unusual lineup for several nights early this year, as if to point out and highlight each of the actors in this cosmic drama.

Other highlights include the annual Quadrantid meteor shower peaking on Jan. 3, with no moon to interfere. Then we will have some good transits of some of the moons of Jupiter across the face of the planet, including a rare double transit of Ganymede and Callisto on Jan. 12. I have seen several of these through telescopes before and they really give you a good sense of how our whole solar system works in miniature as you see these moons moving in real time right across the disk of Jupiter, king of the planets. We will have two more comets in January, but they will not become as bright as Comet Leonard did in December. They are named Comet Borrelly and Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but you will need a telescope to see them. The last highlight is that we are closest to the sun on Jan. 4 at 2 a.m. We are always farthest away from the sun in early July, on or near the 4th. This is because of our elliptical orbit. It is nearly a circle, but not quite. We are about 3 million miles closer to the sun now than we will be in half a year.

The four bright planets that will ring in the New Year for us with their celestial celebration are, from highest to lowest, east to west, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus. We have been watching three of these – Jupiter, Saturn and Venus – since last summer, but now our first planet, Mercury will join the trio to make it an even more interesting quartet. Strung together like beautiful pearls on a heavenly necklace, this temporary arrangement of planetary jewels will end after just a few nights into the New Year, because Venus will drop out quickly. If you had a telescope, you could even follow this string a little higher and it would include Uranus and Neptune, our last two planets.

The third rock from the sun, Earth, serves as our platform to see all of this drama unfolding in an ever-changing yet predictable way. Only Mars is missing in this great evening prime-time lineup of six of the eight planets in our solar system. The red planet rises around 6 a.m. and brightens a little in January as it is slowly getting closer to us again while we are catching up with it in our orbits around the sun.

The remaining three, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury, are also temporary as we lose both Mercury and Saturn just after the middle of the month, but not before they pass within 3 degrees of each other on Jan. 12 and Jan. 13. Then Jupiter will be the lone survivor for the rest of the month.

To make this rare and memorable cosmic dance even more dramatic, the waxing crescent moon will appear directly below Mercury on Monday evening Jan. 3. You may need binoculars to see it since it will be so thin. Try to see how much longer you can see Venus before it finally gets too low in our western sky. It will only be up above the horizon for another night or two after Jan. 3. Then Venus will just reappear as a morning planet around the middle of this month, rising in the east about an hour before sunrise and shining at a respectable minus 4.3 magnitude, which is over half a magnitude fainter than it reached early last month when it shone at its maximum brilliancy for the year at minus 4.9 magnitude. Our two neighboring planets, Mars and Venus, will be just 10 degrees apart in the morning sky toward the end of the month, and they will be joined by a waning crescent moon on Jan. 29.

The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the evening of Monday, Jan. 3 into Tuesday morning. There will no moon to interfere, since it will be only a very thin waxing crescent moon that will set right after sunset. This is also the best night to see that quartet of planets along with the moon right before it sets. I certainly hope it will be clear, because this could be one of the most memorable nights of 2022. That would be five solar system members, including the moon, all in close proximity low in the western evening sky along with tiny sand grain-sized pieces of a former comet nucleus named 2003 EH1. They will pepper the sky at irregular intervals for the rest of the night, long after all four of the planets and the moon will have set below our horizon.

You can expect about 30 meteors per hour out of this in the new year. It has a very narrow peak of only six hours, and this year that will occur at night over the other side of the world, otherwise we could be seeing over 100 meteors per hour right here. This is one of only two meteor showers each year that are caused by an asteroid instead of a comet. The other one is the Geminids, which just happened during the middle of December.

JANUARY HIGHLIGHTS

Jan. 1: In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres, which is 600 miles in diameter.

Jan. 2: The new moon is at 1:33 p.m.

Jan. 3: The Quadrantid Meteor Shower peaks tonight. The moon passes just south of Mercury.

Jan. 4: Earth is at perihelion at 2 a.m. The moon passes just south of Saturn.

Jan. 5: The moon passes just south of Jupiter.

Jan. 7: In 1610, Galileo discovered three of Jupiter’s moons: Callisto, Io and Europa. He would discover the biggest one, Ganymede, six days later.

Jan. 8: Stephen Hawking was born in 1942.

Jan. 10: Robert Wilson was born in 1936. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978 for his discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, along with Arno Penzias, using a radio telescope in 1964. This was an early proof of the Big Bang theory. He essentially saw the ever-present echo of this instant of all creation that is still everywhere even after 13.8 billion years.

Jan. 12: The moon passes near Ceres this evening.

Jan. 14: In 2005, NASA landed the Huygens probe on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

Jan. 17: The full moon is at 6:48 p.m. This is also called the Wolf Moon.

Jan. 19: In 2006, the New Horizons mission was launched to Pluto and beyond, just half a year before Pluto was downgraded to an icy dwarf from full planet status. New Horizons got there on July 14, 2015, to discover many fascinating things about this icy dwarf.

Jan. 25: Last quarter moon is at 8:41 a.m.

Jan. 29: The moon passes near Mars and Venus this morning.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.


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