Saturday, January 2, 2010

January Skies: What's Up This Month?

Yes it's January and yes, that's Vega of the Summer Triangle. Things will get better!

Now that it is January, we are deep into the cloud season. Like December, clear nights in January should be cherished, especially considering the sights to be seen and the fact that January nights are still among the longest nights of the year. The unique fun of observing (or even better, photographing), the same star on the set and rise during one night is something you should try should the sky allow. Vega and Deneb, two bright stars of the Summer Triangle, make great targets.

On to more traditional observing. Because of the Long nights, January allows for observing a wide range of constellations from three of the four seasons. Despite it being January, at least as the month starts, Lyra and Cygnus are still visible under dark skies low in the Northwest! Take a last look at the fall constellations as the sun sets, probe the winter constellations in the dead of night, and race the light to behold the spring and early summer constellations (the aforementioned Lyra and Cygnus) as they race the Sun in the Eastern sky. There's way too much to be seen for going into detail here, so grab your sky atlas and some warm clothing to prepare for an all night observing session that will take you through the majority of the year.

Last but not least, planets. This is really the last month to view Jupiter telescopically. By the end of the month, Jupiter will be a twilight object low in the Southwestern sky, so forget the telescope by then. Mars will continue to brighten as it passes from mid way between Leo and into Cancer (to about 3 degrees from the Beehive). It will reach opposition on January 29. Grab a telephoto lens and your SLR for and take advantage of this great photo-op. Neptune is still relatively close to Jupiter, so now is a great time to see it, but you'll need to crank up the power to distinguish it from a star. Saturn is still holding station in Virgo and last but not least, Mercury will put on one of its best morning shows of the year toward the end of the month after first appearing around January 12.

There's a lot to see this month if the clouds cooperate. So if the night is clear, go on out for a look.
January Visual Observing Highlights
January 1: Sirius is almost due South at midnight (Happy New Year from the Dog Star!)
January 2: Like last month, the nearly full Moon is very close to the Beehive Cluster in Cancer
January 3: A cosmic triangle of the Moon, Mars, and Regulus
January 4: Date of latest sunrise
January 10: Mercury starts to rapidly ascend in the Southeast
January 11: The Moon scrapes Antares
January 16: Young moon just after sunset. Test your Southwest horizon.
January 17: The thin waxing crescent makes its closest approach to Jupiter
January 20: Mercury is at its highest, about 10 degrees up in the Southeast, and it'll hand around awhile
January 24-25: The Moon approaches the Pleiads to either side
January 29: The Moon, Mars (at opposition today), and the Beehive are within six degrees.
Late January: Jupiter is now a dusk object, and makes a nice addition to sunset photos.

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