Get your new Christmas telescope ready. January will have a number of easy-to-view sky events. Here’s a rundown as to “what’s up” among the stars during the first month of 2011, along with other astronomy highlights throughout the new year.
As the year begins, you’ll find the bright planet Jupiter in the evening sky while Venus will be shining with a brilliant light before sunrise. Jupiter becomes visible at the start of 2011 about halfway up the sky in the south. But there’s no need for directions — it is currently the brightest “star” throughout the evening.
Jupiter even outshines Sirius, the brightest star of all the nocturnal luminaries now visible amid the winter constellations; you can watch this stellar “scorcher” rise from the southeastern horizon after 7 p.m. Yet, by the end of January, Sirius will show itself by the time the celestial veil of darkness has reached the western horizon.
Currently seen in the same direction as massive Jupiter, but four times as distant, is Uranus, planet number seven of the eight in our solar system. A somewhat faint object, Uranus can easily be seen when a telescope is aimed at it. It can be found with binoculars as well, but it is a visual challenge to spot with the eye alone under the darkest of skies.
Found in 1781, and named after the god of the sky by its discoverer, English astronomer William Hershel, Uranus now appears very close to Jupiter on the celestial sphere. Of course, this is just an illusion: The two planets are currently separated by 1.5 billion miles in space but just happen to be along the same line of sight.
Uranus is presently one-half angular degree to the northeast (upper left) of Jupiter’s immense disk — that’s about half the thickness of your finger held up against the sky at arm’s length. These two planets will be at their closest during the night of Jan. 3-4 and will not appear this close again until 2038.
Jupiter and Uranus are located among the faint autumn stars of Pisces the fish. The two planets are “swimming” adjacent to a faint circle of stars — the “circlet” of Pisces, an asterism that represents the head of the western fish. In Greek myth, the fishes portray Aphrodite and her son Eros in their altered shape to escape the fire god Typhon.
Also occurring during the first half of January, because of the lack of moonlight, is what will turn out to be the best meteor shower of the year. January’s “shooting star” show, called the Quadrantids, reaches its peak around 8 p.m. during the night of January 3-4. The new moon occurs this same night so there’s no worry about moonlight overwhelming the meteor streaks of this event. Otherwise, all the major meteor showers during 2011 will have the problem of moonlight shining during the display.
The radiant of this shower — the place in the sky where the meteors appear to shoot from — will be low during the evening of Jan. 3, but will begin to climb after 1 a.m. Observationally, then, as with any meteor show, it’s at its best when its radiant is highest. For the Quadrantids, this will occur before the first light of dawn.
And that’s not all of the astronomical happenings on January 3 and 4.
Closest to sun
At 2 p.m. on January 3, Earth is at its closest to the sun, a point in Earth’s orbit called the perihelion. Earth will be at 91.4 million miles from the sun or about two percent closer than average at that time. (We are having winter now even though Earth is closest to the sun because our part of the planet is tilted away from direct sunlight.)
Also on January 4, will be a lineup of the sun, moon and Earth. When the three are aligned correctly, the moon’s shadow covers part of our planet. Anyone in that shadow sees the moon block some or all of the sun — a solar eclipse. This alignment can only occur when the moon is at its new phase. Unfortunately for us, that’s at 4:03 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Since it will be dark here but light in the Eastern Hemisphere, this solar eclipse will be visible from most of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia.
A few days before the solar eclipse, our moon starts 2011 in the morning sky as a thin crescent near the red-orange star Antares. At the start of the previous day — the last day of 2010 — the lunar crescent pairs with Venus in the southeast for a stunning predawn view. During the second morning of the new year, an especially slender crescent hangs in the light of dawn just below the elusive and star-like appearing planet, Mercury.
After new moon occurs with the solar eclipse, the lunar orbit swings the moon back into our evening sky. By the early evening of January 6, we’ll see the lunar crescent in the southwest. On January 9, a thicker crescent will appear to the right of Jupiter and the next evening, it’s above Jupiter. It isn’t until January 25 that the moon will appear near another planet — this time it’s positioned below Saturn. A few days before the end of January, the moon will have moved into the morning sky as a crescent. It will appear to the right of Venus on January 29; this moon-planet pair will be low above the predawn southeastern horizon.
Highlights of 2011
After the meteor bonanza of early January, the next sky challenge will be to catch the visually elusive planet Mercury. In mid-March, it will join up with Jupiter low in the western twilight sky, making Jupiter a celestial “road mark” for the smallest planet. Mercury will be back in the evening sky in late July and then with Venus in mid-November.
May brings another sky spectacular when a cluster of four planets rises just before sunup. Around mid-month, Mercury, Mars, Venus and Jupiter will gather low in the east a half hour before sunrise. The brightest two of these worlds, Jupiter and Venus, will act as celestial beacons for the planetary quadruplet.
As happened this month, an early morning lunar eclipse will take place during December 2011. The partial phases of this eclipse will begin with the moon low in the west-northwest, but, as seen from the northeastern United States, the lunar disk will sink under the horizon before the total lunar eclipse begins.
Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.