J A N U A R Y S K Y W A T C H
by Maya del Mar
Saturn is at peak viewing this month. It opposes Sun now, which is the best time to see it clearly. And its high in the sky around midnight, which adds to clarity. Saturn is near the bright stars, Castor and Polluxthe Gemini Twinsbut it is brighter than they.
The opposition is exact on January 13, but since Saturn moves slowly, visibility is essentially the same all month. January 14 is the climax of the Huygens spacecraft, which is to descend through the hazy atmosphere of Saturns largest moon, Titan, and probe the moon. No one knows what the grounding material will be. There must be a website with photos, but I havent yet located it.
As were admiring Saturn high overhead around midnight, Jupiter is rising in the east. Jupiter is large and bright, but dont try viewing it just after rising. Atmospheric turbulence is especially high in winter, and viewing is not good until a planet has risen at least 10 degrees above the horizon. The higher it is in the sky, the better the viewing. Jupiter is near the fixed star, Spica, the entire month. Spica is one of the skys brightest stars. It is in the constellation of Virgo, and to me it is blue. A crescent moon is near Jupiter on January 4, and a gibbous moon is near it on January 31.
Its a long time before the next planet clears the eastern horizon. About 5:00 a.m. Mars rises. Mars sits just above the superstar Antares, the "rival of Mars." Antares is brighter now. They are both red-orange, but for different reasons. Antares has a relatively cool surface temperature (4500 Kelvinsounds pretty hot to me), and Mars has rusty, iron-filled, soil.
Mercury and Venus perform a lovely dance all month (as reflected in General Influences), but their graceful minuet is low on the southeastern horizon, and that space must be clear in the dawn light for us to see it.
On January 1, Mercury rises at 6:00 a.m. (local time). It is then very close to Venus. By January 8, a very thin crescent moon lies to the pairs right. Mercury and Venus appear closest to each other on January 13, 30 minutes before the sun rises. This is the same day of Saturns brilliant opposition. Venus shines far brighter than Mercury. After the 13th, they both dip into the suns glare very quickly.
There are two special sky sights in January. One is a lovely comet, Machholz. In rural areas it should be visible to the naked eye during the first half of January. (Who knows exactly? It was just discovered.) It is moving through the Taurus-Perseus-Cassiopeia area of the sky during January. The tail should be streaming in the direction of the Pleiades.
We also have a big meteor shower in January. The Quadrantids peak on the morning of January 3. They can reach a rate of 120 meteors per hour. What appear to be "shooting stars" are, in reality, grains of dust burning up as they slam into Earths upper atmosphere at 92,000 mph. They radiate from Bootes, the Herdsman (near the Big Dipper), where there was once a constellation named Quadrans Muralis, which give them their name. Try 2 a.m. for good visibility.
Personally, I hope it is clear late in the night and early in the morning of January 3. I want to look up and see Saturn and the comet. Then I want to see the meteors, and in the very early morning, see Jupiter near the late crescent moon. Maybe later I might be lucky enough to see Mars and its twin, Antares, low in the east. And finally, maybe, just maybe, I might catch a glimpse of Mercury and Venus rising together. I will certainly bundle up, and maybe have a warm drink handy to sustain me. Ill remember that this is the night that Moon occults Jupitera big happening. And Ill thank the Goddess that I can connect with these wonderful, comforting heavens.
I feel that what happens here is a momentary flash in the dark. What happens there is abiding and sustaining. Perhaps my security lies in the grace and poetry and life of the stars.