The Planets in January 2014

Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, has returned to the evening sky this month for a brief sojourn. Unfortunately you will need a good clear western horizon to see it. By the 19th it should be about 5 degrees above the south-western horizon and only visible for about 30 minutes after the Sun has set. By the end of January it will be visible for closer to 1 hour after Sunset and by mid February it will no longer visible in the evening sky as it heads off to its inferior conjunction appointment with the Sun. It will return later February as the ‘morning star’ and remain in the morning skies until mid April. An inferior conjunction occurs when the Earth and interior planet are on the same side of the Sun.

Venus started the month as the ‘evening star’ after shining so brightly in the western sky on January 11th it Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun and so had its inferior conjunction with the Sun. It will be come visible as the ‘morning star’ before dawn around January 19/20. A nice photo opportunity for all the morning risers will occur on January 29th when a thin crescent Moon will be above Venus to the south-east in the morning twilight.

Earth: trivia note for the month – on January 4, the Earth was at its closest to the Sun for the year. The Sun was only 147,089,638 km away.

Mars is slowly returning to our evening skies in January. Spending the month in the constellation of Virgo it will rise around 12:30am local summer time and rising earlier each night by around 2 minutes, finishing the month by poking its head up around 11:30pm local summer time. Currently the best time to check it out is still in the early morning sky about an hour before morning twilight. On the 23 and 24th of the month the Moon will be very close to Mars at around 12:30am.

Jupiter is visible most of the night at present. It will spend the month in Gemini. It is clearly the brightest object in the sky rising around 8:30pm. By January 22nd it will be setting at around 4:30am.  Having reached its yearly opposition – when it’s opposite the sun – rising in the east as the sun is setting in the west on January 5th. Even if you have only a small telescope, or a decent pair of binoculars, which you mount to keep steady the four main moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto should be visible. These are the moons that were discovered by Galileo. Although all four may not be visible at the same time as they may be hidden as they pass behind the planets. It is always interesting to watch and note their positions over a few hours – just as Galileo did over 400 years ago.

Saturn rises well before the Sun in the constellation of Libra. By mid January it is rising at around 2am and in the early hours of Australia Day, just before sunrise around 5:30am Venus will be visible very low on the Eastern horizon the Moon and Saturn will be very close and higher in the same line in the sky will be Mars. Between Venus and Saturn is a red star known as Antares – the heart of the Scorpion. Antares also means ‘Mars-Like” so don’t let it trick you! Mars is higher than yellow Saturn in the sky and Antares, a star, is much lower. The rings of Saturn currently are open wide when viewed from the Earth, making them a fine sight in a small telescope.

If you have any questions about what you see in the sky or want more information please feel free to contact me – Donna Burton, University of Southern Queensland – Astronomy for Schools Co-ordinator North West NSW 63 John Street, Coonabarabran 2357, phone 6842 4343 or via email donna.burton@usq.edu.au and you can check out my blog at http://www.astronewsroom.com.

 

Photo Credits and Caption

 

Aust_Day_Planets.jpg – Australia Day Morning Planet Parade.

Created in the free planetarium software package – Stellarium. This chart shows you the sky looking East on Australia Day (Jan 26), 2014 at 5:15am AEDST. You will need a good south-eastern horizon but you can see Venus low in the East, the Moon and Saturn and orange-red Mars higher in the sky and to the North.

 

An update on Comet ISON!

The comet had been visible in the Southern Hemisphere before passing the Sun but since the 19th November it has been very difficult to see as it has risen just before the Sun. After it had passed the Sun it would be rising just after the Sun rise and setting before the Sun set, in the southern hemisphere so hence we would not have been able to see it.

At around 6:44am our time this morning the comet reached perihelion (its closest approach to the Sun) where it broke up and then something continues on – it might just be gravel and dust or there might stay a chunk of rock big enough to stay comet like. But now only time will tell if it is big.  This goes to prove that although we certainly know a lot more about comets than we did before – there is a lot more that we do not know.  Many have pronounced Comet ISON as already being dead and it certainly will not reach the brightness and spectacular display that had been predicted – but as Mark Twain is often quoted: “Rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated.”  Something emerged from the sun after Comet ISON made its closest approach today. Is it ISON? Both professional and amateur astronomers are analysing images from NASA satellites to learn more about comet’s fate. Northern ground based observers may have to wait until around the 9/10 of December now to see if there is anything to see. But they will not get the amazing views that we were all hoping for.

However, at every single opportunity it could find, Comet ISON has done completely the opposite of what was expected, and it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for this dynamic object to yet again do something remarkable. Even if the comet broke up, it offered a very rare opportunity to see how one of the oldest objects in the solar system interacted with the Sun’s magnetic field and its behaviour in the sun’s magnetic field will help scientists understand more about both comets and the Sun. This  was the first comet in recorded history which has come from so far away and passed so close to the sun, passing the sun at a distance of around 1.6 million kms that has been so well-studied and observed.

So we wait and see, this has been one of the most well observed, followed and commented in social media worldwide. A fleet of spacecraft watched ISON plunge toward the sun, including NASA’s STEREO satellite, the European Space Agency/NASA SOHO spacecraft and the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The Hubble Space Telescope should be able to take a close look in a couple of weeks if it did indeed survive.

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The photograph above is from the NASA SOHO Space Telescope’s LASCO C3 camera showing a fragment emerging from the other side of the Sun about 3 hours after perihelion.

The picture below is taken this at 00:42UT 1 December 2013 and shows the remnants of the comet as it leaves the SOHO LASCO C# camera’s field of view.

Planetary Alignments in the Evening Sky

Over the next 4 weeks, the solar system’s brightest planets will be putting on a spectacular evening show as they start to move into formation over the nights to come.

If you go out just after sunset and look towards the west, you will see Venus and Jupiter popping out of the twilight even before the sky has gone completely dark. After you have found them once or twice you will be able to find them earlier.   Seeing these two brilliant planets surrounded by darkening blue of the evening sky is a lovely sight.

If you go out at the next night, the view improves, because Venus and Jupiter are converging.  In mid-February they were about 20 degrees apart but by the end of the month, the angle narrows to only 10 degrees—so close that you can hide them together behind your outstretched palm.  Their combined beauty grows each night as the distance between them shrinks.

 A special night to look is Saturday, February 25th, when the crescent Moon moves in to form a slender heavenly triangle with Venus, Jupiter and the Moon as its vertices.  One night later, on Sunday, February 26th, it happens again.  This arrangement will be visible all around the world, from city and countryside alike.  The Moon, Venus and Jupiter are the brightest objects in the night sky; together they can shine through city lights, fog, and even some clouds.

 After hopping from Venus to Jupiter in late February, the Moon exits stage left, but the show is far from over.

 In March, Venus and Jupiter continue their relentless convergence until, on March 12th and 13th, the duo lie only three degrees apart—a spectacular double beacon in the sunset sky. Now you’ll be able to hide them together behind a pair of outstretched fingertips.

 There’s something mesmerizing about stars and planets bunched together in this way. This strange phenomenon is due to the fact that your eye works in much the same way as a digital camera does. In front, there is a lens which focuses the light and the retina acts like a photo-array behind the lens to capture the image of what you see. The retina is made up of rods and cones which are the organic equivalent of electronic pixels.

 There’s a tiny patch of tissue near the centre of the retina where cones are extra-densely packed. This is called “the fovea.” This enables you to see objects in high definition – it is critical to everyday tasks such as reading, driving and watching television. The fovea has the brain’s attention.

 The field of view of the fovea is only about five degrees wide. Most nights in March, Venus and Jupiter will fit within that narrow cone.  And when they do—presto!  It’s spellbinding astronomy.

January Evening Skies for Southern Hemisphere Readers

Venus and Jupiter are the ‘evening stars’ which appear soon after sunset with the brilliance of  Venus is lowest in the west setting about 9.30pm by the end of the Month. In a telescope, now, it looks like a gibbous moon. Venus is still on the far side of the sun from us around 180 million km away but gradually catching up to us again.

Jupiter is above and to the North of Venus as the Sun goes down and it will be setting around 11.30 pm by the end of the month. Its four big moons are easily seen in a small telescope or good binoculars, looking like four little stars lined up on either side of the planet. It is now about 720 million km away as we move to the far side of the sun away from it.

Sirius is the brightest real star that is visible in our evening sky at present. It appears at around 60 degrees above the Eastern horizon just after dusk. Known as ‘the Dog Star’, it marks the head of Canis Major the big dog. A group of stars to the right of it makes the dog’s hindquarters and tail, upside down just now. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky both because it is relatively close, being only nine light years away, and the fact that it is 23 times brighter than the sun. Procyon, in the northeast and below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion.

To the left of Sirius, as the sky darkens, Rigel and Betelgeuse the brightest stars in Orion the hunter will appear. Between them, but fainter, is a line of three stars making Orion’s belt. Rigel is a bluish supergiant star, which is much hotter than the Sun and some 70,000 times brighter. It is located around 800 light years away. Orange Betelgeuse, below Orion’s belt, is a red-giant star, cooler than the sun but hundreds of times bigger. It is actually a ball of extremely thin hot gas. To us in the South we tend to remember Orion as the Saucepan as this appears to be the bottom of  the Saucepan. A faint line of stars above and right of the belt is the pot’s handle or Orion’s sword. It has a glowing cloud at its centre: the Orion Nebula, a place where stars are being born. This is visible in good binoculars as a cloudy fuzzy area.

Left of Orion is the V-shaped pattern of stars makes up the face of Taurus the Bull. The V-shaped group is also known as the Hyades cluster. It is 150 light years away. Orange looking Aldebaran, Arabic for ‘the eye of the bull’, is not a member of he cluster but on the line of sight, is about half the cluster’s distance away from us.

Left again, toward the north and lower, is the Pleiades/ /Seven Sisters or Subaru star cluster depending on where you hail from. It is a pretty cluster with a bit of fuzziness (nebulosity surrounding it) even to the naked eye and is even more impressive in binoculars. The cluster is around 70 million years old and located about 400 light years away from us. There is a very colourful looking star Capella which is not too high above the horizon in the North – in the thicker lower atmosphere,  it often looks like a disco star as it twinkles very prettily due to the effects of the atmosphere.

Low in the south is the Southern Cross, and Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called ‘The Pointers’. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. A telescope shows it is a binary star: two stars orbiting each other in 80 years. Beta Centauri, like most of the stars in Crux, is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away. Canopus is also another very bright star, very luminous and distant: 13,000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, (LMC and SMC) are high in the southern sky and easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small companion galaxies about 160,000 and 200,000 light years away who over time are orbiting our own Milky Way. They look like fuzzy light clouds in the southern skies above and even further to the South than the Southern Cross.

All of these objects mentioned above can be seen without a telescope or binoculars between sunset and around 9.30pm and makes for a great after dinner exercise for the family to see how many you can find.

The Milky Way is in the eastern sky, brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced towards the north but becomes faint below Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. Binoculars show many star clusters and a few glowing gas clouds in the Milky Way, particularly in the Carina region.

Mars, is rising by the end of the month before 10:30pm and looks like a bright orange-red star. It is brightening as the Earth moves closer to it. It is around 140 million km away so appears quite small in a telescope.

Saturn will rise in the east around 1:00 am by the end of the month, making a pretty sight as a pair with the bright white star, Spica, which is the brightest star in Virgo, above and to the left of Saturn. Saturn is around 1,460 million km from us.

Click on Images Above to see sky charts from North South East and West horizons around 9.30pm as seen from NSW Australia