January is the marmite of every year, individuals either love it or hate it as it brings the beginning of a New Year and new opportunities yet marks the end of the festive Christmas season and a previous year filled with memories. Whilst most people make New Year’s resolutions to be happier, save money or lose weight, one resolution I can definitely help with is to explore more of the Universe and take to the skies. 2015 is already proving to be a promising year for new stargazers and for the experts as January holds at least something for everyone.
January like most months provides a chance for people to witness a meteor shower and especially for those in the Northern Hemisphere. The Quandrantid meteors are better viewed from the North as they radiate just below the renowned star pattern the Plough. The only deterrent from this otherwise visually beautiful start to the year is the Moon which will be a bright waxing gibbous, washing out some of the bright meteors. Despite being lesser known than the Perseids in August or the Geminids in December, the Quandrantids have been capable of producing between 50 – 100 meteors per hour but only within the time frame of a few hours each year. Nevertheless, for those individuals that don’t fear the cold or the dark areas hidden from light pollution, the Quandrantid meteor shower will be visible from midnight on the 3rd of January into the early hours of the morning on the 4th of January.
If trekking to a remote area in the hope of witnessing a few meteors does not sound of interest, why not step out your own back door and look at the moon. It is easy to take for granted the wonders of something so close and predictable as it graces our skies each month. On the night of the 3rd of January the Moon will be almost full; however a full moon is expected only two days later on the 5th of January. The full moon of a New Year was known as a ‘Full Wolf Moon’ to Native Americans as the cold and wintery weather often proved unsuccessful hunting months for wolf packs. As a result the first full moon of the year marked a night of howling and the time when wolves would often howl outside the native’s camps.
The Moon is always an interesting object to view even without a telescope as the different areas and features of the moon can be seen with just the naked eye. When using a pair of binoculars some more precise features can be seen such as mountains, valleys and craters and if that sounds impressive a telescope will provide even more detail again. As people have been observing the Moon for centuries, there are detailed maps available to help any keen observer on their trip around the Moon. An easy to use online map would be http://www.moon.com.co/atlas/ which segments the Moon for at hand information and a taste of what you can see with higher magnification.
The Moon remains of interest in January as this month also marks the first of six ‘supermoons’ to grace our skies in 2015. The term ‘supermoon’ was coined by Richard Noelle who defines this as ‘a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near its closest approach to Earth.’ This is the same as a perigee new or full moon which is probably what most people have heard of before. Strangely the first of these to appear on the 20th of January will not be a full Moon but in fact a new Moon, so it will not be visible. This means that the Moon is hiding in the bright glare of the Sun, but don’t worry because this year presents six ‘supermoons’ and at least three will be visible in the nights sky.
Throughout the month of January, stargazers will have their chance to see all five visible planets. The five planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn as Uranus and Neptune are visible only by telescope. This is the perfect time for viewers to see the planets that ancient cultures have been watching for thousands of years, they are all visible at respectable times of the day so no need to stay outside past midnight.
As the sun sets on the 8th of January, and dusk welcomes the dark nights sky, head outside to witness Mercury, Venus and Mars in the south west of the sky. Mercury is the most difficult planet to see as it follows the sun with around a 75 minute gap, the picture below is set for 5pm on the 8th of January but you will need to be in an area of little visual obstruction. It is not impossible to see Mercury with the naked eye; however binoculars will give a better view. Following Mercury is the bright and beautiful planet Venus and if you choose to view Mercury through binoculars you will most likely have both planets in the same field of view.
Just above and a little to the left of Mercury and Venus is the red planet, Mars. However if this is the planet you are interested in viewing, it will be visible for longer. Sticking with the same date, the 8th of January, Mars will be visible for another two hours after sunset. The planets will be visible around dusk for the first two weeks in January however I chose the 8th as after this date Mercury moves closer to Venus before disappearing around the Sun a few days later.
For the month of January Jupiter with be rising in the East in the same position as December and can easily be found by using the constellation of Leo. Tracing horizontally down from the top two stars in Leo’s head, stargazers will reach the planet Jupiter. It is much brighter than any surrounding stars and will be visible right through the night, reaching its peak, highest point in the sky around 2am or 3am. There is no need to stay up to the early hours of the morning to see this gas giant as it will be visible from sunset.
Throughout the month of January, the popular planet Saturn will be visible in the predawn hours. Just after 6am it will rise in the south east of the sky and be visible for up to two hours. January is proving to be the perfect month for viewing the planets in the night’s sky so take the opportunity and head outside.
Finally for those interested in expanding their knowledge on constellations in 2015, the winter skies have some of the easiest to spot. The Winter Circle, also known as the Winter Hexagon is an asterism or recognisable pattern of bright stars in the south east of the sky at sunset. It will appear southward later into the evening. The best time to view the Winter Circle in January is after 9pm as the constellations rise higher in the sky. At the start and end of the month the moon will travel through the Winter Circle but its glare will have no effect on the bright stars in this pattern as they are all first magnitude stars.
The Winter Circle is made of bright stars in various constellations, the easiest to find being the great hunter, Orion. The circle surrounds Orion and includes the star marking his right foot, Rigel. Continuing clockwise, the next star in the Winter Circle is the dog star, Sirius; Procyon in Canis Minor; Castor and Pollux which mark the heads of the twins in Gemini; Capella, the bright star in the constellation of Auriga and finishing off at Aldebaran, the bright star marking the eye of Taurus the Bull. Off to the left of The Winter Circle it is easy to spot the gas giant Jupiter which can easily be mistaken for a bright star. As mentioned before it will be visible throughout the month of January in the night sky.
Not only is the Winter Circle easy to find and a great way to learn new constellations and the brightest stars of the Winter sky, the Winter Circle also contains the Winter Triangle. This is made of the dog star, Sirius; Procyon located in Canis Minor and the bright red star called Betelgeuse which marks the shoulder of Orion.
Already 2015 appears to be a promising year for stargazers with plenty to choose from throughout the month of January. Despite the cold weather, take this opportunity to explore the skies and start of the New Year with a first class seat to wonders of the cosmos.
(Article by Samantha Steed. Education Support Officer)