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Five Planets & a Bright Comet

Leo Enright

In the month of January, we still have early sunsets. The earliest sunset of the winter in this area was on about December 10. Since then, sunsets have been only a few seconds later each evening. By the end of January, however, the hours of daily sunlight will be noticeably greater, with the time of sunset going from 4:33 p.m. on New Years Day to 5:10 p.m. on January 31. However, the difference in the day-to-day sunrise times in January is not nearly so noticeable, because these times range only from 7:47 a.m. on January 4, the latest sunrise of the winter, to 7:31 a.m. on January 31.


Readers by now will likely be very familiar with the huge constellation Orion the Hunter marching across the southern part of the evening sky followed by his hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. The big dog is easily noted by the brilliant star Sirius, the brightest star in the whole sky, and the smaller canine, slightly behind and above his partner, has the star Procyon, the skys sixth brightest star, to mark its location. Orion himself has four very bright stars outlining his shoulders and knees, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Rigel and Saif, and a very distinctive trio of stars between these pairs to mark his waist, the famous Belt of Orion. Some of these seven stars are almost as bright as the dog stars. Below his belt, the careful observer will surely notice the sword of Orion, and within it what astronomers call the Orion Nebula, a huge and distant region of hydrogen gas where new stars are being born over periods of millions of years.

Of the five bright planets, all may be easily seen this month. Saturn is very bright and rises at about the time of sunset. It is seen throughout the entire night. In early evening it is in the east between the dog star Procyon and the twin stars Castor and Pollux, brightest stars of Gemini. As this constellation Gemini moves across the sky during the night, Saturn, like the stars of Gemini, of course, may be found high in the south after midnight and in the west at sunrise. Jupiter rises in the east at about midnight, shining with twice the brightness of Saturn. It is high in the south by the time of sunrise, and just below it is the star Spica, brightest star of the constellation Virgo. The remaining three planets are best seen between one hour and a half-hour before sunrise, low in the eastern sky. Venus is by far the brightest object in a moonless sky. Mercury is easily found just a very short distance above Venus in the first half of the month. On the mornings of January 12 to 16 these two planets are spectacularly close to each other - a sight that should not be missed. During the latter half of the month Mercury will appear to move away from Venus and downward from morning to morning until it disappears by the end of the month. Remember these two planets are very low in the eastern sky; so choose a location with a good view in that direction. Reddish Mars is to the upper right of Venus and much fainter than Mercury. It is even fainter than the nearby reddish star Antares in the constellation Scorpius, a star that is sometimes called the twin of Mars, because of their similar reddish colour. During this month, Mars will be the one on the left and Antares the one on the right. On several nights the moon and a bright planet present an interesting sight in the night sky. On the night of January 23, the moon is crowded in among the twin stars, Castor and Pollux, and the planet Saturn. Take note of the moons position that night and compare it with its position the following night. Also, on the night of January 30, the waning moon passes quite close to Jupiter. Again, take note of the moons position to compare with its position the following night.

A very special treat for sky watchers this month is a comet that can be easily seen with the unaided eye. It is called Comet Machholz, officially designated C/2004 Q2, and named after Don Machholz of Colfax, California who discovered it on August 27, 2004. It was his 10th comet discovery and another great reward for years of searching and studying the sky. Over the past 4 months this comet has moved closer to the sun and to the earth, has grown brighter, and, like other comets, has sprouted a gas tail and a dust tail. (As of January 3, I have already observed it at least nine times.) It should be easy to see, if one observes under a clear, dark sky from a place well away from outdoor lighting. Before January 14, expect to see a fuzzy snowball not far from the Pleiades Star Cluster, a very distinctive arrangement of stars, well up and to the right from Orion. (The Pleiades Cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters, and sometimes erroneously called the Little Dipper, because of the arrangement of stars in this tight cluster. It is, in fact, the cluster that in Japan is known as Subaru, and its six brightest stars appear on the grill of the automobile of the same name.) After January 14, expect to see the comet further north and eastward from the Pleiades, as it moves through the constellation Perseus. Binoculars should help you see the tail of dust that has been left behind as the comet passes through the inner solar system. Try to follow the movement of Comet Machholz through the northern sky over the next two months. A comet that is so bright and so easily seen with the unaided eye is not something that happens every day!

More information about observing the winter sky is available in the latest edition of the book The Beginners Observing Guide, now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy. It provides numerous observing tips in clear, understandable language. Best wishes for the New Year to all our readers; may you have a pleasant year 2005 as you enjoy the great beauty to be found in our clear and dark night skies!

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