| Jan 11, 2007


Feature Article - November 30, 2006

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Januay 11, 2007

The Night Skies of January, 2007 :The Return of Hesperus to the January Sky-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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During the month of January our sunsets are still in the very early evening, in the late afternoon, in fact. The earliest sunset of the whole year, at our latitude, was on December 10th. Since that date, sunsets have been just slightly later each day, but by only a few seconds each day and the day-to-day difference in time has been scarcely noticeable. Only by about the end of January will the hours of daylight begin to be noticeably longer, with the time of sunset going from 4:33 p.m. on New Years’s Day to 5:10 p.m. on January 31st. However, in the chilly January mornings, the difference in the day-to-day sunrise times is not nearly so noticeable, since they range only from 7:47 a.m. on January 4th, the date of the latest sunrise of the whole year in this area, to 7:31 a.m. on the last day of January. In fact, during this month sunrise times average only about a half-minute earlier from one morning to the next. How many people realize that, in this part of the world, the year’s earliest sunset occurs in early December, but the year’s latest sunrise is in early January?

Like December, January continues to be a time to enjoy the late evening’s very bright star patterns as they move across the southern sky. The huge constellation Orion the Hunter is still there with his two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, following at his heels. The larger one has the star Sirius, the brightest star in the whole sky, to mark its eye. The smaller dog, slightly behind and above his companion in the sky, has the star Procyon, the sky’s sixth brightest star, to mark its location. Below Sirius, one can easily discern the outline of a dog following Orion, but near Procyon it is much more difficult to ‘picture’ the outline of a dog or of any other animal, in fact. Just try it! Orion himself has seven very bright stars for the outline of a giant hunter: Betelgeuse and Bellatrix for his shoulders, Rigel and Saif for his knees and a distinctive trio of almost equal brightness to show his belt, the stars that still bear their Arabic names, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Less brilliant, but still easily seen in rural skies, are the stars marking his head, his sword below his belt, and his raised arms, one with his club and the other bearing his shield. Below Orion’s Belt, the careful observer should take note of what astronomers call ‘the Orion Nebula’, a very large distant region of hydrogen gas where new stars are being born over millions of years. Though visible to unaided eyes from dark rural skies, this interesting region of the sky reveals several surprises when seen in a small telescope.

Of the five bright planets, three of them can be very easily seen this month, one is somewhat fainter than usual though still visible, and the other is visible only in the last ten days of January. Brilliant Venus which has been absent from the sky for about three months, and absent from the evening sky for about twelve months, returns in all its brilliance to be seen low in the southwestern sky for a short while beginning shortly after sunset, but as the month progresses it may be seen for a longer period of time before it sets for about 2 hours by the end of January. When looking for it, be sure to have a good view of the southwestern horizon beginning 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. This is a good time to remind ourselves that to the ancient Greeks this planet was known both as Hesperus (the Evening Star) and Phosphorus (the Morning Star). After the year 2006 when Phosphorus was visible, we now have, until mid-August, a year when Hesperus is visible. For the last 10 days of the month, that is, beginning on the evening of January 21st, careful observers should look downward and to the right from brilliant Venus in order to observe the elusive planet Mercury, again beginning about 40 minutes after sunset. This planet will be seen climbing up and closer to Venus each evening until by month’s end the two of them appear separated by less than the width of a fist held at arm’s length. In early January, the planet Saturn may be seen rising in the east at about 8:00 p.m. and moving higher in the sky as the night progresses. Later in the month, it rises up to two hours earlier, and may be seen even in evening twilight. It appears slightly above Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion. For the only planet that rivals Venus in its brilliance, that is, Jupiter, we have to wait, in early January, until about 5:00 a.m. when it rises in the southeastern sky to dominate that part of the heavens until well into morning twilight. Each morning it rises a bit earlier until by month’s end it may be seen at about 3:30 a.m.. Reddish Mars is much fainter but may be found to the lower left from Jupiter. Using ordinary binoculars will assist in finding it in the morning twilight. Do not confuse Mars with the very distant reddish star Antares which appears in the same part of the sky. Antares appear to the lower right from the planet Jupiter.

Several lunar conjunctions are well worth viewing this month. On the evenings of January 5th and 6th, watch as the bright gibbous moon moves past the planet Saturn; on the 5th, it is above the planet; on the 6th, it is below Saturn and right beside the star Regulus. In the morning twilight on January 15th, the thin waning crescent moon appears very close to the star Antares and to the lower right from Jupiter. On the following morning, the 16th, the even thinner crescent moon appears below Jupiter and to the right of Mars. Try not to miss those views in the eastern sky during morning twilight, and don’t forget the binoculars to spot Mars. In the western evening sky there will be some wonderful sights with the young crescent moon on January 19th, 20th, and 21st. On the 19, seeing the VERY thin crescent just to the left of Mercury and VERY low on the horizon about 40 minutes after sunset will be a real challenge, but on the 20th and 21st, seeing the crescent above brilliant Venus will be a delightful view, one not to be missed!

Much more information about observing winter constellations and other objects of the night sky is available in the latest edition of the book, The Beginner’s Observing Guide, now available at Sharbot Lake Pharmacy. Very good wishes for 2007, and remember to enjoy the beauty of the winter sky!

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