By “Astro” Mark Laurin
Used with permission.
Winter is here. Notwithstanding the fact that since the passing of the winter solstice in late December, and the indiscriminate increasing length of daylight, by approximately one minute per day, the northern hemisphere days remain short with nights that stay deep and long. The chilly irony of winter is that while the months of January, February, and March are mind-numbingly cold at night, many spectacular gems, gorgeous celestial events, and unique colorful objects are beckoning you to come out and view them. Darkness arrives earlier, celestial objects are visible sooner, lower humidity in cold air lend to sparkling, clear, inky black dark skies. Stargazing is a year round activity; so bundle up, step outside, and look up. Experience the stillness of a winter night and awe in these January celestial events.
Escaping the Scorpion: A Crescent Moon, Venus, Mercury, and Mars: January 9th
It’s an early morning jailbreak. With the waning crescent moon standing guard, Venus, Mercury, Mars, and the dwarf planet Ceres slide along the southeastern horizon in the dimly lit predawn hours past the stinger tail of Scorpius the Scorpion before daybreaks. Look for these jail birds in a diagonal order with Mars closest to the freedom of a new day followed by Mercury, Ceres, and Venus with the Moon between them and the scorpion’s poisonous stinger. Venus is the brightest and the highest in the sky. From there draw a line back to the southeast horizon at a 45 degree angle. The next dot of light is Ceres, after that Mercury, with Mars just a few degrees above the horizon. You’ll notice that Mars will be a distinct red-hue color. Now witnessing the escape isn’t easy. It all happens fast. Be sure to look east around 6:45am. Get outside no later than 7:00am to see the entire line up. With sunrise at 7:16am, any later than than and Mercury is washed out; and any sooner than 6:45am, Mars is still below the horizon. You’ll need to be on the lookout to catch these convicts as they make their great escape. Are you up for it?
A Conjunction of Saturn and the Moon with a Little Earthshine to Boot: January 14th
Saturn’s lengthy sojourn across our night sky began last year and now, begins to draw to a close. Before then, the Roman god of agriculture and wealth, and the father of Jupiter and 6th planet, passes just a touch over 2.9 degrees north of the Moon resulting in an astronomical conjunction. A conjunction is when two or more celestial objects share the same right ascension in the celestial dome overhead. On Earth we’d say they share the same longitude. On the 14th the thin waxing crescent Moon that rises and then falls in the western sky, is only 3-days old. Go outside shortly after sunset to see it. Saturn is over two fingers width west of the Moon with an ever so slightly soft green tint to it. It will be dim, but you’ll see it. The Moon is only 15% illuminated that night and if it is clear, you’ll notice that you can faintly see the entire Moon.
What? Yep, and that’s possible because of Earthshine. It is the dim illumination of the otherwise unilluminated portion of the Moon. Earthshine is the indirect sunlight bouncing off the Earth, then bouncing off the Moon and then bouncing back to Earth. That brightness of the crescent comes from sunlight shining directly on the Moon’s surface that’s then reflected back towards Earth, and is called Moonlight. How cool is that?
Conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon: January 18th
Four days following the conjunction of the Moon and Saturn, arrives the conjunction between the Moon and Jupiter. What a difference four days makes. For this conjunction, Jupiter and the Moon are separated by a meager 2.4 degrees (closer to one another than the earlier Saturn / Moon conjunction), the Moon is 7-days old now, and Earthshine is significantly reduced. What makes this conjunction spectacular is that Jupiter is positioned almost directly below the Moon. Some say a conjunction like this reminds them of a hot air balloon rising in the night sky. What do you see? The pair will glide high across the night sky east to west and be visible most of the night, from sunset till early in the morning of the 19th. The pair will be too wide apart to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but can be seen together through binoculars, and of course, your naked-eye.
y-Ursae Minorid Meteor: January 19th
While the annual Quadrantids meteor shower began in mid-December and showers into the beginning of January, the y-Ursae are correctly the first meteor shower of the year. The y-Ursae shower runs from January 15th through January 25th, peaking this year on the 19th during daylight hours. Even if you could see it at its peak, the y-Ursae Minorid meteor shower isn’t the most prolific of our annual meteor showers. On average you’ll see about three meteors per hour under dark skies, at the radient’s highest altitude.
If you have fortitude and a willingness to stave off the bitter cold of a January night, take heart your courage is rewarded. Good fortune will smile upon you that night since this year the y-Ursae meteor shower arrives when the Moon nears its New Moon phase of its cycle, ushering in an almost completely dark night. This is great because it enables the fainter meteors to be observed and appreciated. And since this is a circumpolar meteor shower, the radiant point never falls below the horizon, making the shower visible all night long. Here is a tidbit for you. The small bits of comet debris (most the size of a grain of rice) are estimated to be traveling nearly 76,000 miles per hour when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up between 60 to 100 miles above us.
First Full Moon of the Year: January 25th
The first full moon of 2024 peaks at 10:54am on the 25th. It is called the full Wolf Moon, named after howling wolves. This full Moon is also called the “Moon After Yule ” in the Anglo-Saxon culture as it is the first full Moon to follow the winter solstice festivals. In Celtic and Old English lore, the first full Moon of the year is also referred to as the Quiet Moon, and the Stay Home Moon. Some North American indigenous cultures reference it as the Severe Moon or Center Moon. Prior to time being measured in the solar year of 12-months, time was tracked by the seasons, and consequently the lunar months. Today we use many of these month’s names as the names of Full Moons. Oh, and do wolves really howl at the Moon? Actually, they howl in the direction of the Moon to project their howl upward so as to carry their sound farther to mark their territory.
Thank goodness that traditionally January is a quiet stargazing month. Damn it’s cold at night. It’s a challenge for even the hardiest of stargazers to step outside and look up, for any length of time. It takes real commitment and thoughtful preparation. So what’s to motivate you to stargaze this month? Let me count the ways: there’s two meteor showers; two quite close lunar and planetary conjunctions; a march of the planets through star clusters and star-birthing nebula; and some Earthshine bouncing back to your smiling face. That’s nothing to sneeze at, unless you have a head cold. Make a date with the night sky. Write it on your calendar. Carve out a little time to get into the night, get cold, and get inspired by the beauty, mystery, and synchronicity of the universe overhead. See the planet Jupiter dominating the night sky in brilliance, boldness, and brightness throughout January. Might be a good time for you to look up and schedule a personal audience with the God of the Sky. Jupiter will be there.
Clear skies to you!