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What’s in the Night Sky This Month? – January 2017

The new year brings us plenty of planetary activity to get excited about, with Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury all giving us stargazing enthusiasts lots to observe this month, not to mention two great lunar craters and The Crab Nebula.

This Monday January 2nd just after sunset, there’s an interesting alignment of Venus and Mars sat either side of a very thin crescent Moon. If you get the chance, take a look at the ‘Earthshine’ – this being the old Moon in the new Moon’s arms.

Tycho Crater. Image credit: Wikimedia

Tycho Crater. Image credit: Wikimedia

On Saturday 7th January, there’s an excellent opportunity to observe two of the great Moon craters, Tycho and Copernicus, as the terminator is close by. Tycho can be found towards the lower half of Moon in the Southern Lunar Highlands; a densely cratered area thought to have been formed by an impact from the remnants of an asteroid approximately 108 million years old.

Copernicus is much older than Tycho, thought to be around 800 million years old. It lies in the eastern Oceanus Procellarum beyond the end of the Apennine Mountains. Measuring around 93 km wide and almost 4 km deep, this is regarded as a classic terraced crater. Both Tycho and Copernicus can be easily be observed with a good pair of binoculars.

Copernicus Crater. Image credit: Wikimedia

Copernicus Crater. Image credit: Wikimedia

Later in the month, you should be able to take a look at Jupiter lying between the Third Quarter Moon and Spica, Alpha Virginis just before dawn on January 19, whilst on the 24th and 25th, Saturn and Mercury will be seen along with a very thin waning crescent Moon just before sunrise.

On the final day of the month, you may just catch a glimpse really cool triangle formation made of Venus and Mars sat above a waxing thin crescent Moon, right after sunset.

Moon Phases

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Last Quarter
January 28th January 5th January 12th January 19th

Planets

Mercury

By the second week of January, Mercury becomes visible down to the left of Saturn just before dawn. It will reach a magnitude of +0.9 by January 6 after which it will fall back towards the horizon. However, its magnitude will increase to a maximum of -0.2 on the 21st and remain so during the rest of the month. Unfortunately, due to the Sun’s glare, it will be difficult to spot however.

Venus

The beautiful blue planet is great for viewing this month, as it reaches 47 degrees east from the Sun on January 12, its greatest elongation. Venus starts the month in Aquarius and moves into Pisces on January 23. It sets around three and a half hours after the Sun and increases in elevation from ~27 to 36 degrees as it moves in a northerly direction along the ecliptic.

It also increases in angular size from 21.7 to 30.4 arc seconds during January but as a consequence, reduces in illuminated disk percentage from 57% to 40%. The planet’s brightness however, hardly changes during this period, increasing from -4.4 to -4.7.

Mars

Mars begins the year in Aquarius but moves eastwards into the southern part of Pisces on January 19. The planet’s brightness decreases by a small margin from magnitude +0.9 to +1.1 due to the angular disk size reducing from 5.7 to 5.1 arc seconds.

You should be able to spot Mars as it rapidly approaches Venus to the left and will eventually be just 5.5 degrees away by the end of the month. However, with the angular size being relatively small during January, do not expect to see much surface detail.

Jupiter

At the beginning of the January, Jupiter rises around midnight lying low in Virgo, close to Spica at a brightness magnitude of -1.9, increasing to -2.1 as the month progresses.

As the Earth moves towards Jupiter later in the month, its disk increases from 35.5 to 38.9 arc seconds making it pretty easy to see to see the atmospheric equatorial bands, the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons.

Saturn

Saturn now in Scorpius, lies in the southern part of Ophiuchus approximately 16 degrees to the left of Antares. Now a morning object only since it passed behind the Sun on December 10, it can be seen low in the southeast rising about one and a half hours before sunrise on New Year’s Day and by three hours towards the end of the month.

It will maintain a magnitude of +0.5 with an angular diameter of 15.2 arc seconds increasing to 15.5 during the month, and its ring system spanning around 35 arc seconds. January is the great month to start observing its beautiful rings as they have opened out to ~26.7 degrees and this will get even better as the we progress further into the year.

Meteor Showers

The Quadrantids

2017 starts with an intense, but short-lived meteor shower. Reaching its peak on the morning of January 2, observers can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour! Best viewed after midnight, the meteors appear to radiate from a spot in the northern part of the constellation Boötes.

The Quadrantids. Image credit: American Meteor Society

The Quadrantids. Image credit: American Meteor Society

Deep Sky Objects

The Crab Nebula, M1

M1 is a supernova remnant that was seen to explode in the year 1054. Just 30km across yet weighing more than our own Sun, this neutron star is visible as the lower right of the pair of stars at the centre of the nebula

It is visible between 17:47 and 04:07 and becomes accessible at around 17:47, when it rises 24° above the eastern horizon, reaching its highest point in the sky at 22:55, 60° above the southern horizon.

Logged as the first entry in Charles Messier’s catalogue, M1 is arguably the most famous of supernova remnants with its a blob-like patch visible using just low-powered binoculars.

The Crab Nebula (M1). Image credit: Georgia State University

The Crab Nebula (M1). Image credit: Georgia State University

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