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Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (

January 3, 2014
Northern-Sun Print
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Last month I shared the quote with you that: “Comets are like cats: they have tails and do whatever they want!” That is exactly right! Well unfortunately ISON did not do what we hoped and instead behaved more like an ornery cat and was destroyed by its way too close encounter with the Sun. I am ready for a really great comet. ISON was not it. Comet Lovejoy, which not many were talking about actually turned out to be better than ISON but nothing like Hale-Bopp or Comet West. Who knows? Perhaps an unexpected comet will come our way in 2014. Much of what we amateurs do in astronomy is very predictable. But there is a lot that is not predictable at all, and that is one of the things that keeps astronomy and life in general, interesting, don’t you think? I like it that the sun rises every morning even if it is very predictable and even if clouds completely obscure it, I know it is there and since we have gotten past the Winter Solstice the days will be getting a little longer each day. Studying a sunrise/sunset table can actually be quite interesting. A great place to study such a table is: This is a free site and you can enter your own state and city information to get a very accurate table for the year. I entered Des Moines, Iowa and noticed a few things that I thought were interesting about the start of this year. For the first ten days the Sun rises at about the same time: 7:41 each day. But, it sets about a minute later each day through the 13th. Then the sunrises start to get earlier and the sunsets continue to happen later every day or two. It is not like just the morning starts earlier or the evening gets later in equal amounts each day. This is due to the not quite circular shape of our orbit around the sun. When we approach the point in the orbit where we are closest to the sun, we speed up. As we move past that point we slow down slightly until the Summer solstice when we speed up again and the cycle repeats. The tilt of the Earth’s axis during this also plays an important part, obviously. There are other factors that impact rise and set times as well, but I don’t want to bore anyone so we will move on, but the point is: some things are very well understood and predictable but comets are not one of them! Goodbye Comet ISON. It was fun following you for a time! January brings another ‘wanderer’ into sharp view: the giant of the solar system planets; Jupiter. Jupiter is the bright interloper in the constellation Gemini. Jupiter will reach opposition on January 5th. It will be as close to us as it will get in 2014 on that day and therefore will appear bigger and more detailed in a telescope. If the current cold snap continues it will be a challenge to get out under clear skies to take a peek, yet even I who really, really hate the cold will go out if it is clear to take in the sight and perhaps take a few pictures too. Since Jupiter is so big and has colorful bands that are always changing, it is one of those objects that are both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. For example, we know precisely when opposition will occur at 15:01 CST on January 5th. However, exactly what the colorful bands will look like, if there may be some new storms or perhaps the scars left over from a recent comet or meteor impact event are all to some degree unpredictable - especially an impact event like the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact that left several persistent blotchy marks on Jupiter in July, 1994. A very exciting time for amateur and profession astronomers alike! Amateurs have caught many more impacts since then, some as they happened. For an excellent write-up of Jupiter and how to identify the various bands and belts and other features, I recommend that you see the January 2014 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine. Venus will be leaving the evening skies and become a morning object this month as does Mercury. Mars may be seen rising in the east shortly after midnight at the beginning of the month and it will rise around 11 as January ends. It is still too far away to see much detail in amateur scopes. That will change a little when it reaches opposition in April. Then it will be about 15 arc-seconds in diameter. Not too bad for Mars, but compare that to Jupiter which will be 47 arc-seconds across! Two final things. The Quadrantid Meteor shower will peak on January third. The moon will be out of the way, but the peak only lasts for a few hours centered fairly close to the North Star. Finally, if you enjoy difficult observations, here is a good one: try to see an extremely slender crescent moon just after sunset on January 1st. Many amateurs like to keep track of the ‘youngest moon’ they’ve ever seen. On January 1st, the moon will be a little over 11 hours old. By that I mean how many hours/minutes from the exact moment when the moon was directly between the Sun and the Earth. The record for visually sighting a young moon is 15h 32m by Sky and Telescope contributing editor Stephen James O’meara. This moon will probably be too young for us in Iowa to see without optical aid such as binoculars or a telescope, but if the western horizon is clear from a passing high pressure system, who knows? Just be very careful not to look directly at the Sun, especially if you use binoculars or a telescope - you could lose your sight forever! Do note where the Sun sets and scan that area once it has fully set. For more information about viewing young moons, search the web for ‘young moon’ or visit Sky and Telescope’s website:

Clear Skies!



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