Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (email@example.com)
January 31, 2014
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. I heard today that January was just the appetizer. As cold as it has been in January, it is likely to be just as cold with maybe even more cold days coming in February. Brrrr… I can’t wait to see Leo high in the east in the early evening skies so I know that spring and warmer evenings are just around the corner. For now though, Leo is just barely rising in the early evening and instead, the large but maybe a bit less familiar constellation Gemini is high in the east-southeast. Gemini is especially interesting this year because it looks a little unusual. It is the host of the biggest planet in the solar system: Jupiter. Jupiter shines at a brilliant -2.5 magnitude, far brighter than any other stars in the eastern sky, even brighter than Sirius, right in the center of the big rectangular form that is also known as The Twins. Jupiter is so bright because it reached opposition early in January and it has not dimmed very much at all since then. About 12 degrees to the left (north) of Jupiter are the two brightest stars of Gemini: Pollux and Castor. These stars are bright, they both shine at about magnitude 1.5 (Remember, negative magnitudes are brighter than non-negative ones) but nowhere near as bright as Jupiter. Pollux is the one closer to the horizon. Below Jupiter in neighboring Canis Minor, the Little Dog is a slightly brighter star called Procyon which shines at magnitude 0.4, still not nearly as brilliant of Jupiter. Off to the right of Procyon is the brightest star in the northern skies: Sirius in Canis Major, The Big Dog. Sirius shines very brightly at -1.44, but is still put to shame by the king of the planets! All of that to say this: Jupiter should be pretty easy for you to pick out, it is the brightest ‘star’ out there! One interesting event for those of you with access to a telescope occurs on February 24. Assuming it is clear and also assuming it is not too cold, on that night the four largest moons of Jupiter will form a nice straight line. This is a special line though. This time the moons are actually arranged by their distance from the planet! To the left of Jupiter is the closest moon Io. Strung out on the other side are the rest of the Galilean Satellites moons in order: Europa, Ganymede and Calisto. Definitely worth a look and especially a picture, all you astrophotographers out there. Jupiter is not the only planet in the evening skies this month. Shortly after sunset, say after 30 minutes or so, take a look to the west for elusive Mercury. Mercury got about as far away from the Sun from our point of view here on Earth as it ever will this year on January 31. It will be 11 degrees off the west-southwest horizon on February 1st. Unfortunately, it won’t stay there very long. It will move rather quickly toward the horizon each night for the next two weeks. On the 15th, Mercury will be between Earth and the Sun and then will begin to appear in the morning sky a little before sunrise. Mars and Saturn are not very well placed for viewing this month unless you happen to be out after midnight. They are not very far apart with Mars in the constellation Libra and Saturn in Virgo. Mars is still very small in telescopes, but our orbits are bringing Earth and Mars closer and closer and this year will be a pretty good one for observing Mars as we approach opposition this spring. On February 1st the moon will be near Mercury. It will be a very pretty crescent and Mercury will be half way between the Moon and the horizon. In spite of all the stars to help you locate Jupiter this month, if you are still unsure which one is the giant planet, the moon will pass close by and below it on the night of February 10th. Let’s hope the weather forecasters are wrong and February turns out to be warmer than expected so we can get out under the bright winter skies without risking frostbite and enjoy the winter constellations. Clear Skies, everybody!
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