Our Current Sky

Our Current Sky

our-current-skiesWhat’s Up in Southwest Florida’s January Skies: “Blue” Moon, First ‘act’ of Lunar Eclipse, LOTS of Planet Sightings

On January 2nd, the moon is full.  We get to see it full again on the 31st, which is cool and is called a “blue moon.” A full moon is a moon that rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, so it lights up our night sky all night long. Full moons are important for many animals, mating and hunting cycles are set by the amount of moonlight and the range of the tides at full moon… But for humans, the most interesting stuff will happen in the pre-dawn skies this month!

Mars and Jupiter pass within just one degree of each other on January 7th. Mars is the dull reddish-orange dot that glows with a steady light to the right of dazzling golden-white Jupiter. On January 1st, they both rise four hours before sunrise and are just 2.5 degrees apart, then over the next several days Mars passes Jupiter (Mars’ orbit is closer to the Sun so it’s moving faster). Mars continues lower and farther to the left as you face ESE in the predawn each morning (6 a.m. is a good time) sky. Mars overtakes and passes within one degree of Jupiter by January 7th. They will almost appear to be touching on the night of the 6th/predawn of the 7th. Mars will appear much dimmer, even though it is closer to us. Jupiter’s immense size and bright cloud bands make it much brighter, and Mars is a relatively small planet (60% the size of Earth). In the pre-dawn of Jan 11th, the slim and waning crescent Moon will pass these two planets (Moon left, planets right) — a beautiful photo opportunity if it’s clear weather.

Through the month of January, Mars will pull away from Jupiter, heading “down East” from Earth’s point of view; Jupiter staying among the stars of Libra, while Mars eases east into Scorpius. By January 31st, Mars will be close to Antares, the “red heart of the Scorpion” and brightest star of Scorpius, and Mars will be getting brighter as it moves in its orbit closer to us. Antares means “antagonist/rival of Mars” because it is a rather orange-looking red giant (a star nearing the end of its life), and thus it mimics the color of the planet Mars.

Mercury will be visible by 6 a.m. early this month below (eastward of) Mars and Jupiter, until about the 20th — but it moves very fast, so it will sweep past Saturn and plunge toward the sunrise, eventually to be lost in the bright sky of morning by the end of this month. On January 1st, thirty minutes before sunrise, Mercury will be about 11 degrees above the eastern horizon and to the lower left of Mars and Jupiter — and very bright. Mercury will lose a little altitude each morning as it moves back toward the Sun along its orbit. It will still be 8 degrees up on January 9th, and in the first 12 days of January you can see lovely gold-white Saturn just below and to the left of Mercury by about 6:15 in the morning.

However, Mercury is moving fast, passing Saturn on the 12th-13th! On the morning of January 13th, look just one degree above Mercury and you will see Saturn. On the 14th-15th, the extremely thin waning crescent moon will pass Saturn and Mars, heading for “New Moon” on the 17th — its monthly rendezvous with the Sun from Earth’s point of view. The moon moves fast! Only two weeks after that it will be full again (twice in one month!), but more on that in the last paragraph. By the end of January, due to Earth’s orbiting of the Sun, the Sun will have pulled away to the East of Saturn. We will perceive that as Saturn having risen higher among the stars of Sagittarius — so from late January on, Saturn will be a pre-dawn object, each day it will be against a slightly darker sky and so a bit easier to see. Mercury, by then, will be lost in the glare close to the Sun.

Orion, king of the winter constellations, is in the eastern sky as soon as the Sun sets, followed by his two hunting dogs, one of which (Canis Major) contains the brightest star in our night sky, Sirius (the Dog Star). The second-brightest star in our night sky, Canopus, is the very bright star low in the SE, then S, then SW as the night passes.  Before Canopus rises, the bright star very low in the south at sunset is Fomalhaut.

On January 31st before dawn, look westward at the setting full moon: second full moon of January, so it’s also called a “blue moon.” Do not expect it to look blue. However, it WILL start to look odd, and then reddish, as there will be a penumbral eclipse before moonset and then a total lunar eclipse starting — unfortunately reaching totality after moonset and sunrise! Keep your back to the sunrise to see this lunar eclipse — you will see it start, but the moon will set long before it’s ended.

Heather Preston, Planetarium Director, Calusa Nature Center Planetarium, Fort Myers, FL

Astronomy News Bulletins:

  • Exploding Supernova will change Cygnus

Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his students along with colleagues from Apache Point Observatory (Karen Kinemuchi) and the University of Wyoming (Henry Kobulnicky) are predicting a change to the night sky that will be visible to the naked eye.

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that you can predict an explosion,” Molnar said of his bold prognostication. “It’s never been done before.”

Molnar’s prediction is that a binary star (two stars orbiting each other) he is monitoring will merge and explode in 2022, give or take a year; at which time the star will increase its brightness ten thousand fold, becoming one of the brighter stars in the heavens for a time. The star will be visible as part of the constellation Cygnus, and will add a star to the recognizable Northern Cross star pattern.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2017-01-astronomers-explosion-night-sky.html

  • Pro-AmComet Observing Invitation

Get in on the Pro-Am Comet Observing Action! Remember, the campaign starts later THIS MONTH: https://astronomynow.com/2016/11/24/worldwide-pro-am-help-sought-for-comet-trio-study/. The actual page with details is at the Planetary Sciences Institute, here: http://www.psi.edu/41P45P46P


Useful Sites for Backyard Astronomers…

Here is an off-site excellent summary (opens in new page) of night sky observables this month…

The International Space Station is visible some nights, and is very bright! For specific visibility direction, greatest altitude, and time at your location: https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The Hubble Space Telescope is visible some nights.  For specific times and routes: http://www.heavens-above.com/