EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY: JANUARY 2020

Date: 
10 months 1 week ago

Welcome to January’s edition of Eyes on the Night Sky. First all we would like to wish a Happy New Year to all stargazers and hope that 2020 will have plenty of clear skies to try out the new telescopes you have may have received for Christmas. This month, we will provide some interesting highlights to discover with the unaided eyes, binoculars and telescopes.

Venus

Venus continues to emerge into the twilight sky as a bright point of light in south west and will have some lovely close encounters with Venus and Neptune this month, on 27th and 28th January. If you normally have problems trying to find the distant planet Neptune, 27th January provides a chance to find it easily, as Venus passes an extremely close 1/12th of a degree. You will need a small telescope to find gas giant Neptune, as it is too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. Neptune sits at around the 2 o clock position to Venus and will appear as a blue/green disk.

On 28th January, Venus has a close encounter with the crescent Moon, at around 5 degrees, which is the width of two fingers held out at arm’s length. This is a lovely unaided eye target to gaze at, and would also make an attractive photographic opportunity.

Moon

Full Moon is on 10th January and the New Moon is on 24th January.

On 10th January, a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse will occur and can be seen from  Asia, Australia, Europe, and Africa. Those with keen eyes will see the Moon darkening very slightly towards the south but a camera would do a better job of recording the transition of a lighted moon passing into the shadow. The Moon will pass into the Earth’s penumbral shadow at 5.08pm and exits at 9.12pm. There are no total or partial eclipses this year but three, further penumbral eclipses on 5th June, 5th July and 30th November. Watch the video to understand more about Lunar Eclipses.

The Celestial ‘G’

Celestial G Asterism star map

Another unaided eye treat to watch for during the Winter Season is a gigantic asterism and a fun way to learn star names. Click on the image for a print-friendly version to take outside on a clear night and see if you can spot all the stars. The stars listed in this asterism are some of the brightest in the night sky. Start with Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus, moving over to Capella in Auriga. Then look for the dimmer stars Caster and Pollux in Gemini, which might be a bit of a challenge in light polluted skies. Move southwards to Procyon in Canis Minor, then on to the beautiful and bright star Sirius – marvel how it scintillates in the low southern horizon. Move onto Rigel, a star that comprises the right foot of the mighty Orion constellation, straight up to Bellatrix and directly left to the red giant Betelgeuse.

A Star Cluster in Perseus

M48

For those with binoculars, there is a star cluster than can be discovered in one of the largest constellations in the sky. Messier 48 is located in the constellation of Hydra and lies 1500 light years from Earth. Bordering the constellation of Monoceros and Hydra, this is the best time of year to see it and requires optical equipment with low magnification to see it, as it is almost twice the size of the Moon.

M48 star map

Find Procyon, the bright star in Canis Minor and Sirus in Canis Major and imagine lines running down from Procyon and a horizontal line running to the left from Sirius. Where the two ‘lines’ meet is where you look and raise the binoculars to your eyes. If you in a dark sky, you might be able to see it with the unaided eye. Through binoculars and small telescopes, you will see around 50 stars in this cluster. There are 80 stars in total which comprises M48.

A Double Star and a Ghost


Credit: Mount Lemmon Observatory

As we continue with the tour of the Winter skies we revisit the constellation of Andromeda as it begins to sink in the western sky from 10pm onwards. Look for a pretty double star called Almach and marvel at its contrasting colours of blue and gold: a B9 hot main-sequence star and a K3 orange yellow giant. To learn more about star classification, watch the video below, or for a more fun version, click here:

Double star Almach

A small telescope will split the stars easily and a further surprise can be discovered using a telescope of 10 inches aperture or more: the blue star will split into a three star system, making Almach technically a four star system.

Move onto a more challenging object by finding the next star directly south in the constellation of Andromeda. Mirach, a red giant star, which is brighter than our Sun, but cooler in temperature, looks bright in telescopes and is situated 200 light years away. Look at the star map above for its location.

Ghost of Mirach (NGC 404) Imaged by the International Elan Valley Dark Sky Park  using a spectral 2 metre telescope at Las Cumbres Observatory (Faulkes Telescope Project)

But move your telescope up slightly to position in the star map above and try to spot a fuzzy ball, which almost looks like a hazy, internal reflection of Mirach! It isn’t really a ghost; it is a galaxy named NCG 404 and is 10 million light years away.