This year we are starting the evenings with a procession of
illustrious planets at their brightest.
By David Baumgartner

This year we are starting the evenings with a procession of illustrious planets at their brightest.

We start with Saturn, which comes into view in the east as the night falls. The planet is only a couple weeks past its closest approach to us, as Ed Stephenson pointed out to me last week at Rotary. Good going Ed. You will be able to pick out Saturn burning bright all night near the southern horn-tip of Taurus the Bull.

We will all want to train our telescopes on the fully tilted rings of Saturn this month, but there is also a very rare event to see through the eyepiece on Saturday. Saturn spends the entire night crossing in front of the famous Crab Nebula, M1, the remnant of an ancient supernova. You will need your best telescope for this one. It remains to be seen just how easy it will be to detect any of the dim remnants behind the strong glow of the planet. A good idea is to also check out the closeness of Saturn and M1 the nights before and after. The night after, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, can be seen crossing the nebula as well.

Jupiter is the second bright planet of the night, now more than two magnitudes more brilliant than Saturn and its disk more than twice as wide. It glows in the constellation Cancer even outshining the brightest star of the night, Sirius. The giant planet rises in the east-northeast as darkness takes over. Low power binoculars will show Jupiter lying 9 degrees east-southeast of M44, the Beehive star cluster in Cancer. It would be best to wait until about 10 p.m. for good views, when Jupiter has climbed high enough to be less affected by the turbulence in our atmosphere.

The third bright planet of the night doesn’t appear until a few hours before the Sun, but it is the most brilliant by far. Venus attains its greatest height in the sky on Jan. 11. Within a few days of that date, in a telescope, the phase of Venus will look exactly like a half Moon, but I guess we should call it a half Venus. The planet is accompanied by the planet Mars and the star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Antares, Mars‚ rival, is brighter than Mars now, but wait until this summer when Mars will be at its best ever. On Jan. 20 these three objects will form an almost equilateral triangle.

Mercury springs up into the dawn sky late in the month, shining very far to the lower left of Venus and Mars. Look for it several degrees to the lower left of the slim crescent Moon on the morning of the Jan. 29. Oh, come on, get up early you will enjoy it.

– Constellation of the month: The beginning of the year is a good time to start learning the constellations, because you can start with the easiest and brightest of them all. Orion, pictured above, can be seen immediately up in the middle of the winter sky with his shoulders, knees and his belt marked by seven bright stars making it the brightest constellation in the sky. Down from the left end of Orion’s belt hangs his sword, a line of three fainter stars. The middle one of these is actually not a star at all, but a nebula or cloud of shining gas. This gas is the most famous object of his kind, and is called the Great Orion Nebula, M42. It looks wonderful if you get a chance to see it through a telescope, or even binoculars.

In Greek legend, Orion was a great hunter. He wanted to rid the world of all wild animals. The gods did not want this to happen, so they sent an enormous scorpion to kill him. But the gods were kinder to him after that and put him in the sky opposite to the Scorpion, which is far away in the night of the July skies.

While you are up and about on Saturday you may want to keep an eye out for the Quadrantids meteor showers. They seem to come from an area below the constellation Draco. Why the name Quadrantids?

Once there was a constellation called Quandrans in that part of the sky but people later decided to divide it up between the constellations Draco, Bootes and Hercules. But they still originate from that area, so watch for them.

On the night of the Dec. 24 I did see quit a large brilliant streak in the sky. I’m not sure what is was, but there were colorful lights of green and red all led by a bright red looking glow followed by some, what might have been, antler looking objects. You don’t suppose that was? Oh well, it could have been just about anything.

Don’t let these cold winter nights stop you from going out and enjoying the skies. It’s just a matter of bundling up properly and sipping on some hot chocolate or coffee to make things more bearable in your back yard.

You might not want to stay out as long as you would in the warm summer nights. We don’t seem to have as many clear viewing skies in the winter months, so take advantage of them when they do come along.

David Baumgartner is an amateur astronomer and local Realtor. His Sky Watch column appears monthly in the Free Lance.

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