January 2015


Happy New Year, and welcome to Scope Out Next Month’s new layout and simplified format. As the first year of Scope Out approaches and descriptions of all of the constellations and annual events have been reported once, there is no need to re-write that material every year. Instead, I have prepared brief posts with descriptions and images of all of the constellations visible from our northern hemisphere location. Now, I simply need to identify which constellations are visible at nightfall in a given month, and a star gazer can click on a link to any of those constellations for more detailed information. Although I have not written posts for all of the annual events such as solstices, equinoxes, and meteor showers, I intend to give them similar treatment as these events come along later in the year.

Scope Out is a monthly publication for casual stargazers in the mid-northern latitudes. It highlights the constellations that are in the best viewing position at nightfall, describes the locations of the solar system’s planets, marks the date of the Moons phases and conjunctions with the planets, and it describes the interesting astronomical events that occur during the month.


JanuaryThe sky map thumbnail represents the sky as it will appear in mid-January at the end of astronomical twilight, or complete darkness. The Scope Out monthly focus will be on the constellations that are  just to either side of the vertical line that begins near Polaris and extends downward toward the southern horizon, roughly the 2h right ascension line in January. This line, the meridian, is important because these constellations are at their highest point in the night sky. Due to the Earth’s rotation, these constellations will move across the sky toward the western horizon as the evening progresses, and new constellations will rise above the eastern horizon to take their place. Although not yet at its highest placement, Orion is already beginning to steal the show as it continues to rise just a little higher above the eastern horizon each evening.

The circumpolar constellations are those sufficiently close to Polaris that they do not set, but merely rotate around the pole star. The implication is that these constellations are visible all night from our northern location. January’s circumpolar constellations that are in the best viewing position on the meridian are Cassiopeia, Lacerta, Cepheus, Camelopardalis, and Perseus.

The northern constellations generally rise in the east, pass directly or nearly directly overhead, and then set in the west. These are the most easily observed constellations when they are on the meridian, because their high placement in the sky make them the least affected by atmospheric haze, and the least likely to be blocked by obstructions such as trees or buildings on the horizon. January’s best northern constellations include Pegasus, Andromeda, Pisces, Triangulum, Aries, and Taurus.

The southern constellations tend to hang low in the southern sky, never rising very far above the horizon. These constellations generally rise in the southeast, make a brief appearance above the horizon, and then set in the southwest. The best-placed constellations in January are Cetus, Eridanus and Sculptor.


Colors of the planets. This picture is not to scale. Image from NASA’s Planetary Photogrounal at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/

Look for Mercury low on the western horizon at dusk until mid-month. It reaches its greatest elongation from the Sun, which is its and most favorable viewing opportunity, around January 13th. Mercury and Venus are in conjunction on January 10th, and Venus will continue to increase its elongation from the Sun throughout the month. Mars will can be found low on the western horizon all month, setting at around 8pm. Jupiter begins the month rising above the eastern horizon about two hours after sunset. It rises a little earlier each evening, rising about half an hour after sunset by month’s end. Saturn is presently a morning object, rising in the east at about 4am at the beginning of the month. It will rise just a little earlier each month, rising at 2:30am by month’s end. Uranus begins the month rather high in the sky in the constellation Pisces, and can be viewed with a binocular or modest telescope. Neptune is lower toward the western horizon than Uranus, and can be most easily found on January 19th when it is half the full Moon’s diameter to above and to the right of Mars.


moon_phases_small_full January 4
Full Moon
January 7
Conjunction with Jupiter
moon_phases_small_lastqtr January 13
Last Quarter
January 16
Conjunction with Saturn (dawn)
moon_phases_small_new January 20
New Moon
moon_phases_small_firstqtr January 26
First Quarter
January 28-29
Among the Hyades

COMET LOVEJOY – January 1st to 31st

C2014Q2_Lovejoy_by_Paul_StewartAlso known as C/2014 Q2, Comet Lovejoy will be visible all month. It will be difficult to view without binoculars during the first week of the month until the Moon’s phase progresses a few days beyond full on the 4th. Starting around January 7th, look for it as a naked eye object to the west of Orion, moving toward the north, northwest for the rest of the month. Sky & Telescope magazine published an article on Comet Lovejoy that includes star charts to help locate the comet, and periodic updates to report the latest observations. A study of the Orion, Eridanus, and Taurus star charts to become familiar with these constellations’ placement relative to one another and their star patterns can before getting outside can be helpful.

© James R. Johnson, 2014

2 thoughts on “January 2015”

  1. I went outside last night just before 9pm for my first look at Comet Lovejoy. I knew that the the nearly full moon would keep me from viewing it without optical aid, so I studied the star charts to make sure that I knew where to look. My star hopping plan was easy: start with Mintaka at the left end of Orion’s belt, draw an imaginary line downward to Rigel, and proceed that distance again to Lovejoy. Once outside, I put the binoculars on that location and there it was! It was not nearly as bright as the nearby Orion Nebula (M42), but it appeared as a faint circular blob of about one-half the size of the full Moon. I was not able to see the tail at all. Because it was so dim, I was not able to detect the green color associated with diatomic carbon molecules in the comet’s gaseous halo and tail that are fluorescing in the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.

  2. I was able to observe Comet Lovejoy again tonight at about 8:30 EST. The sky was crystal clear, but the waning gibbous Moon had risen about an hour before Lovejoy had ascended above the treeline in my back yard. It was located on an imaginary line drawn from Saiph through Rigel in Orion, and about 1 1/2 times that distance again. It was slightly larger and brighter than my last observation. I looked carefully, but still could not discern the tail, and I could not see the comet without binoculars.

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