January 2015

INTRODUCTION

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.

THE CONSTELLATIONS

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.

THE PLANETS

planets
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.

THE MOON

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
jim@jrjohnson.net

Corona Australis (The southern crown)

Constellation Corona AustralisCorona Australis is a southern constellation that was cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and remains among the 88 modern constellations. This horseshoe-shaped constellation lies about as far south as, and adjacent to the crook of Scorpius’ tail, and just beneath the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. Because of its far southern location in the celestial sphere, it barely rises above the southern horizon before setting again. Corona Australis reaches its highest nightfall ascension in September.

This constellation provides the foreground stars for a portion of the Milky Way pointing in a direction near the center of our galaxy. The most notable object in this region is the Corona Australis Molecular Cloud, a large and dark molecular cloud with many embedded reflection nebulae. There are many other telescopically interesting objects in this constellation to include star-forming regions with proto-stars, galaxies, and variable stars.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Australis

IAU Corona Australis chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.
IAU Corona Australis chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Centaurus (The centaur)

Constellation CentaurusCentaurus is a large, bright southern constellation that is among the 48 constellations cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy. Because it is located so far south on the celestial sphere, it rises only partially above the horizon at a 40-degree north location. It reaches its highest nightfall ascension in May. This constellation has the distinction of hosting our nearest stellar neighbor, the Alpha Centauri system. Located just over four light years away, this system consists of three components: Alpha Centauri A, B and C. Alpha Centauri C is also known as Proxima, which is actually the nearest of the three component stars, and the only one that cannot be seen with the unaided eye.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centaurus

IAU Centaurus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Rober Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 4, 2011.
IAU Centaurus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Rober Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 4, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Ara (The altar)

Constellatiion AraAra, the altar, is a southern constellation that is so far south as to never rise above the horizon for viewers at 40-degrees north latitude. It is included in this collection to complete the descriptions of the 48 constellations cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy. For those traveling south, to say Florida or farther, look for Ara to reach its highest nightfall ascension in July. It is located just beneath the crook of Scorpius’ tail.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ara_(constellation)

IAU Ara chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sonnott & Rick Fienberg), June 4, 2011.
IAU Ara chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), June 4, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Corvus (The raven)

CorvusCorvus is a southern constellation that was cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy that remains among the 88 modern constellations. It’s four brightest stars form a distinct quadrilateral asterism that lies beneath Virgo’s back, adjacent to Crater, and above Hydra near its tail. This constellation reaches its highest nightfall ascension in May. Because of its deep southern declination, it sets shortly after setting, and it never rises very far above the horizon.

NGC40384039_largeThere are no Messier objects in Corvus, but there is a very interesting pair of NGC galaxies, the Antennae peculiar galaxy (NGC 4038 and 4039).  These two objects are undergoing a galactic collision which is stretching them out into unusual antenna-like shapes. “Peculiar” is a term given to any galaxy that does not have the usual spiral or elliptical shape.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus_(constellation)

IAU Corvus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnertt and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.
IAU Corvus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Leo Minor (The lesser lion)

Leo, Leo MinorLeo Minor is a northern constellation that walks the sky below Ursa Major’s hind legs and above Leo’s mane. Ptolemy, the 2nd century astronomer that cataloged many of today’s modern constellations, noted that the region of Leo Minor was undefined, and it remained that way until Johannes Hevelius first depicted it in 1687. Lying just outside the circle that defines circumpolar objects, this constellation can be seen most of the night year ’round, and it reaches its highest nightfall ascension in April. There are no Messier objects in Leo Minor, but there are several NGC objects available to the determined amateur astronomer’s telescope.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Minor

IAU Leo Minor chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.
IAU Leo Minor chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Lupus (The wolf)

Constellation LupusLupus, the wolf, is one of the 48 constellations cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy that remain among the 88 modern constellations defined by the International Astronomical Union. It is a southern constellation that is so far south that it barely peeks above the horizon in June and July for viewers at 40-degree north locations. It is situated beneath the scales of Libra, and to the right of Scorpius. There are no Messier objects in Lupus, and the several NGC objects located there are difficult for northern observers because of the constellation’s low placement on the horizon.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupus_(constellation)

IAU Lupus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011..
IAU Lupus chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011..

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Sextans (The astronomical sextant)

Leo, Hydra, SextansSextans is Latin for astronomical sextant, and was so-named by Johannes Hevelius who frequently used this instrument for his observations. Sextans is very dim as its brightest star barely exceeds 5th magnitude – close to the limit that can be seen with the unaided eye. Sextans is located on the celestial equator below Leo’s front leg, and Hydra slithers along below it. This constellation reaches its highest nightfall ascendance in April, and it contains little else of interest to the amateur astronomer.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sextans

IAU Sextans chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.
IAU Sextans chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Serpens (The serpent)

Serpens Caput, Corona Borealis Sagittarius, Scutum, SerpensSerpens is unique among modern constellations in that it is separated into two parts. Serpens Caput, the head, begins near Corona Borealis, and descends southward until it connects to Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer). Serpens Cauda, the tail, begins on the other side of Ophiuchus and ascends north and eastward, terminating near Aquila. Serpens is often depicted as passing behind Ophiuchus and emerging from the other side. Since Serpens is a lengthy constellation that extends primarily in an east-west direction, it reaches its highest nightfall ascension beginning in June with the head and ending with the tail in August. The entire constellation is situated for best nightfall viewing in July.

Serpens Cauda extends into the Milky Way, so there are several deep sky objects in that section. Two of these are Messier objects, M5, and M16 (the Eagle Nebula, which includes the Pillars of Creation and its associated star cluster). Hoag’s Object is a face-on example of a very rare class of galaxies known as ring galaxy.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpens

IAU Serpens Caput chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnert and Rick Fienbert), March 21, 2012.
IAU Serpens Caput chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienbert), March 21, 2012.
IAU Serpens Cauda chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnertt and Rick Fienberg), March 21, 2012.
IAU Serpens Cauda chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), March 21, 2012.

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net

Scutum (The shield)

Scutum, SagittariusOriginally named Scutum Sobiescianum (Shield of Sobieski) to commemorate the victory of Christian forces led by Polish King John III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the name was later shortened to Scutum. This is a small, dim constellation located between the tail of Aquila, above the head of Sagittarius, and to the left of Ophiuchus. Scutum reaches its highest nightfall ascension in August. It contains two Messier star clusters, M11 (the Wild Duck Cluster), and M26 (NGC 6694).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scutum

609px-Scutum_IAU.svg
IAU Scutum chart, IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg), June 5, 2011.

 

© James R. Johnson, 2014.
jim@jrjohnson.net