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 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.
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.
Conjunction with Jupiter
Conjunction with Saturn (dawn)
Among the Hyades
COMET LOVEJOY – January 1st to 31st
Also 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