Category Archives: Scope Out Next Month

August 2015

INTRODUCTION

This is the hottest and most humid month of the year in Maryland. Don’t be discouraged though. There will be that occasional night when the hot weather breaks, and getting reacquainted with the night sky will be an exhilarating experience. So keep your eye on the weather and take advantage of those wonderful nights. Be sure to look for the Summer Triangle, which a large triangle of bright stars that is nearly directly overhead at nightfall. These stars are Vega in the constellation Lyra, Altair in the constellation Aquila, and Deneb in the constellation Cygnus.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-August at the end of astronomical twilight, or the arrival of complete darkness, at about 9:30pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 18th hour (18h) of right ascension line in the August sky map below. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations: Find Usra Minor standing up on its tail, and Draco in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Find August’s remaining northern constellations, Corona Borealis, HerculesLyraAquila, and Cygnus near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in April are Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Some of these, Scorpius and Sagittarius, for example, never rise very far above the horizon because of their deep southern declination.

The August Night Sky, Jim Johnson, December 14, 2014.
The August Night Sky, Jim Johnson, December 14, 2014.
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/

Mercury is an evening object most of this month, appearing low on the western horizon as darkness falls. Mercury will be in conjunction with Jupiter on August 6th, and Jupiter, Mercury and the bright star Regulus can be seen within 1° of one another on August 7th. Mercury reaches this apparition’s brightest magnitude (-1) on August 21st, and its greatest eastern elongation on August 31st. Venus can be glimpsed by a determined binocular viewer early in the month. It will be very low on the horizon, and it will set just a few minutes after sunset. By mid-month, Venus will be lost in the sun’s glare, and thus a spectacular evening apparition ends. By month’s end, Venus will be on the other side of the sun as viewed from earth, and can be seen low on the eastern horizon about 30 minutes before sunrise. Jupiter also ends its evening apparition this month as it slips into the sun’s glare early in August, not to be seen again until it reappears as a morning object in September. Mars is a morning object, rising on the eastern horizon just before sunrise. Saturn, the sole bright planet that is easily visible, steals the planetary show this month. Look for it low in the southern sky near the distinct head of Scorpius. Uranus and Neptune are still morning objects that rise above the eastern horizon in the wee hours of the morning They can be seen by a determined binocular observer.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

moon_phases_small_lastqtr August 6
3rd Quarter
moon_phases_small_new August 14
New Moon
moon_phases_small_firstqtr August 22
1st Quarter
August 22
Conjunction with Saturn
moon_phases_small_full August 29
Full Moon

Events

Very close grouping of Mercury, Jupiter and Regulus – August 7th

These three objects will be positioned within 1° of one another providing a pretty grouping with the unaided eye, or within a telescopic field of view at low magnification.

Perseid Meteor Show – August 11 to 14.

The moon, a waning crescent, is well positioned to provide a dark sky for observing the Perseids this year.

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

July 2015

INTRODUCTION

Summer’s heat is here and it is vacation season. Vacations are often an opportunity to get away from the city lights, so if you happen to be so lucky, be sure to take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy a much darker, and hence starrier night sky than what you might be accustomed to at home. In addition to being prepared for the cool nights that occur even during the summer, be sure to bring along something to keep the bugs away.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-July at the end of astronomical twilight, or the arrival of complete darkness, at about 10pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 12th hour (12h) of right ascension line in the July sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations: Find Usra MinorUrsa Major and Canes Venatici in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Find July’s remaining northern constellations, Leo, Leo Minor, Coma Bernices, Bootes and Corona Borealis near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in April are Crater, Corvus, and Virgo. Some of these, Crater and Corvus, for example, never rise very far above the horizon because of their deep southern declination.

July
The July Night Sky, Jim Johnson, December 2014.
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/

Mercury begins the month as a morning object, just past its peak for optimal viewing. Look for it in the eastern morning sky about 75 minutes before sunrise. It quickly dives back into the sun’s glare and is lost by month’s end. Venus and Jupiter are the bright pair in the western sky just after sunset.  They are just one day past a very close conjunction as the month begins, and they will travel together while remaining in relatively close proximity to one another. They will  appear just a bit closer to the western horizon with the passing of each evening. Venus‘ telescopic appearance will change dramatically during the month, beginning as a rather thick crescent, and then closing the month as a fingernail crescent. Venus’ apparent disk will appear noticeably large as well as the month progresses. Mars begins to emerges as a morning object by month’s end, and will be difficult to see without binoculars. Look for it near Mercury about 45 minutes before sunrise on the eastern horizon on July 16th. Saturn is just past its optimum viewing position with respect to disk size and brightness. It is placed higher in the sky for easier viewing at nightfall. Uranus and Neptune are morning objects that rise just before dawn.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

moon_phases_small_full July 1
Full Moon
moon_phases_small_lastqtr July 8
3rd Quarter
moon_phases_small_new July 15
New Moon
July 18
Conjunction with Venus and Jupiter
moon_phases_small_firstqtr July 24
1st Quarter
July 25
Conjunction with Saturn
moon_phases_small_full July 31
Full Moon (aka Blue Moon)

Events

Earth reaches Aphelion – July 6

The Earth reaches its farthest distance from the Sun during its annual orbit about the Solar System’s star. There are no direct observables for the casual astronomer, but if the Earth were at perihelion, or the closest distance to the Sun, on this date, northern hemisphere summers would be noticeably warmer.

Very close grouping of Moon, Venus and Jupiter – July 18

Look for a very pretty grouping of a fingernail crescent Moon with Venus and Jupiter low on the western horizon right after sunset.

Blue Moon – July 31

The occasion of a second full moon during a calendar month is known as a “blue moon.” July’s first full month was on July 1st.

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

June 2015

INTRODUCTION

Summer arrives this month, and with it, those seemingly endless days. Summer nights, of course are exceedingly short. In fact, Civil Twilight, which is not very dark, ends at 9:50 pm and begins at 4:30 am around the Summer Solstice on June 21st. Summer nights are only about 6 1/2 hours long! Compare this to winter nights, which are about 12 1/2 hours long. If we astronomers could only have both summer weather and winter-length nights at the same time.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-June at the end of astronomical twilight, or the arrival of complete darkness, at about 10pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 12th hour (12h) of right ascension line in the June sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations: Find Usra MinorUrsa Major and Canes Venatici in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Find June’s remaining northern constellations, Leo, Leo Minor, Coma Bernices, Bootes and Corona Borealis near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in April are Crater, Corvus, and Virgo. Some of these, Crater and Corvus, for example, never rise very far above the horizon because of their deep southern declination.

May
The June Sky at Nightfall, Jim Johnson, December 2014.
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/

Mercury begins a morning apparition at the beginning of the month, and it is best observed at its peak western elongation on June 24th. Look for it in the eastern morning sky about 45 minutes before sunrise. Mars in now hidden in the sun’s glare and will not be visible until it emerges as a morning object later this summer. Venus is the very bright object in the western sky after sunset. It is near its peek elongation from the Sun, and telescopically presents an appearance similar to a crescent moon. The crescent will become thinner, and the planet’s disk will appear to grow larger through the remainder of its evening apparition. Jupiter is the bright object that appears nearly overhead at nightfall. Read about its coming conjunction with Venus below. Saturn is just past opposition, and can be found above the eastern horizon at sunset. It remains showy both visually and telescopically. Uranus and Neptune are morning objects that rise just before dawn.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

moon_phases_small_full June 2
Full Moon
moon_phases_small_lastqtr June 9
3rd Quarter
moon_phases_small_new June 16
New Moon
June 19
Conjunction with Venus
June 20
Conjunction with Jupiter
moon_phases_small_firstqtr June 24
1st Quarter
June 28
Conjunction with Saturn

Events

Summer Solstice – June 21

Summer officially begins when the sun reaches its northernmost point on the celestial sphere at 12:38pm on June 21st. At local noon, when the sun reaches the meridian, it will be at its highest point in the sky for observers north of the Tropic of Cancer. The longest day of the year and the shortest night of the year occur within a few days of this date.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter – June 30

Venus and Jupiter have been visible together in the evening sky since March, with Venus on the western horizon and Jupiter on the eastern horizon. These two planets have been slowly approaching one another these past few months, and will finally meet at month’s end. They begin the month about 20° (about a hand’s length) apart. Venus will be near Gemini’s two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, and these three objects will appear in a nearly straight line on June 1st. Jupiter will be to their east. The moon will move through this area just after mid-month, passing Venus on the 19th, and Jupiter on the 20th. The two planets will reach conjunction on June 30th, appearing just 1/3° apart, which is the same field of view of most telescopes.

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

May 2015

INTRODUCTION

May is the month that we begin to trade early sunsets for great weather.  Although the weather is warmer, it takes seemingly forever for it to get dark enough to observe the night sky. The end of civil twilight is at 8:45pm and the end of astronomical twilight is at 9:20pm, and keeps getting later through the Summer Solstice in late June. Be sure to take every opportunity to just go outside and look up. Star gazing is just that easy. As interest is piqued, spend some cloudy nights reading about anything that you’ve seen night sky.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-May at the end of astronomical twilight, or the arrival of complete darkness, at 9:20pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 12th hour (12h) of right ascension line in the May sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations: Find Usra MinorUrsa Major and Canes Venatici in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Find April’s remaining northern constellations, Leo, Leo Minor, Coma Bernices, Bootes and Corona Borealis near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in April are Crater, Corvus, and Virgo. Some of these, Crater and Corvus, for example, never rise very far above the horizon because of their deep southern declination.

May
The May Sky at Nightfall, Jim Johnson, December 2014.

 

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/

Mercury is in its best evening apparition of this year at the beginning of the month, peaking around May 10th, and remaining visible most of the remainder of the month. Look for it low on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. The Pleiades, an easy naked eye object when it is overhead, can be seen with binoculars just to the right of Mercury. Mars will be a difficult, telescope-only object as it will soon disappear into the Sun’s glare. Look for it low on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. Venus is the very bright object in the western sky after sunset. It is near its peek elongation from the Sun, and presents an appearance similar to the 1st quarter moon (half dark and half lit). Jupiter is the bright object that appears nearly overhead at nightfall. The show to watch over the next two months is Jupiter and Venus moving ever so closer to one another as they approach conjunction this summer. Take note of how many hand widths apart they are now (and write it down!), and check again every few nights. Saturn rises in the east at sunset and is in good viewing a few hours later. Uranus and Neptune are morning objects that rise just before dawn.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

moon_phases_small_full May 3
Full Moon
moon_phases_small_lastqtr May 11
3rd Quarter
moon_phases_small_new May 18
New Moon
May 20 and 21
Conjunction with Venus
May 23
Conjunction with Jupiter
moon_phases_small_firstqtr May 25
1st Quarter
May 31
Conjunction with Saturn

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

April 2015

INTRODUCTION

April is a great month for casual star gazing. The weather is tolerable, it still gets dark at a reasonable hour, and the evenings are relatively bug free. Be sure to take every opportunity to just go outside and look up. Star gazing is just that easy. As interest is piqued, spend some cloudy nights reading about anything that you’ve seen night sky.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-April  at the end of astronomical twilight, or the arrival of complete darkness, at 9:20pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 10th hour (10h) of right ascension line in the April sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations: Find Lynx, Perseus, Camelopardalis, and Ursa Major in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Orion continues to move toward the western horizon. Although it no longer dominates the sky, it does catch they eye before setting below the western horizon about an hour or so after sunset. Find April’s remaining northern constellations, Cancer, Leo, and Leo Minor near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in April are Hydra, Sextans, Pyxis and Crater. Some of these, Pyxis and Crater, for example, never rise very far above the horizon because of their deep southern declination.

April
The April Sky at Nightfall. Jim Johnson, December 2014.

 

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/

Mercury begins its best evening apparition during the last week April. Look for it low on the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. It reaches its best viewing opportunity during the first week of May. Mercury and Mars put on a planetary show on the western horizon around April 20th, and can be seen with binoculars soon after sunset. Venus’ brightness will dominate the western sky after sunset, and will continue to appear a little higher above the horizon each evening.  It will move through Taurus passing near the Pleiades and Hyades around mid-month. Jupiter is in its best nightfall view position near the meridian at sunset. Saturn continues to rise earlier each evening, appearing above the eastern horizon about two hours after sunset. Uranus is lost in the Sun’s glare and will soon reappear as a morning object. Neptune is now a morning object, but it is still too close to the Sun’s glare to be seen before dawn.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

moon_phases_small_full April 4
Full Moon
April 8
Conjunction with Saturn
moon_phases_small_lastqtr April 12
Last Quarter
moon_phases_small_new April 18
New Moon
April 19
Conjunction with Mars and Mercury
April 20 and 21
Conjunction with Venus
moon_phases_small_firstqtr April 25
First Quarter
April 25 and 26
Conjunction with Jupiter

EVENTS

Lunar Eclipse – April 4th

The eclipse begins when the moon enters the prenumbra of the Earth’s shadow at 5:35am EDT. The partial eclipse begins when the moon enters the umbra of the Earth’s shadow at 6:15am, and totality begins when the moon is completely enveloped within the umbra at 7:54am. The moon, when viewed from Maryland, sets a few minutes later, which is before the moon emerges from the umbra.

Venus Passes near Pleiades – April 11th

Venus passes within 3° of the Pleiades. Not many lay observers have actually witnessed a planet’s wanderings among the fixed stars, so watch Venus all month to view its progression between the Pleiades and Hyades. The moon will pass through this area of the night sky on the 20th and 21st of April.

Conjunction with Mercury and Mars – April 19th

This will be a very difficult conjunction to view, because the very young moon and the two planets will lie very close to the Sun at sunset. The view will be spectacular for those lucky enough to have a clear view all the way down to the horizon on this evening.

Lyrid Meteor Shower – April 22nd

This is not one of the better meteor showers of the year, but meteor enthusiasts will not want to miss it. The best time to observe is from 11pm until dawn.

 

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

March 2015

INTRODUCTION

Eastern Daylight-Saving Time (EDT) starts on March 8th, and March 20th is the first day of astronomical spring, or the vernal equinox. Although not perfect, the weather becomes a lot more tolerable this month, and the days are getting longer at a rapid pace. Getting dark later seems to be an equitable trade for the better weather after February’s extreme cold temperatures.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-March at the end of astronomical twilight,  the arrival of complete darkness, at 7:45pm EDT. The Scope Out monthly focus is on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is near the 6th hour (6h) of right ascension line in the March sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations:  Find Camelopardalis, Lynx, and Ursa Major in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Orion still catches the eye, but it is beginning to march off of the stage on the western horizon. Find March’s remaining northern constellations, Cancer, Leo, and Leo Minor near the zenith.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in March are Hydra, Sextans, Pyxis, and Crater. Some of these constellations, Pyxis, Hydra, and Crater in particular, are difficult to view because their extreme southern placement prevents them from rising very far above the horizon.

April
The April Sky at Nightfall. Jim Johnson. December 2014.

 

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/

Mercury remains hidden all month as it makes its pass around the far side of the Sun. Venus and Mars continue share the western horizon, and can be seen about an hour after sunset. While Mars grows dimmer and is placed a little closer to the sun each evening, Venus’ brightness will dominate the western sky after sunset, and will appear a little higher above the horizon each evening.  Jupiter is just past opposition, and is already well above the eastern horizon after sunset. Saturn continues to rise earlier each evening, appearing above the eastern horizon about four hours after sunset. Uranus is on the western horizon near Venus and Mars all month, and can be glimpsed with optical aid about an hour after sunset. Neptune is too near the sun to be seen this month.

THE LUNAR CALENDAR

March 2
Conjunction with Jupiter
moon_phases_small_full March 5
Full Moon
March 12
Conjunction with Saturn
moon_phases_small_lastqtr March 13
Last Quarter
moon_phases_small_new March 20
New Moon
March  21
Conjunction with Mars
March  22
Conjunction with Venus
moon_phases_small_firstqtr March 27
First Quarter

EVENTS

Vernal Equinox – March 20, 2015 at 22:45 UTC (18:45 EDT).

The Sun’s arrival at the zero hour of right ascension marks the vernal equinox, or beginning of astronomical spring. This is the point at which the ecliptic intersects the equator. which is why on this day the days and nights are of almost equal length. Read The Ecliptic – A Trace of the Sun’s Path across the Celestial Sphere for more information on the Sun’s movements on the ecliptic.

Conjunction of Venus and Uranus – March 4th.

This is the closest planetary conjunction of the year. Use optical aid to find Uranus about .3° below Venus. Notice the stark difference in their brightness.

 © James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

About Scope Out Next Month

Scope Out is a monthly publication for casual stargazers in the mid-northern latitudes. It highlights the constellations that are highest in the sky and are therefore 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.

February 2015

INTRODUCTION

While most of us are ready for spring, the seemingly endless winter drags on. For the brave among us who can endure the cold nights, this is a great time for stargazing – it still gets dark early, the sky is generally clear more often, and some of the prettiest constellations are well placed for viewing right after sunset. At the very least, look up at the sky and take note of what you observe if you happen to be outside after dark in the evenings or before sunrise in the mornings.

About Scope Out      How to begin Observing the Night Sky

THE CONSTELLATIONS

The sky map below represents the sky as it will appear in mid-February at the end of astronomical twilight,  the arrival of complete darkness, at 7:15pm EST. The Scope Out monthly focus will be on the constellations that are  just to either side of the meridian, which is halfway between 4th (4h) and 6th (6h) hours of right ascension line in the February sky map. For a primer on how to use this sky map, please read How to begin Observing the Night Sky.

Scope Out divides the celestial sphere into three zones to aid in finding constellations:

1. Circumpolar Constellations:  Find Lynx, and Perseus in the northern sky above Polaris.

2. Northern Constellations:  Orion is at its highest nightfall ascension of the year, a position from which it steals the night time show.  Find February’s remaining northern constellations, Taurus, Gemini, Auriga, and Canis Minor, near the zenith. Be sure to look for the Pleiades cluster near Taurus, and the binocular view is breathtaking.

3. Southern Constellations: The best-placed constellations in February are Monocerous, Canis Major, and Lepus. Noteworthy among Canis Major’s stars is Sirius, the dog star, which is the brightest star in all of the night sky.

February

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/

Mercury is no longer visible in the western sky. By mid-month, this fleet-of-foot planet will have moved past the Sun, and will appear as a morning “star” by month’s end. Look for it low on the eastern horizon about an hour before sunrise on February 16th and 17th. Venus and Mars will share the western horizon, and can be seen about an hour after sunset. Venus will appear a little higher above the horizon each evening, and Mars will appear a little lower each evening. They will be at their closest approach, or in conjunction, as they pass one another on February 21st.  Jupiter rises in the east just after sunset, and is at its closest to approach to Earth, or at l be in opposition, on February 6th. Telescope observers will not want to miss this! Jupiter’s four Galilean moons and its dark equatorial bands can be seen with the aid of a modest telescope. Saturn is presently a morning object, rising in the east at about 2:30am at the beginning of the month, and rising just a little earlier each morning. Uranus is located near Venus around month’s end, and can be found with binoculars or a modest telescope. Neptune is near Venus at the beginning of the month, but this dim planet will be very difficult to observe in the twilight.

THE MOON

moon_phases_small_full February 3
Full Moon
February 3-4
Conjunction with Jupiter (evening)
moon_phases_small_lastqtr February 11
Last Quarter
February 12-13
Conjunction with Saturn (morning)
February 17
Conjunction with Mercury (morning)
moon_phases_small_new February 18
New Moon
February 21
Conjunction with Venus and Mars (evening)
moon_phases_small_firstqtr February 25
First Quarter

© James R. Johnson, 2015
jim@jrjohnson.net

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