If you have never spotted the innermost planet, Mercury has its best showing this year as it rushes up into the evening twilight sky.
Look for this elusive world over the next two weeks observing 45 minutes after sunset low in the SSW, no more than a fist height at arm’s length above the horizon.
Mercury will appear reasonably bright, but if you cannot pick it out of the twilight initially use binoculars to help. A good period to observe will be between the 25th & 31st.
A slim crescent moon lies lower right on Jan 31st
Having reached opposition early in January, Jupiter dominates the evening sky residing in the heart of Gemini. Jupiter is a fine object for any sized telescope; look for the dark bands across the disk and nearby four Galilean moons seen as specks of light strung out, the configuration of which changes each night. Our moon lies nearby on February 11.
Although rising shortly before midnight Mars should still be regarded as a morning object, visible to the SSE by dawn. The red planet lies very close to Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, and the marked colour contrast between them is therefore very noticeable. With Mars not at opposition until April, telescopically it remains very small, so surface features are difficult to make out.
The moon joins them on January 23 / 24.
Saturn is also a dawn sky object visible by 4am low in the ESE. Look for it a couple of hand spans to the lower left of Spica and Mars. The moon lies nearby on January 25.
Having departed from the evening sky, Venus emerges into the morning sky at the end of January just above the SE horizon. A waning crescent moon lies below on January 27/28.
There are no major meteor showers in the coming weeks; however sporadic meteors are ever present so you could spot a bright shooting star almost any time of night. With the Sun currently active do also keep an eye out above the North horizon for auroral activity.
This will most likely take on the form of a pulsating green glow, fading and intensifying over time.
Jewels of The Winter Sky
The winter night sky has surely got to be one of nature’s finest free vistas in particular the southern aspect.
In this direction an observer is treated to an array of brilliant stars and imposing constellations, rich in mythology and observational interest.
Located at the heart of this glittering tableau stands the mighty hunter, Orion, which is ideally placed by late January. The main pattern is quite distinct, a sloping line of three stars set in the midst of a larger rectangle bounded by four others.
Two of these stars, in opposing corners are real super luminaries’.
Searing blue/white Rigel illuminates the bottom right of the rectangle, a star that is perhaps 60 – 70,000 times more luminous than our Sun. Opposite Rigel, in the “red corner” (top left) lies Betelgeuse, a red super-giant star with “one foot in the stellar grave”.
The deep orange hue of this star is a clear indication of its age and cooler temperature.
Betelgeuse has ballooned to gargantuan proportions, over 400 million miles in diameter.
Put another way, if Betelgeuse were at the heart of our solar system it would extend out beyond the orbit of Mars. Of the naked eye stars visible in the night sky, Betelgeuse is possibly the strongest candidate to end its days as a supernova, tearing itself apart in a cataclysmic explosion that will light up our sky for weeks on end, hopefully sooner than later. A few million years in the future Rigel will also follow suit.
Situated a little way below the three stars marking Orion’s belt is one of the heavens great show piece objects.
Seen clearly as a misty smudge through binoculars, the Orion nebula is the nearest region of stellar birth recently estimated to be just less than 1300 light years distant.
The Nebula consists of a huge cloud of gas and dust in which new stars are “born”. Telescopically the nebula is quite breathtaking, a swirl of nebulous cloud at the heart of which reside the trapezium stars, the four “bully boys” of this stellar crèche, little more than 10-20 million years old.
It is the powerful solar winds and ultra violet radiation from these massive stars which has cleared the inner part of the nebulae of gas and dust allowing us to see them.
Bearing down on Orion to his upper right is Taurus the Bull, whose eye is marked by fiery hued Aldebaran in the ‘V’ shaped Hyades star cluster, although it is not a true member.
A little further west, the Pleiades star cluster (Seven Sisters) is a truly beautiful sight in binoculars or low power eyepiece. Riding high to the south and above Taurus are the stars of the charioteer - Auriga, highlighted by bright Capella located almost overhead.
Upper left of Orion stand the Twins of Gemini, marked by the two conspicuous stars, Castor and Pollux. Castor, the most northerly of the pair, is slightly fainter than twin brother Pollux which shines with a pale amber lustre. Although Castor appears solitary, in reality it is a multiple system of which the brightest two components may be separated in a modest scope, given stable atmospheric conditions. Residing in the midst of Gemini presently is the bright planet Jupiter.
Two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, accompany Orion, dutifully following their master across the heavens. Canis Major is overwhelmed by the sparkling presence of Sirius, the brightest star in the entire night sky. The lesser dog, Canis Minor is also distinguished by a conspicuous star - Procyon, located left of Orion and below Gemini. The prominence of both stars is down to proximity; 8.6 and 11 light years respectively.
The dog’s quarry, the timid celestial hare of Lepus, may be traced crouching below Orion and above the southern horizon. Forever separating master and greater dog from the lesser one, look for the faint glow of the winter Milky Way which passes down to the left of Orion.
No matter whether you are an experienced observer, or perhaps have just acquired a pair of binoculars or a telescope, the jewels of Orion and his retinue are a joy to explore time and time again. Wrap up well, find somewhere dark and enjoy.
The next full meeting of Whitby and District Astronomical Society will be on Tuesday February 4 at Whitby Community College, main block, room H1 from 7.30pm. All welcome
The next open nights at the Bruce Observatory - Whitby Community College are on Sunday January 26 & February 2 from 7.30pm, weather permitting.
For more information visit www.whitby-astronomers.com or email Mark at email@example.com. Tel 605516