Eye on the Night Sky over Whitby

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Planetary skylights

Mars lingers in the WSW evening sky for several hours after sunset. On the 19th, the red planet passes very close to Neptune when it will be just 18 arc minutes below the gas giant.

You will require a telescope to spot Neptune’s tiny disk, nevertheless this will be a great opportunity to glimpse the outermost planet. Optimum time to view is between 5pm and 6pm.

Mercury joins Venus in the evening twilight sky and will be visible for most of the month.

The pair lie closest on the 10th. Look for them 45 minutes after sunset low in the SW.

Dazzling Venus climbs almost straight up from the horizon over the course of the month, and should require no help in identifying, as long as your horizon is relatively uncluttered.

Mercury follows Venus up into the sky, reaching its highest point by the 18th (approx 9 degrees above the horizon - thereafter it fades, arcing back down to the horizon. Mercury is brightest at the start of its apparition, so try to spot it before the 15th.

The crescent moon lies nearby on the evening of the 21st and 22nd.

Conspicuous Jupiter gradually takes centre stage as we head through January and will be well placed for observation throughout the latter part of the evening dominating the eastern aspect of the sky from 8pm onwards. By midnight Jupiter lies almost due south residing just ahead of the ‘sickle asterism’ in Leo, not far from Regulus, its chief star.

Viewed through a telescope Jupiter is a wonderful spectacle with its attendant major moons and ‘banded’ disk, definitely a ‘must see’ object. The moon lies nearby on the 7th.

Saturn is visible in the early morning sky low to the SE by 6am, although wait until 7am before attempting telescopic observations. A lovely waning crescent moon lies close by on the 16th.

The New year starts with one of the more prolific meteor showers, the Quadrantids, active to January 6.

In favourable observing conditions zenith hourly rates can exceed 100 in the early morning hours, however the moon will be nearly full this time round, drowning out many fainter shooting stars, so expect actual observed rates to be 12-20 per hour. Quadrantids appear to radiate from the now defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which was removed from sky charts in 1922, but used to lie at the junction between Hercules, Bootes and Ursa Major

Moon Phases – January ; first qtr 27th, full 5th, last qtr 13th, New 20th.

The coming year contains a wealth of celestial skylights;- that is as long as the weather plays ball.

It’s also going to be a momentous 12 months as far as interplanetary probes are concerned - assuming no glitches occur. So here is a brief summary look ahead to all the action.

Planetary action in the sky starts the year as it means to continue, with numerous conjunctions throughout.

January sees Mars, Venus and Mercury all on show in the evening twilight sky. Jupiter then dominates the winter sky reaching opposition early next month, while Mars and Venus come together.

Then in March we shall hopefully enjoy the celestial highlight of 2015, when there is a total solar eclipse.

Well, almost, as rather annoyingly the path of totality tracks just several hundred miles north of Scotland. (anyone got a large boat?)

Nevertheless from our latitude we shall still witness a 90% plus partial solar eclipse during the morning of the 20th, quite similar to the one experienced from here in 1999. April sees Mars, Venus and Mercury all in the west twilight sky once again, with Jupiter high in the SW.

Venus and Jupiter will dominate the spring evening sky, gradually drawing together in May, while Saturn reaches opposition and will lie due south at midnight.

Look out for a spectacular evening conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in June. July sees Saturn well placed in the south. Venus and Jupiter are lost in twilight during August, but look out for the Perseid meteor shower which has a very favourable showing this year with no moonlight to spoil the party.

September sees a major lunar highlight, a total lunar eclipse in the early morning hours of the 28th.

It also will be a ‘supermoon’ so expect media hype, We lose Saturn in early October, however the dawn sky is awash with planets with Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Mercury all visible low in the ESE. Mars and Jupiter cosy up to one another in November, while Saturn returns to the morning sky in December, making four planets strung out across the SE.

In December, the moon occults the bright star Aldeberan and finally the Geminid meteor shower should be a cracker with no moonlight to interfere.

If all this wasn’t enough, keep tabs on the Rosetta mission at comet 67P, the little lander Philae may yet have more to say. In April the DAWN probe will reach the largest of the asteroids, Ceres, having already visited the second largest, Vesta, but the major event will occur in July when the New Horizons probe will be the first to fly past Pluto and its family of satellites, a momentous occasion.

When New Horizons was launched Pluto was still classed as a planet – it has taken a long time to reach this icy world.

So strap yourself in and stay tuned, because it’s going to be a year to remember.

The next monthly meeting of the society is on January 6 at Caedmon College (Normanby site) room H1 main block from 7.30pm. For more information visit www.whitby-astronomers.com or call 605516.