The Sky Above You – January 2020
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be Full on January 10th, and New on January 24th. It will pass through the Hyades Open Cluster in Taurus on January 7th. On January 9th the star Mu Geminorum will be occulted by the Moon, just after 5 p.m., reappearing at 5.50 p.m.. On 10th January there will be a penumbral lunar eclipse, when the lower part of the Moon’s disc grazes the outer part of the Earth’s shadow, reaching its maximum at 7.11 p.m..
This quarter also features an elaborate sequence of conjunctions of the Sun, the Moon and all the planets including the Earth (every time), beginning below. These events are coincidental line-ups as all the bodies go round the Sun at different distances and speeds. Occasionally they are all found in the same region of sky or even the same constellation, and then there are predictions of the end of the world, but they’re of no actual significance (though they look good) and we’re all still here. If all the planets lined up with the Sun, as often shown in Solar System graphics, then there could be destructive resonances and collisions; but that can’t happen, as the late Prof. Archie Roy demonstrated, because the Solar System has ‘statistical stability’ which keeps all of the planets from being on the same side of the Sun at the same time. When they’re all roughly in line with the Earth, as some orbit between us and the Sun and some orbit beyond us, a little thought reveals that some or all of them must be on the other side of the Sun from us at the time.
The planet Mercury is at superior conjunction behind the Sun on 10th January, and low in the evening sky in late January (near the Moon just a day after it’s New), better seen to the lower right of Venus in the first half of February.
Venus is brilliant in the evening sky, moving from Capricornus to Aquarius near its boundary with Pisces, setting at 7.30 p.m. at the beginning of the year, 8.30 p.m. at the end of January. On January 27th Venus appears close to Neptune, 4 minutes of arc away to the upper right of Venus (both in the field of view of a telescope at 100x magnification). The Moon appears near Venus on January 28th.
Mars passes through Libra, Scorpius and Ophiucus in January, rising at 4.40 a.m., and near the red star Antares, ‘the Rival of Mars’, in mid-month, 5 degrees from it on the 17th. The Moon appears near Mars on January 21st.
Jupiter is invisible in January after conjunction with the Sun on December 27th.
Saturn is invisible in January, at conjunction behind the Sun on the 13th.
Uranus in Aries sets at 1.30 a.m. in January, and is near the Moon on the 4th. On January 11th Uranus will reach its stationary point, after which its apparent movement against the background stars reverses as the Earth pulls ahead of it.
Neptune in Aquarius sets at about 9 p.m. in January, passed by Venus on January 27th. Both are near the Moon on the 28th.
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the night of 3rd to 4th January, and will be best seen after 1 a.m. once the Moon has gone down, though the peak is expected around 8 to 9 a.m. when observers in North America will still be in darkness.
Comet 2017 T2 PanSTAARS will pass the Double Cluster in Perseus over 24th to 30th January and should be visible in small telescopes, though it won’t be at its brightest until early May.
On December 23rd the EarthSky astronomy and space news site (highly recommended; www.earthsky.org) released the interesting news that Betelgeuse, at the top left of Orion, is ‘fainting’. As a red giant star, bigger than the orbit of Jupiter and near the end of its life, Betelgeuse varies in brightness over several different cycles and the unusual dimming may be due to several of those coinciding. However the star is going to go supernova, probably sometime in the next 100,000 years, and at only 430 light-years from us it will be very brilliant when it does.
Duncan Lunan’s new book “From the Moon to the Stars”, a collection of space travel stories old and new relating to the Moon and Project Apollo, is now available from the publishers at https://othersidebooks.wordpress.com, as well as on Amazon or through booksellers; details of that and his other books are on Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.