January 2012 Sky Watching


Taurus the Bull is visible high in southern skies during January

January opens with a sky full of stars and planets in the evening sky.  Taurus the Bull appears high in the southern skies during January’s evening hours.  Two bright star clusters, known as the Hyades and the Pleiades, help construct the constellation.  The “V” shaped cluster forms the bull’s head and face, although the bright reddish star Aldebaran that forms the bull’s eye is not part of the cluster.  Aldebaran is one of the largest stars in our part of the galaxy.  If placed in our solar system, it would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.  The Pleiades ride on the bull’s back.  The Taurus region of the sky is best explored with the low power of binoculars.  The stars in the clusters are so widely spread that they are best viewed with at low power.

Moon Phases

First Quarter:          January 1 & January 31
Full Moon:                January 9
Last Quarter:           January 16
New Moon                January 23

Our planet, Earth, reaches perihelion — its closest point to the sun — on January 4 at 6 p.m. CST.  At this time we are 91,401,967 miles from the sun. 
 
Along with the bright stars, Venus and Jupiter shine brightly in the clear January skies. 
 
Venus can be seen low in the western sky throughout the month.  As the planet slowly catches up to our planet, Earth, in its orbit, it rises higher in the sky and gets brighter each evening.  The moon is nearby on January 25 and 26.  Only two other objects are regularly brighter than Venus:  the sun and the moon.  It can be easily mistaken for the bright lights on an airplane.
 

The moon passes Jupiter early in January 2012.The moon makes a return pass by Jupiter later in the month.

 

The moon passes Jupiter a second time in late January 2012.

 
Jupiter shines brightly, although not at bright as Venus, from the southern skies during the early evening.  Venus shines about 4 times brighter than Jupiter.  The moon passes Jupiter twice this month as the charts above show, first early in the month (January 2) and then again on January 29 and 30.
 
Morning Sky
 
 

Mercury opens 2012 low in the southeastern sky before dawn.  The planet is difficult to locate without a good horizon and binoculars.  Antares and Sabik are nearby.  Mercury disappears into the bright sun’s glare during the second week of the month and is invisible until it appears in the evening sky in late February.

Mars rises in the eastern sky around midnight this month, appearing near Denebola — Leo’s tail.  On January 13, its identification is easier when the moon is nearby.

A few days later, the moon is near Saturn.  At 5:30 a.m. on January 16, the moon appears near the planet and Spica.

On the morning of January 19, the moon makes a nice configuration with Antares and the stars of Scorpius around 5:30 a.m.

The chart above shows the positions of the visible planets at mid January 2012.  Mercury is headed for superior conjunction (behind the sun) and Mars for opposition (Earth is between Mars and the sun.)  Saturn and Jupiter are nearly on opposite sides of the their planetary orbits from each other.

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