We rarely have time to set aside, and gaze upwards at the infinite multitude around us. But if you have the opportunity to do so this month, we recommend the following stargazing highlights.
If you were lucky enough to find a telescope under the Christmas tree or even a pair of binoculars in your stocking, then January is great time to take them for a test drive.
Full Moon is on January 9th while New Moon occurs on January 23rd, giving us two first quarter Moons this month. The first on New Years Day and the second on January 31st. This is a great time to look at features along the terminator, the line between the brightly lit side of the Moon and the shaded half.
Mars moves from the constellation of Leo into Virgo in mid January. On the 25th the red planet reaches its stationary point, halting its eastward journey, before reversing direction and heading back toward Leo in a retrograde loop, as Earth overtakes it.
Orion still dominates in the South with Taurus and M45 The Pleiades above it. The bright star Aldebaran marks the bull’s eye with the Hyades cluster shaping the bull’s head. Higher still, almost overhead, lies the circlet of Auriga, containing the 6th brightest star Capella, which is actually a double star. Close by, Capella is a fainter triangle of stars called the Kids.
Deep Sky Objects
To the left of Orion lies the constellation of Monoceros, the Unicorn, containing a lovely open cluster NGC 2232 while overhead in Perseus is the double cluster, sometimes called the Sword Handle.
To the East just before dawn, Comet C/2009 P1 Garradd travels passed the Keystone of Hercules throughout January. Towards the end of the month another comet, P/2006 T1 Levy moves from Pisces, through Cetus and on to Eridanus, low in the SSW during early evening.
Our brightest and dimmest planets, Venus and Neptune can be seen together mid month, in the constellation of Aquarius, low in the south west after sunset.
The Quarantid meteor shower reaches peak on January 4th. The radiant lies in Boötes in the North. The waxing gibbous Moon will set around 03:30 UT, so with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 120, the hours between then & dawn will be well spent meteor watching.
Events Highlights for 2012
Mars in Leo, high in the South, reaches opposition on March 3rd, while Jupiter, Venus and the crescent Moon appear together after sunset on March 25th. Venus also makes a rare visit to The Pleiades on the evening of April 3rd.
A transit of Venus, occurs on June 6th. UK observers will see the tail end of the transit as the sun rises low in the Northeast. You will need a solar telescope, solar filters or eclipse glasses to view the transit safely. This will be the last such transit 2117.
During the late summer of 2012 the rich star fields at the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy will be visible in the constellations of Sagittarius and Scutum, low in the South, including the Lagoon, Trifid, Eagle and Omega nebulae.
The 2011 Geminid meteor shower was marred by the bright Moon, but on December 13th 2012 the peak coincides with the new Moon so could be quite a show.
2012 Mission Milestones
NASA’s twin GRAIL probes will arrive in orbit around the Moon on New Years Eve and New Years Day, for the start of a three month to map the Moon’s gravitational field. The Dragon space capsule by SpaceX is scheduled to become the first commercial spaceship flight to the International Space Station. NASA’s Dawn probe will leave Vesta and head for Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. It is due to arrive there in February 2015. Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will arrive at Mars on August 6th and perform its complex and nail biting landing procedure.