The January night sky
I hope that your holidays were full of twinkling lights—both those in the home and those in the sky. If you were lucky enough to have Santa bring you a telescope, the sky will provide ample entertainment for years to come. Hopefully, I can help guide you in your discoveries.
Step outside around 9:00 p.m. in mid-January and look up for the fuzzy smudge overhead. Under a dark sky it is easy to spot the Pleiades. The Pleiades are classified as an open star cluster with thousands of stars associated with it. Astronomers designate it as M45. Look for it in the constellation Taurus, west of Orion.
From roughly 425 light-years away, most people can see six stars, although observers in past centuries have reported as many as a dozen. Out of the countless stars in the cluster, only nine are named: Taygate, Celano, Electra, Maia, Asterope, Merope, Alcyone, Pleone, and Atlas. In Greek mythology, Taygate, Celano, Electra, Maia, Asterope, Merope, and Alcyone are the daughters of Pleone and Atlas, half sisters of Hyades. With binoculars, you can easily see all of these stars, with Aterope being a double star.
Astronomers believe that the Pleiades formed recently in galactic time, only about a hundred million years ago. That makes these stars only one-fiftieth the age of our own Sun. Even though they are young, the Pleiades have been noted by many civilizations.
Ancient people looked to the sky as the home of gods and as a foreteller of the future. The Egyptians said that this cluster represented “the divine mother and lady of heaven.” The Hebrews called them Kimah, “the cluster.” In China, the Pleiades seem to be one of the first star formations mentioned in their observations of the sky, first appearing in 2357 B.C. To the Khoikhoi Tribe in South Africa, these stars represented rain; the Australian Aborigines saw the Pleiades as the ancestral woman. Even in the Americas this star formation was noticed. The Aztecs called them “gathering place,” while the Paraguayan worshiped them as their ancestors.
The American Indian tribes also saw the Pleiades as important. The Navajos named them Delyahey, “home of the Black God.” And the Iroquois pray to the Pleiades for happiness. Other Indian people believe that all of the American tribes were descended from the Pleiades and were charged by them to keep the Earth safe.
An ancient Indian legend tells of seven maidens who were being chased by a bear. They call upon the Indian gods to save them. The gods rescue them by raising the ground where they stood. The bear clawed at the ground, carving deep gouges into the sides of the raised mound. The maidens were finally able to escape into the heavens. Today, that mound is called Devils Tower (remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind?), in Wyoming.
The Greeks incorporated the Pleiades heavily into their mythology. But I could write several articles on that, so I’ll spare readers for now.
The Pleiades cluster has been used as an eye test in past centuries. The number of stars a person could see indicated how good their eyesight was. If you can see seven or more, your sight is excellent. So take a few minutes to look into the night sky and enjoy the majesty of M45, and then check your visual acuity.
Look north on the evenings of January 3 and 4 for the Quadrantid shower; but, don’t expect much. The peak is predicted during daylight hours in New Mexico. You may have not heard of the Quadrantid Muralis constellation. It was eliminated from the sky in 1922 when the Astronomical Union paired the list of constellations to eighty-eight. This area of the sky was reassigned to the constellation Boötes. The supposed comet that created the shower is unknown and may have been burned up by the Sun thousands of years ago. A normal Quadrantid shower would produce about 120 shooting stars per hour at its peak. Once again, we will be fighting a nearly full moon, which will mask most of the meteors.
The Earth reaches perihelion on January 4th. Perihelion is the point in our orbit where the Earth is closest to the Sun. The difference between perihelion and aphelion in July, our farthest point from the Sun, is only about three million miles. The average distance from the Earth to the Sun is approximately ninety-three million miles.
Mercury is now in the glare of the Sun.
Venus rises in the early morning. On January 11, Venus reaches its largest angular separation from the Sun as seen from Earth: forty-seven degrees. After January 11, Venus will start to slide back toward the Sun.
Mars also rises in the early morning. Watch Mars over the next several months as it appears to get brighter. It is getting brighter because the Earth is catching up to Mars as we orbit the Sun. Last summer, we watched the Red Planet put on a great show. This summer promises to be even better.
Jupiter rises just after sunset.
Saturn is with us all night, with its rings tilted toward us. Though we were closest to the planet in December, it is still a great opportunity to drag out your new telescope and view the rings. You may notice that Saturn is located in the horns of the Taurus the bull, near the Pleiades.
Uranus is just barely bright enough to be visible, even with binoculars. If you are interested in a treasure hunt, try looking around Mars for this pale blue planet.
The first new moon of 2003 occurs on January 2 and the first full moon is on January 18.
The Minor Planet Center has announced the discovery of a new comet, Kudo (C/2002 X5). Using a small telescope or good binoculars, expect to only see a fuzzy spot in the sky for the next week or so. Some in the astronomy community hoped that Kudo will brighten enough the last couple of days in December to be visible to the unaided eye. During January, it will be too close to the sun to be seen, passing inside Mercury’s orbit before heading back into the outer reaches of our solar system. It will be very near the horizon on January 1.
The dimmest object that can be seen in perfect conditions with the eye is about sixth magnitude. Kudo is currently about seventh magnitude (smaller numbers are brighter). To be seen easily, as a fuzzy ball, it will need to brighten to about a fifth or fourth magnitude. But if you are awake, it may be worth a look.