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January night sky

January 15, 2008 at 8:30 PM MST

Save our starry night skies

Be a considerate neighbor: Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward so no glare goes up to dull the night sky (or in your neighbor’s bedroom windows) and enjoy the beautiful, stars above.

January 2008 Night Sky


I want to thank the students and faculty of Placitas Elementary School for inviting me to speak at the school on December 19. It is just amazing how smart the kids were. They even surprised me with knowledge about planets, stars, and even newly-discovered exoplanets circling distant stars. I really enjoyed interacting with the students and will be much better prepared next time I talk with them.


During January, a sea monster patrols the southern night sky: Cetus. Many stories of sea monsters are evident in older cultures. It is no surprise that some of the larger constellations refer to these horrific beasts.

In ancient times, Cetus was seen as the whale monster about to devour Andromeda. The story is that Nereids overheard Cassiopeia boasting about her beautiful daughter, Andromeda, and became very jealous. Nereids complained to Poseidon, God of the Sea, and demanded that Cassiopeia be punished. Poseidon agreed to help her by calling upon a terrible sea-monster, Cetus. He told Cetus to go to Cassiopeia’s land and kill everything.

Cetus, taking the form of a monstrous whale, started his mission of destruction. The people were frightened. They went to their king and asked him to save them. The king consulted the magical oracle for advice. The oracle told the king that there was only one way to stop the killing. The king would have to offer his daughter Andromeda as a sacrifice. She was to be chained to the rocks near the coast and left for Cetus to eat.

When Cetus discovered Andromeda chained near the coast, he stopped and began swimming toward the ledge where Andromeda was chained.

But, a distant hero figure appeared in the sky. Perseus, the brave son of Zeus, was just returning from killing the dreaded Medusa. Seeing Andromeda chained by the shore, he was overwhelmed by her beauty. Andromeda told him the story of her boastful mother and the advice the oracle had given her father.

Perseus confronted the king and offered to save her from the sea-monster. His reward… Andromeda’s hand in marriage—oh, and a kingdom. The king agreed and Perseus returned to the sea, where he plunged his sword deeply into the monster’s evil heart, killing him.

Cetus’s stars are somewhat faint, but there are a few well-known stars to be observed—UV Ceti, which is actually a pair of red dwarfs a mere nine light years away from Earth, and Mira, the most well-known variable star.

UV Ceti is the prototype of a classification of variables known as flare stars. Every ten hours or so, UV Ceti suddenly jumps in brightness. In just a few seconds, it will increase by three or four magnitudes. Then over the next five to ten minutes, the star settles back down to its former dim self. This pair of stars is normally very dim, and you will need binoculars to find it.

Mira, “The Wonderful,” is the prototype of long-period variables. This star brightens and then dims every 331.96 days on average. It only maintains its maximum for a few weeks, before rapidly losing its brilliance. At its brightest, it is visible with the naked eye, but disappears to a very dim target even with binoculars. If you have a good telescope, look for M77, a small spiral galaxy seen face-on. It is classified as a Seyfert galaxy. Seyfert galaxies produce radio noise when observed by a radio telescope. M77 is about fifty million light years away, and can be found one degree southeast of Delta Ceti.


• Look for Mercury about thirty minutes after sunset on the 9th. Use binoculars to look for the setting thin crescent Moon near the southwest horizon. Mercury will be about three degrees to the lower right of the Moon.

• Venus is still a morning planet. Look about forty-five minutes before sunrise on the 5th in the southeast. Venus will be nine degrees above the crescent Moon. The star Antares, the heart of the Scorpion, will be two degrees above the Moon.

• Mars is just past opposition, directly opposite the Earth from the Sun. It will be big and bright for a few more weeks in the night sky. On the 19th, about one hour after sunset, find Mars just to the right of the Moon with the bright stars Aldebran above and to the right, Betelgeuse and Rigel (in Orion) below and to the right, and Procyon near the horizon directly below the Moon. Capella will be above and to the left of the Moon. Sirius will be low on the southwest.

• Jupiter is a morning planet. Locate Jupiter near the waning crescent Moon in the pre-dawn glow of the sunrise on the 7th. Six minutes before sunrise, you might find Jupiter five degrees above the Moon if you use binoculars. (Never look at the Sun using binoculars.)

• About four hours after sunset on the 24th, look for Saturn rising above the eastern horizon. The Moon will be following behind the planet by three degrees. Regulus will be the bright star above the Moon.

• Feeling lucky? Try using a small telescope to spot Neptune about fifty minutes after sunset in the west-southwest on the 22nd. Neptune will be a small, faint, greenish-blue dot to the left of Mercury.

• The Moon will be new at 4:37 a.m. on the 8th and full at 6:35 a.m. on the 22nd.

If you have a question or comment for Charlie, you may email him at:


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