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Night Sky

January 2012 Night Sky

Charlie Christmann

Kamikaze Comet

About 1,106 astronomers believe a large comet came too close to the Sun and broke into many smaller pieces. These have spread out along the original comet’s path and still make a suicide dives toward the Sun. These comets are named Kreutz Sungrazers after the German astronomer Heinrich Kreutz, who first demonstrated that a family of sungrazers existed. Occasionally, Kreutz Sungrazers become visible in the daytime as they near the Sun.

A recent visitor was Comet Ikeya–Seki in 1965, which may have been one of the brightest comets in the last millennium, passing just 280,000 miles above the Sun’s surface. Observers reported that it was clearly visible in the daytime sky next to the Sun reaching a magnitude of -10 (full moon is about -13). The comet broke into three pieces just before its closest approach to the Sun. The three pieces continued in almost identical orbits, re-appearing on the other side of the Sun with a very bright tail.

Another Kreutz Sungrazer, discovered on February 5, 1843, was the Great Comet of 1843 rapidly brightened as it came within 550,000 miles of the Sun. The Great Comet of 1843 developed an extremely long tail after it rounded the Sun at over 2 Astronomical Units (186 million miles) and was visible in the daylight.

The Great Comet of 1882, another Kreutz Sungrazer, was discovered independently by many observers. It became easily visible to the naked eye in early September 1882. Its nucleus fragmented into four pieces after it passed the Sun in October. Those fragments are expected to return between 670 and 960 years after the break-up.

Since we placed satellites in space constantly to watch the Sun, many sungrazing comets have been discovered. Observations have shown that Sungrazers frequently arrive in pairs separated by a few hours. These pairs are too frequent to occur by chance.

The latest sungrazer is comet Lovejoy. It passed within 87,000 mile of the Sun, plunging through the corona of the Sun where temperatures have been measured in the two million degree range. At its closest approach, the comet was moving more than a million miles per hour. Many scientists thought the intense heat would vaporize the small, two-football-field-sized comet, giving it little chance of surviving. But, survive it did. Lovejoy slipped through the Sun’s outer atmosphere sporting a bright tail on December 15. As it reappeared, the tail was missing. Satellite images showed the comet’s tail seemingly pasted to the opposite side of the Sun. Don’t fear, astronomers expect Lovejoy to grow a new one.

Meteor Shower

For those brave cold weather lovers, the Quandrantid meteor shower peaks on January 4. Look below the Big Dipper’s handle after midnight.

The Planets and Moon

  • Mercury is in the morning sky throughout January, staying in the glare of the rising Sun.
  • Venus is bright in the west, setting around two hours after the Sun. On the 13th, two hours after sunset, Venus passes Neptune. Use a small telescope or binoculars to see the two planets just over one degree apart. Small blue • Neptune will be to the lower right of Venus.
  • Earth reaches perihelion, closest to the Sun in our orbit, on the 4th. We will be 3.1 million miles closer than we will be on July 4.
  • Mars moves into the evening sky in January. It rises about 12:30 a.m. on the 1st, 10:40 p.m. on the 31st. On the 24th, Mars will stand still in the sky before starting to move in a retrograde back toward the west as the faster moving Earth starts to overtake the slower moving outer planet.
  • Jupiter is easily visible in the evening sky in the northwest after sunset. The planet sets about 2:00 a.m. on January 1, by midnight on January 31. The moon passes near Jupiter twice in January. On the 3rd, it will be seven degrees to the lower right Jupiter. Again, on the 30th, the Moon will be 5.5 degrees below Jupiter.
  • Saturn is visible in the morning sky before dawn to the northeast. It rises about 2:00 a.m. at the beginning of January and close to midnight by the end of the month. On the morning of the 17th, Saturn will be 6.5 degrees below Spica and six degrees below the Moon forming an impressive triangle.
  • The moon is full at 12:30 a.m. on the 9th and new at 12:39 a.m. on the 23rd.

Rio Rancho Astronomical Society hosts stargaze

On January 27, at 7:00 p.m., the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will host its monthly meeting and stargaze at Coronado State Monument, and a stargaze will follow the meeting, weather permitting. Telescopes provided by members of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will show views of Venus and Jupiter as well as various nebula, star clusters, and galaxies. The public is invited to attend both events. The weather is expected to be cold.

For more information, log on to or call 220-5492.

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