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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward. Let the stars light up the night.

January 2014 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

A moment of silence

As many sky watchers may have already heard, ISON is no more; like Icarus, it flew too close to the sun and fell apart. Astronomers watched the images from the fleet of NASA satellites that continuously observe the sun as ISON entered their field of view and plunged into the solar glare. What emerged from the other side was dust and rubble, fading fast, as it left the sun, never to return.


There is a good chance to see a comet this month, low in the morning sky, after about 5:00 a.m. Comet Lovejoy C/2013 R1 has been near naked eye visibility since November, 2013. Look for it this month bordering the constellations Hercules and Ophiuchus near the second magnitude star Rasalhague. It is best to use binoculars and look almost due east, about one third of the way up from the horizon.

The new year

The month of January is named for the Roman god of beginnings and doorways. By coincidence, January fits the ideal definition of a “month,” based on a lunation. A lunation is one cycle of the moon from new to full and back to new. The first evening of the New Year begins with a new moon and ends, 29.5 days later, with another new moon. Tides will also be higher this month, during both new moons as lunar perigee (closest to Earth) occurs on the same days.

The Orion Hour

This month, Orion resides on the celestial equator, nearly overhead at midnight.  Hovering just above Orion is the winter Milky Way. Halfway between Betelgeuse and Capella is the star Nath. Look at Nath and you are looking directly outward from our galaxy. This part of the Milky Way looks thinnest from our perspective, as we are seeing the nearest spiral arm, side-on. This part of the spiral arm just happens to be producing some new massive stars; seven of them some make up Orion.

The Quadrantids

The first meteor show of the year has potential. It peaks on January 3, with the moon nowhere in sight. The shower occurs over a five-day period with a narrow peak. The peak hours are inconveniently scheduled for the daylight hours here in the U.S. There is sometimes a pre-peak about 12 hours before that, so look starting about midnight on the third.

Monthly meeting of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society

—Darin Templet
On January 3, the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will host its monthly meeting and stargaze at the Rainbow Observatory, located behind Rainbow Pool, 301 Southern Blvd. SE, Rio Rancho (note change in normal venue). The meeting will start at 7:00 p.m. and a public stargaze will follow, weather permitting. Telescopes provided by members of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will show views of Jupiter as well as various nebula, star clusters, and galaxies. It is advised to dress warm as the weather is expected to be quite cold. For more information, visit or call 220-5492.


All the planets in our solar system
Including us
Orbit the Sun in a direction defined as east

                                                Toward the sun

In our night sky
Those planets visible at the time
Appear against a backdrop of stars

On a given night
We have an opportunity to observe
One or more of the three more prominent outer planets  


From night to night
As we orbit eastward
The backdrop of stars appears to move westward

For example
In the early fall
Leo first appears
Showing only his head at the crack of dawn
Each successive morning
Leo has climbed a little higher ahead of the sun
Until fully visible well before daybreak

In general
The outer planets tend
To appear
To move eastward
Against the backdrop of stars
Saturn more slowly than Jupiter
And Jupiter more slowly than Mars

A twist
Occurs in this general progression
A twist centered about opposition
The point at which we catch up with one of the outer planets
And start to move ahead of it in our orbit

The twist:

As we approach one of the outer planets
Because of the much greater distance between us and the stars in the backdrop
Than between us and the planet
The position of the planet
From night to night
Appears to move west relative to the backdrop of stars
For some time
Before switching back to an eastward progression

Over the next few months
We have a wonderful opportunity to observe
The dance of Jupiter
As it zigzags in and out of Gemini
The dance of Mars
In Virgo
The dance of Saturn
In Libra

Between now and November 7
Jupiter moves eastward thru
And out of Gemini
At which point it turns
And move back into the center of Gemini
Before turning back east on March 6, 2014
With opposition occurring in the middle of this dance
On January 5

Mars sails eastward
Past Leo
And then
From March 1 to May 19, 2014
Moves westward
Against the backdrop of Virgo

Saturn begins its retrograde motion
Against the backdrop of Libra
On March 2, 2014

Saturn turns back east
On July 20, 2014

The next time we catch up with Jupiter
In early February 2015
We find him dancing with the crab

The next time we catch up with Saturn
In late May 2015
He still dances on the edge of Libra

We do not catch up with Mars
Until May 22, 2016
At which time we find him
Dancing with Scorpio

                        —Jim Fish, Placitas

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