The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Jim White 

What's in the Sky in January


January presents skies full of bright dazzling stars and planets, when the clouds part in this cold winter month. And you don't have to wait until late or get up early to see things, with early sunsets and late sunrises. On New Year's Day, the sun will set at 4:31 p.m. in our area, and at 5:09 p.m. at the end of the month. Skies will be nice and dark by 6 p.m. Sunrise will be at 7:41 a.m. on the first of the month, and at 7:29 a.m. on Jan. 31.

We'll start the year off with a new visitor to the solar system, a comet. Comet Catalina, just discovered in 2013, will be located right next to the bright star Arcturus on the morning of New Year's Day. It may be slightly visible to the naked eye, but binoculars will likely be necessary to pick it out. Look for Arcturus, a bright star about half- way up in the southern sky, above and to the left of the Moon on New Year's Day. If you won't be climbing out of bed early on New Year's Day.....I probably won't either. But you can still find the comet, a bit higher in the sky, later in the month. By the 15th, the comet will be just to the left of the Big Dipper's handle, and probably fainter. The comet should appear as a fuzzy "star", possibly with a tail visible. Grab some binoculars and give it a look if you get a clear, early January morning.

Another January treat will come during the morning hours, from about Jan. 20 through the end of the month. All five planets that are easily visible to the naked eye will be in the morning sky – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Moon will join them on the 24th. They will appear to be somewhat "lined up" with Mercury in the southeast, bright Venus to its right, then Saturn and Mars to the south, and finally Jupiter in the southwest. Since the planets are much closer than the stars, they are brighter and shine more steadily than nearby stars, with less twinkling, a help in picking them out.

To find them, go out at about 7 a.m., at a place with a good view to the south. The planets will be low in the sky, so you don't want too many trees or hills in the way. Look for Venus in the southeast. It will be the brightest "star" in the sky and easy to find. Look to the left of Venus, and a bit lower in the sky, for Mercury. Mercury will be a bit higher in the sky, and closer to Venus, on Jan. 30 and 31 than earlier. Mercury never strays very far from the Sun, and many folks have never seen it!

Now look to the right of Venus, for two planets that are pretty much due south. The nearest to Venus is Saturn, and the next is Mars. Saturn is currently pretty far away, about 975 million miles. Mars is about 125 million miles distant.

Finally, find Jupiter in the southwestern sky. It will be brighter than the other planets, except for Venus. Jupiter is currently about 425 million miles from us.

The Moon can help you locate the planets late in the month. On Jan. 27, the Moon will be just to the right of Jupiter, and to the left of the planet on the 28th. On Jan. 31, the third quarter Moon will be just to the right of Mars, and should make a nice sight in the morning sky! Looking into February, the Moon will be close to Saturn on the 3rd, and just above Venus and Mercury on the 6th.

Use the picture (above, right) to help locate the planets. It is set for Jan. 25, but the planets will be in about the same locations on other mornings.

On Jan. 19, the Moon will move in front of the bright star Aldebaran right after sunset. If skies are clear, a pair of binoculars should help you watch the bright Moon and the star move close to each other, with Aldebaran disappearing behind the lunar surface at about 5:20pm. Aldebaran will re-appear at about 6:30pm, on the other side of the Moon.

January's new Moon comes on the 10th. Full Moon follows on Jan. 24.

I can't write a column about January without mention of the constellation Orion, now dominating the southern evening sky. Orion is famous for its bright stars, and recognizable pattern. Look for a bright, orange-colored star at the hunter's left (as we look at it) shoulder. That's Betelgeuse. His lower right leg is represented by another bright star, Rigel. Rigel is the seventh brightest star in the night sky, and Betelgeuse is ninth. Three stars of very similar brightness make up the hunter's belt, and a line of fainter stars are a sword, dangling from the belt. Point your binoculars at the sword, and you may detect a fuzzy, diffuse area of light – the Orion Nebula. This giant cloud of hydrogen gas is a place where young stars have formed, and it magnificent to view in a telescope.

Once you have found Orion, locate Taurus, the bull, just above the hunter. Gemini, the twins, lies to the left, with Canis Major, the large dog, and Canis Minor, the small dog, below. A semi-circle of bright stars forms Auriga, the charioteer, above Orion and to the left of the star cluster Pleiades. Bundle up for the cold, and enjoy the stars of January!


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