January 5, 2005

Stellar Views in the January Skies

Viewing both the inner and outer planets with a telescope may promise some of the best views during January, particularly as the Saturn-Earth distance closes near the scheduled January 14th descent of the Huygens probe towards the surface of Titan.

Astrobiology Magazine -- The highlight of January will be the planet Saturn, which will be opposite the sun as seen from Earth on Jan. 13. On that night Saturn will therefore be closest to us in its orbit, rising in the east at dusk and shining all night at its biggest and brightest as it crosses the southern sky.

When Saturn is high in the south on a clear night, there is no better opportunity to view its famous rings with a telescope. Saturn will remain at almost the same brilliance all month as it dominates the bright stars of the constellations Gemini and Orion.

On Jan. 14, the European Space Agency's Huygens spacecraft will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan, which is larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto. Scientists think Titan's environment may be similar to that of the very early Earth, before life-forms began putting oxygen into our atmosphere.

Jupiter will be even brighter than Saturn, rising in the east around midnight local time. Jupiter will be high in the south by the start of morning twilight, accompanied by the constellation Virgo the Maiden with its bright star Spica.

During the first two weeks of January, Venus and Mercury will be close together very low in the southeast about 45 minutes before sunrise. Brilliant Venus will far outshine the smaller planet, and binoculars may help in finding Mercury in the predawn glow. They will be closest on the mornings of Jan. 12 and 13. After midmonth, Mercury will quickly drop away from Venus into the solar glare.

Pale orange Mars will be well to the upper right (south) of Venus and Mercury, and fainter than either of them. Near Mars will be the bright orange star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Antares' name means "rival of Mars," and the star will be brighter than the planet all month.

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking on Jan. 3 during the hours before dawn. The moon will be at third quarter during the peak, so moonlight will wash out many of the fainter meteors. The rate of this shower varies considerably and unpredictably from year to year.

The Quadrantid meteors will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker. In the 18th century, this area of the sky was called Quadrans Muralis and gave the Quadrantid meteor shower its name.

Try facing northeast toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle's three stars, it forms an "arc to Arcturus." Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be.


On the Net:



Cassini-Huygens Mission

Saturn-- JPL Cassini Main Page

Space Science Institute

Where is Cassini Now?