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January sky highlights

There's lots happening in the skies this month. Here are just a few of the notable, or 'must see' events...

This month we have a lunar eclipse and one of the best meteor showers of the year on show.

Jupiter is still the most dominant object in the night sky at the moment. You can't fail to miss this bright beacon of a planet in the south after dark. If you have a telescope or even binoculars, I would encourage you to go and take a look at it.

January sees the peak of the Quadrantid meteors.

Prospects for the Quadrantid Meteors

The Quadrantids take their name from a now defunct constellation which laid around the region of Bootes The Herdsman where the radiant point, that is the point from which all the meteors in the shower appear to emanate.

The peak of the shower occurs during the early hours of 4th January. This is when you can expect to see the most meteors. This particular meteors shower is known to put on a reasonably good display and has a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 120 meteors per hour. I hasten to add that this is not the number of events that you will see. It is a measure of how many you MIGHT see if the shower were directly overhead and in completely dark skies.

This year, the Moon sets before the expected peak of the shower and so we should, given clear skies, have a reasonable chance of seeing some good shooting stars. The shower tends to be fairly short lived, so you'll need to be out under the stars from around 3:00UT to see the maximum number of meteors possible.

The planet Mars is now rising earlier and earlier. The best time to see this enigmatic planet is in the early hours, but you won't need to stay up so late as we head towards Spring.

You can find the Red Planet in the constellation of Leo the Lion until the 15th when it slips into the neighbouring constellation of Virgo the Virgin It slowly increases in brightness as the month progresses. It is also increasing in apparent size from 9 arc-seconds at the beginning of January to 11 arc-seconds at the end. So if you own a telescope you should start to see a little detail on the planet's surface. The north polar cap is currently tilted towards us and appears fairly bright.

Deep Sky Highlights of January

This month we have some lovely star clusters to explore...

Auriga contains some lovely deep-sky objects, namely three clusters of star that will reward the observer even if you only have binoculars, but especially if you possess a small telescope.

Just to the south of the middle of the constellation is Messier 38 (M38). This is a lovely loose cluster of stars which lies some 4200 light years distant. It is said to resemble the shape of the Greek letter 'Pi'. Just to the south east of this cluster lies another open cluster of stars called Messier 36 (M36).

Lying just outside of the pentagon of the constellation is the final star cluster in this trio, Messier 37 (M37). This is the brightest of these three open clusters and shows up well in binoculars.

If you keep heading south east from the Auriga trio of clusters you will come to Messier 35 (M35) which lies in the constellation of Gemini The Twins. Here you'll find another bright cluster of stars that rewards a view through binoculars or a small telescope.

The constellation of Orion is now starting to dominate the evening sky. There are so may wonderful objects here to look at, but there isn't room here to describe them all. So I've created a YouTube video that you can watch which describes the best objects that the constellation has to offer for small telescopes and how to find them. Please go to Orion Tour.

The middle of the month sees a conjunction of the planets Venus and Neptune. This is where both planets can be found in the same region of the night sky. You will need a telescope to spot Neptune, but Venus is very bright! So this is a meeting of the solar system's brightest and dimmest planets. You can observe this conjunction over three evenings after sunset, starting on the 12th of the month.

There are a couple of comets visible this month, although you will need binoculars at least to spot them. C/2009 P1 Garradd is still gracing our skies at the moment in the constellation of Hercules in the east before dawn. If you are an early riser, then the best time to look for it is around 5:00UT (same as GMT). The other brighter comet available to those of us with small telescopes or binoculars is comet P/2006 T1 Levy. This best time to see this one will be from the 17th of January when it should be about as bright as Comet Garradd. You'll be able to find it just south of the star Alpha Piscium or Alrescha in the early evening. It gets harder to find after this.

A nice easy event to observe with the naked eye occurs on 26th of the month when bright Venus will encounter a thin crescent Moon in the early evening sky. This would make a lovely photo-opportunity for all those budding astro-photographers.

Thanks to Ninian Boyle http://www.astronomyknowhow.com/ for the above information.

Another item of note is the BBC is again broadcasting  three days of  Live  Astronomy this January Stargazing LIVE (to be broadcast January 16-18)

The programme will be broadcasting live once more from the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory in Cheshire on three evenings in January (16th – 18th). We will also have a small team at the SALT in South Africa providing some live southern hemisphere coverage for the first time.

The themes are as follows:

Programme 1 – The Moon (and moons of the Solar System)
Programme 2 – The Milky Way, galaxies and star birth
Programme 3 – Exo-Planets and the search for life