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What's in the sky

January 2009 stargazing


If skies are clear on New Year's Day, take a look to the southwest right after sunset. You'll see a beautiful crescent Moon, with the bright planet Venus to its lower left. And, if you have a view low on the horizon, you may be able to pick out the planets Jupiter and Mercury. Those two will be very close to the Sun, so look for them right after sunset.

Dazzlingly bright Venus will spend the entire month in the southwestern evening sky, growing brighter and higher in the sky each evening, so you can watch for it on any clear night. It should be just above Mt. Hood if you are viewing from White Salmon.

January's full moon will occur on the Jan. 11, with new moon on Jan. 26.

The ringed planet Saturn is returning to the evening sky in January. At the beginning of the month, it will rise at about 10:30 p.m. By the end of January, it will rise two hours earlier, at 8:30 p.m. This will be an interesting year in which to view Saturn; the famous rings are now "edge-on" as we see the planet. Since the rings are only a few miles wide, they will not be visible. Saturn takes 29 years to orbit the Sun; during its orbit, our view of the planet changes from year to year. In the next few years, we'll again begin to see the rings, as the planet tilts to our line of sight. We'll see the rings in 2010, and see them best in 2018. They'll then again begin to close, and in 2025 will be similar to how we see them this year.

January is a good time for exploring the sky with binoculars. Star clusters and galaxies are best viewed when they are overhead, when we are looking through the least amount of light-scattering atmosphere. And winter skies present a wealth of objects visible in binoculars. Try the following, and see how many you can find (the larger the binoculars the better, 50mm works well). Use the accompanying chart as an aid.

Face south, and look about half way up in the sky. You should easily be able to see a bright cluster of stars, the Pleiades. The Pleiades is a cluster of hot, relatively young stars, and will look whitish-blue in your binoculars. To compare, scan to Aldebaran, the bright star just to the left (east) from the Pleiades. Aldebaran should look noticeably reddish-orange when compared to the cluster. Aldebaran is an older star, and is not as hot, hence the reddish color.

Look up from the Pleiades, and find the bright star Capella, almost straight overhead. Capella is part of the constellation Auriga, made up of a roughly circular band of stars to the left and below Capella. With binoculars, scan to the left and below Capella, and see if you can make out several faint, fuzzy patches of light. Those patches are open star clusters, groups of related stars in areas where active star formation is occurring.

Now look to the right of Capella, below and to the left of the constellation Cassiopeia (it looks like a "W"). The "Double Cluster" in Perseus is barely visible to the naked eye on a dark night, as a hazy patch. It is two open clusters very close to each other, a favorite sight of many in a telescope.

One final item -- and this one should be brighter than the others except for the Pleiades: Look below and to the right of Cassiopeia, and search for an oval, fuzzy object. If you find it, you are looking at light that has been traveling to your eye for 2.5 million years, from the Andromeda galaxy. See if you can spot it with your naked eye; if you find it, you have seen the most distant object visible with the naked eye in our sky!


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