The New Year begins with a cornucopia of celestial sights, from colourful shooting stars to a glorious Evening star. A bevy of brilliant stars, Bettlegeuse and Rigel in Orion. Aldebaran, the bright red eye of Taurus. Capella crowning Auriga. Caster and Pollux, the celestial twins in Gemini, and glorious Sirius in Canis Major.
As for the star patterns, what a great month to see them. Look north-west and the first group you will notice will be Ursa Major, or the Plough, with its tail pointing towards the Horizon. The ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia is high up in the north-west. The North Star, of course, will be in its usual position due north. It cannot be anywhere else.
The southern part of the night sky is dominated by Orion, which cannot be overlooked. Led by Betelgeuse and Rigel. All of the winter constellations can now be seen. If you use the three stars of Orion’s belt and draw a line to the left it will point to Sirius the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky.
You will find to the right of Orion, Aldebaran, the bright red eye of the Taurus the bull. Above Orion you will see Capella, crowning the constellation Auriga, and nearby Castor and Pollux, the celestial twins in Gemini.
Venus opens the year shinning gloriously in the south west after sunset. At a brilliant magnitude –4.0 the Evening star sets at 7pm at the start of January and at 8.30pm at the end of the month.
On the last few days of January, you may catch Mercury near the horizon, to the lower right of Venus. The innermost planet shines at magnitude –1.0, and sets around 5.45pm.
Neptune at magnitude +7.9 lies in Aquarius, setting about 9pm.
Among the faint stars of Pisces, Uranus is on the verge of naked eye visibility at magnitude +5.8, and sets around 1.30am.
Mars is rising in the south east at 4.40am, shinning at magnitude +1.4. During January, it tracks from Libra, through the top of Scorpius and into Ophiuchus. Mid month, the red planet passes above the red giant star Antares. Its name means ‘rival of Mars’. Have a look with a good pair of binoculars and compare which is the redder.
Jupiter and Saturn are too close to the Sun to be seen this month.
The first regular meteor shower of the year is the Quadrantids, which can be seen on the night of January 3/4. Watch well after midnight when the Moon has set. These bright colourful shooting stars are dust particles from the old comet 2003Eh1. They could be the best display of shooting stars this year. The Quadrantids is the only meteor shower that takes its name from a defunct constellation. It is named after the Mural Quadrant, one of many which no longer exists because the star map has been redrawn.
Other high lights of the month will be: –
At 7.48am on 5th January the Earth is closet to the Sun, 147million Km away.
Around 7pm on the 10th January the lower edge of the Moon looks slightly tarnished as it suffers a penumbral eclipse, when some but not all of the sunlight falling on the Moon is blocked by the earth.
On the 27th of the month, there will be a rare chance to see the brightest and the faintest planets together. Aim your binoculars or telescope at Venus and the greenish star very close to the upper right is Neptune. The farthest planet lies just 4 arcminutes from Venus, and is 60,000 times dimmer.
Phases of the moon for January are :-
First Quarter 3rd
Full Moon 10th
Last quarter 17th
New Moon 24th