January 2014 Sky from the Keeble Observatory Comet ISON did not survive its perihelion passage of the Sun. We'll have to wait for the next "comet of the century!"The Chinese have joined a previously exclusive club of those spacefaring nations which have successfully landed a probe on the Moon. The others are the United States and the former Soviet Union. This is the first soft landing since 1976. Only the United States has landed humans on the Moon, but that effort was cancelled after Apollo 17 in 1972. Their lander is called Chang’e 3 – named after the Chinese moon goddess. (Chang’e 1 and 2 were lunar orbiters.) It deployed a solar powered rover called Yutu or Jade Rabbit – the mythical companion of the goddess. Interestingly, the Chinese refer to the “Rabbit in the Moon” instead of the “Man in the Moon” to identify the pattern of darker maria on the visible side. It is notable that the lander itself could have delivered a much larger payload to the Moon’s surface, strongly suggesting plans for a sample return mission some time in 2015. The Chinese space program is ambitious. They are apparently planning to deploy their own crewed space station by the end of the decade – about the time the International Space Station is scheduled for decommissioning and destruction. Expect the next humans on the Moon to be from China.
Lunar phases for January: New Moon on the 1st, at 6:15 am; First Quarter on the 7th, at 10:40 pm; Full Moon on the 15th, at 11:52 pm; Last Quarter on the 24th, at 12:20 am; and another New Moon on the 30th at4:38 pm.
After several sparse months, predawn planet watchers will have an abundance of targets. Saturn rises about 4:00 am early in the month and is visible to the southeast as the sky brightens. Mars appears high to the south – it will be noticeably red in color, due to the high abundance of iron oxide in its surface dust. Jupiter is to the west, below Castor and Pollux in Gemini. By month’s end Venus returns to the eastern sky, low but brilliant before sunrise. Saturn will climb higher as the month advances.
Evening twilight will see Jupiter rising to the east – and to the right of Castor and Pollux. It will be at opposition on the 5th, so it’s essentially visible all night this month. Binoculars or a small telescope will easily reveal its four largest moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) which will noticeably shift in position over several evenings. Indeed, you should be able to see Io move over the course of one evening. Mercury returns low to the southwest by the end of January.
Our overhead view at midmonth finds the constellations Auriga and Perseus near zenith. Capella (also known as Alpha Aurigae) is just to the east of zenith. Shifting your view to the south you will note the familiar constellations Orion and Taurus. Near the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus, binoculars will let you see the open cluster known as the Hyades. Aldebaran is not a part of the cluster, but happens to be in the same direction. It is about 68 light years distant, while the cluster is about twice that. The cluster is thought to be “only” 625 million years old. Aldebaran itself is what’s known as a red giant – it’s late in its lifetime, and is about 40 times the diameter of the Sun (hence “giant”).Ifreaders have questions about astronomy or science in general that you would like covered in one of these columns, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2014George Spagna