Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into three sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a small telescope. The best time to view the night sky is at and around the times when the Moon is not visible, what is known as a New Moon; which will occur this month on January 20th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 12th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.
This month gives a good opportunity to use all three viewing methods mentioned each month.
Naked Eye Sights:
The constellation Orion is always a wonderful sight to see especially on a crystal clear night in the winter. I was recently discovered that many people have never heard of or seen the constellation Orion. So this month ask friends and relatives if they have ever seen Orion. If not bring them outside this month and point out the beautiful Orion. Next you should give them a simple tour of the Orion constellation. Point out the four major stars: Betelgeuse, an orange giant whose size is larger than the Earth’s orbit. Betelgeuse is near the end of its life, and when it explodes it will likely be visible during the day. Bellatrix: Note that in the original movie “The Planet of the Apes” the astronauts thought they were on a planet circling this star; people like strange trivia. Saiph, although one of the smaller of these four stars, it is still over twenty times larger than our Sun. Rigel, a super-hot blue star. Point out the belt stars and note that the three apparent stars that form the sword are not single stars. The top “star” of the sword is really three stars with some smaller ones included. The bottom “star” of the sword is a group of stars. The center “star” of the sword is the famous Orion Nebula consisting of gases and baby stars. Don’t forget to point out the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, just below Orion.
The other naked eye sights of interest are planets. The planet Jupiter returns and rises in the east about 10 pm early in the month and by month’s end it will be visible starting at 8 pm. Due to its large size, Jupiter will be very bright and obvious.
An even more interesting planetary event can be seen in the western sky this month. Venus also makes its return to the night sky, along with a companion, the planet Mercury. In the first few days of January Venus will be low in the western sky about 6 pm. Just below and to the right of Venus is a smaller object, Mercury. As the month progresses, they will rise higher into the night sky. Mercury will continue to rise higher until about January 15th, and then it moves lower in the west remaining visible until about the 24th. Mercury can be difficult to see because it is so close to the Sun, and is a small object. This month is a perfect time to find Mercury because you can use the bright planet Venus to help you locate tiny Mercury. Although Mercury quickly disappears in the west, Venus will continue to rise higher in the night sky until June 12th. The image below shows Venus and Mercury on January 10th about 6:30 pm.
The image below gives you a perspective of the locations of Venus and Mercury if you were looking down at our solar system on January 10, 2015.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):
Turn your binoculars toward the “Sword of Orion” and with just seven or ten power binoculars; you should see that the center of the sword is a fuzzy gaseous nebula. You should now move your binoculars above Orion to the center of the constellation Taurus, which forms a “V” with the bright star being the yellow-orange Aldebaran. Your binoculars will be looking straight into the large open star cluster; the Hyades. Continue to move above Taurus to the beautiful cluster of young stars known as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. In Japan it is called Subaru, and is used as an emblem on the back of Subaru cars.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm):
Your primary target this month would be the return of the planet Jupiter. The clear skies of January should allow you to easily see the cloud bands of Jupiter, and you should also be able to see the colors of these clouds. If the cold nights of January bother you, not to worry, Jupiter will be easily visible from now on into June.
Next, be sure to turn your telescope toward Venus and Mercury. If this is your first time viewing these planets, you may be surprised to see that they are not disks. Both Venus and Mercury are always seen in phases, like the Moon from crescent to gibbous shaped, but never a full disk. Venus and Mercury are between us and the Sun, so they would only be fully illuminated when they are positioned on the other side of the Sun. All the other planets are farther from the Sun than the Earth, and therefore are always seen as a full disk.
Venus may present another problem; it will likely be too bright for your telescope, which may make it difficult to see the shape of its phase. You can invest in filters or telescope masks, but there is a simple way to eliminate the brightness of Venus. The trick is to view the planet before the sky darkens. Set up your telescope before sunset. After the Sun sets, watch for Venus to first appear in the twilight, and check it out; no brightness problem. Mercury is dim, smaller and farther away so you will not have a brightness problem.