WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - JANUARY 2018

(Link to What's Up February 2018)

(Link to What's Up December 2017)

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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY

Click HERE for a downloadable PDF white chart - (Close PDF file to return here)

The chart above shows the night sky as it appears on 15th January at 21:00 (9 o'clock) in the evening Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 10 o'clock GMT at the beginning of the month and at 8 o'clock GMT at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours.

The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always easy to find. This month it is close to the northern eastern horizon. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes.

Planets observable this month: Jupiter and Mars (very early morning) with Uranus and Neptune early evening.

EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH

The Southern Night Sky during January 2018 at 21:00 GMT (9:00 pm)

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 21:00 GMT on 15th January. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The constellations through which the ecliptic passes are known as the constellations of the ‘Zodiac'.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are: Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab) and just coming on to the chart in the east is Leo (the Lion).

The Milky Way (our Galaxy) appears to rise up from the western horizon through the Summer Triangle and Cygnus. It continues up through Cassiopeia then down towards the East through Perseus and Auriga. It then flows through the constellations of Gemini, Orion and Monoceros at the bottom of the chart on the South Eastern horizon.

The outermost planet Neptune is in the constellation of Aquarius and will be disappearing over the Western Horizon in the early evening. A beginner's telescope will show Neptune as a rather fuzzy looking star with a blue tinge but a larger telescope will show it as a small blue disc. Uranus is located in the constellation of Pisces and is slightly easier to see than Neptune as it is only half as far away. It appears twice the diameter of Neptune and four times as bright so it can be seen as a small disc using a beginner's telescope with a magnification of 100x or more.

Sitting astride the ecliptic in the south is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The Taurus asterism (shape) looks like a squashed cross ‘X'. At the centre of the cross is a large, faint Open Cluster called the Hyades. It has the bright Red Giant star Aldebaran at its centre. The real beauty of Taurus is the naked eye Open Cluster M45 the Pleiades (Seven Sisters).

To the north of M45 (the Pleiades cluster in Taurus) is a line of stars defining the constellation of Perseus. The whole asterism (shape) of Perseus looks like a horse rider's stirrup. At the top of the line of stars is the beautiful object ‘the Double Cluster' that is best seen using binoculars.

Above and linked to the constellation of Taurus by the star Elnath is the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer). The shape of the ‘stick figure' of Auriga is like a misshapen pentagon. The brightest star in Auriga is the beautiful bright white star Capella. It is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Capella has a magnitude of approximately 0 (actually +0.06) so can be used as the base star when working out the brightness of other stars. Auriga has three Messier Open Clusters: M36, M37 and M38. They appear to form a straight line through Auriga and also appear to continue on in line to M35 in Gemini.

To the south of Taurus is the magnificent constellation of Orion (the Hunter). He has a distinct line of three stars depicting his belt with a line of fainter stars tracing out a sword appearing to hang from his belt. Orion looks very impressive and has many things of interest to search out with binoculars or a telescope. See the constellation of the month.

There will be a meteor shower at the beginning of this month, called the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. The shower is active between 1st and 4th January with a noticeable increase in activity in the early morning hours of 3rd January. There will be a full Moon in the south east but some of the brighter Quadrantids will still be visible.

There is a new comet, called 2017 T1 (Heinze), visible this month moving through the ‘Zenith' (the point in the sky directly overhead). It will be visible, using binoculars, looking like a fairly faint ‘fuzzy' patch of light. It will be moving slowly night to night from a point almost directly overhead on the 1st January towards the distinctive ‘W' shape of Cassiopeia on 10th January.

 

CONSTELLATION OF THE MONTH – ORION (the Hunter)

A chart showing Orion (the Hunter) and his two Hunting Dogs Sirius and Procyon

Orion is one of the most spectacular and beautiful constellations but it is also very interesting because, in Orion, we can see evidence of all the stages of the life cycle of stars from birth to death. Obviously we cannot see the life cycle of an individual star but we can observe a variety of stars at various stages of their existence in Orion.

When we look towards the constellation of Orion we are looking into one of the nearest spiral arms of our galaxy the Milky Way. Our Sun appears to be located in the area between two spiral arms. Towards the centre of the galaxy from our point of view is the Sagittarius Arm and looking away from the centre is the Orion Arm.

An artist impression of our position in the Galaxy

Most of the stars in Orion are located about 900 light years away from us including Rigel but Betelgeuse is much closer at only 450 light years distant. Because the stars of Orion are in a spiral arm there is a lot of gas and dust around the whole area of the constellation. Huge numbers of new young stars are hidden by the gas and dust.

Chart showing M42 the Great Nebula in Orion

Below the line of three stars of Orion's belt there is a vertical line of stars forming his sword (hanging below his belt). In the line of stars making up Orion's sword a hazy patch can be seen using binoculars or even with just the naked eye on a clear night. The hazy patch is known as M essier 42 (M42), t he Great Orion Nebula.

The Trapezium cluster superimposed on M42

This Nebula is part of a gigantic cloud of Hydrogen gas mixed with other gases and dust in which new stars are being formed. Through a pair of binoculars the nebula looks like a small fuzzy patch in the line of stars. This part of the vast cloud of gas and dust is illuminated by four very young stars recently formed in the ‘Nebula'. These four large young and very active stars are providing the radiation to illuminate the nebula and are known as the ‘Trapezium'.

When seen through a telescope the cloud like structure can been made out. Swirls of gas and dust can be seen, some are lit up but others are dark and silhouetted against the illuminated clouds behind.

The Orion Nebula can be seen with the naked eye from a dark location on a clear moonless night. It is easily seen using a pair of binoculars. The image below shows the sort of view seen using a pair of 8 x 50 binoculars.

Binocular view of M42 with Orion's belt at the top

A small telescope will show a larger view and some detail in M42. Structure in the nebula can be seen with parts of the nebula illuminated and other parts appearing dark.

The sort of view seen using a small telescope

A larger telescope will show more detail and structure in the nebula with wisps of gas appearing. Photographic images show much more detail including colour in the clouds of gas and dust. The red in the image below is typical of the emissions from excited Hydrogen gas.

A photographic image of M42

As well as being one of the most spectacular and beautiful constellations, Orion is also very interesting because we can see evidence of all the stages of the life cycle of stars from birth to death. Obviously we cannot see the life cycle of an individual star but we can observe a variety of stars at various stages of their existence in Orion.

Stars are not actually living things like us but they do exist in various stages of evolution that resemble the life cycle of living entities. We have previously seen that stars are being ‘born' in the stellar nursery in the Great Orion Nebula M42. These stars are still very young and at this stage are very active. After a few hundreds of millions of years they will settle down to live the longest stage of their lives as normal ‘Main Sequence' stars. Our Sun is about 4.3 billion years old and approaching half way through its main sequence. We can see many stars at this stage with others older and many much younger.

There is another factor that affects the life span of a star and that is its mass (the amount of Hydrogen gas it is made of). Large stars have denser and hotter cores and their nuclear fusion process (the fusing of Hydrogen atoms into heavier Helium atoms) produces more energy and consumes the Hydrogen at a much faster rate. These large stars use up their fuel supply very quickly and therefore have shorter lives. There are two bright stars in Orion that demonstrate this very well. The first is Rigel at the bottom right of Orion. This is a young super giant star about 30 times the mass of our Sun and about 120,000 times more powerful. Stars like our Sun will ‘live' for about 10 billion years but a Super Giant star may only ‘live' for a few tens of millions of years.

The core of a star like Rigel will be hot enough and have enough pressure to enable it to fuse the Helium and manufacture other heavier atoms until Iron is produced. The fusion process that produces each heavier element produces additional radiation and heat. This additional energy causes the star to expand until it develops into a Red Giant and will eventually explode as a Super Nova.

Rigel as seen using a telescope

Rigel is currently a star in its prime. It is already producing heavier elements and has become very powerful. It is mature and perhaps just moving towards the end of its middle age. Those who have a telescope should have a good close look at Rigel because it is actually an interesting double star. As the main star is a giant and very bright making it quite difficult to see the smaller and fainter companion star.

Rigel and its smaller companion

Seeing the companion is a bit of a challenge for a smaller telescope but it has been seen by the author using his new Starwatcher Evostar 90mm refractor featured in the January 2017 issue of this magazine. A magnification of 180x was used and the companion appeared a lot fainter than it appears in the image above but it was very rewarding to see.

Another giant star Betelgeuse, located at the top left of Orion. It is much further along its pathway of ‘life'. It is approaching the last phases of its existence as a normal star and has grown into a Red ‘Super' Giant with a diameter greater than the orbit of Jupiter in our Solar System. Betelgeuse is so big and unstable that it pulsates and wobbles rather like a water filled balloon. By carefully observing the brightness of Betelgeuse it can be seen to brighten and fade. At its brightest it can be as bright as magnitude 0.2 and at its dimmest only magnitude 1.2. It is quite difficult to determine the cycle of the pulsations and brightening because there seems to be a number of intertwined cycles. So it appears to vary at different rates of between 150 to 300 days.

Betelgeuse as seen using a telescope

Betelgeuse appears to be edging towards the end of its life. In fact it is the closest star to us that might explode as a super nova at any time in the near future (astronomically speaking). It could explode and destroy itself sometime in the next million years (maybe as soon as tomorrow). For all we know it may have already exploded but the light from the explosion will take 450 years to reach us.

There are many other interesting stars in Orion beside the more well known stars like Rigel and Betelgeuse. It is always interesting to ponder about the true nature of these specs of light that are so far away. The stars of Orion's belt are very easy to see with our naked eyes and the distinctive line of the three stars is one of the most recognised star formations. We should consider what interesting features they may be hiding from us. See the previous charts.

The stars of Orion's belt

The star at the east (left) of Orion's belt is called Alnitak and is a triple star system. The system is comprised of a pair of stars of with apparent magnitudes of 1.9 and 5.5 orbiting around a common centre of gravity. They appear to be separated by 2.6" (arc-seconds). The third star is a fainter magnitude 10 companion orbiting 57.6" from the pair. This triple star system is thought to be about 820 light years from us.

Alnilam is the middle star of Orion's belt and is the 29th brightest star in the sky (the 4th brightest in Orion). It is a blue-white supergiant with a mass 34.6 times that of the Sun, a radius 24 times that of the Sun and 275,000 times more luminous than our Sun. It is estimated to be 2000 light years from us and relatively young with an estimated age of 5.7 million years. It is expected to develop into a Red Giant within the next few million years.

Mintaka is a multiple star system with an overall magnitude of + 2.23 but can vary between + 2.50 and +3.90. This is because a 7 th magnitude star that is currently about 52 arc-seconds away from the main component sometimes eclipses the main star. There is an even fainter star in between these two stars. The main component itself is triple star system comprised of a bright giant and a rare B class main sequence star orbiting every 5.73 days and another B class sub-giant 0.2 arc-seconds away.

There is another 7 th magnitude companion that is an unusual B type main sequence star and is itself a spectroscopic binary with a faint A type companion in a 30-day orbit. This 14 th magnitude star is thought to be at the same distance but it is not clear whether it is physically bound to the primary star and little is known about it.

Mintaka may be a seven star system but it is also thought to be surrounded by a cluster of faint stars that may be surrounding the whole system. The main star is estimated to be 1200 light years from our Sun. It has a surface temperature of 30,000° K, is 90,000 times more luminous than our Sun and has a mass 20 times larger than our Sun.

Saiph is located at the lower left (east) of Orion. It is of a similar distance and size to Rigel but appears much fainter. This is because it has a very high surface temperature (26,000°C) this causes it to emit most of its light in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum. Our eyes are not sensitive to ultraviolet wavelengths so it appears fainter to us.

One of the stars in the small group of stars that define Orion's head is a very hot blue giant. Meissa is a giant star with a stellar classification of O8III and has an apparent magnitude +3.54. It is an enormous star with about 28 times the mass of our Sun. It has an effective temperature of around 35,000 K, giving it a characteristic blue glow of a hot O-type star.

The giant star Meissa

Meissa is actually a double star with a companion at an apparent angular separation of 4.41". This fainter component is magnitude +5.61 and it has a stellar classification of B0.5V, making it a B-type main sequence star. There is another outlying component, Meissa C which is an F-type main sequence star with a classification of F8V. This star in turn may have a very low mass companion that is probably a tiny brown dwarf star.

 

THE SOLAR SYSTEM JANUARY 2018

MERCURY rises in the south east at about 07:00 just before the Sun and in the bright sky. The smallest planet will be much too close to the Sun and will not be visible this month.

Mercury, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter in the east before sunrise

VENUS is in conjunction with the Sun this month and will not be observable. The location of Venus on morning of 16th January is shown on the chart below. Venus will now begin to move away from the Sun to the east and become an evening object close to the western horizon at sunset. As it climbs higher in the evening sky it will become the ‘Evening Star' in the west. The sky has been darkened on the chart so the positions of Venus and the Sun can be seen. Venus has just moved out from behind the Sun so will appear as a small disc. It will appear to get larger as moves closer to us over the next couple of months.

Chart showing Venus at 16:00 (the sky has been darkened)

MARS will be rising in the east at about 03:15 this is over four hours before the Sun rises. The Red Planet appears small at just 5.0 arc-seconds in diameter but is quite bright at magnitude +1.4. Mars looks fainter and redder than Jupiter. See the Mercury chart above.

JUPITER will be an early morning object for the next few months and appears bright in the east before sunrise. It will rise at 03:15 at the beginning of the month and 02:15 at the end. Jupiter is large at 34".2 and bright at magnitude -1.9. At the moment Jupiter forms a nice line in the east with Mars and the bright star Antares in the constellation of Libra. See the Mercury chart above.

SATURN has just moved out from conjunction with the Sun. It rises at about 06:30 but is still too close to the Sun to be visible this month. See the Mercury chart above.

URANUS will be in a good observable position this month and will be quite high in the south as soon as the sky is dark. Using a good pair of 10x50 binoculars a slightly fuzzy blue, star like, object can be seen. A telescope at a magnification of 100x will show it as a small blue/green disc.

Uranus and Neptune at about 18:00

NEPTUNE will be visible in the south west as soon as the sky is dark if you know where to look for it. It is now past its best and will set over the western horizon at about 20:30. A telescope will be needed to show Neptune as a small blue/green disc using a magnification of 150x but it is small and difficult to find.

THE SUN

The Sun rises at 08:00 at the beginning of the month and at 07:45 by the end of the month. It will be setting at 16:00 at the beginning and 16:45 by the end of the month.

THE MOON PHASES IN JANUARY

There will be two Full Moons this month. The second full moon in the same month is sometimes referred to as a Blue Moon. The Moon will be closer to Earth in its orbit and may look slightly larger and brighter than usual.

Full Moon will be on the 2nd January

First Quarter will be on 8th January

New Moon will be on 17th January

Last Quarter will be on 24th January

Full Moon will be on the 31st January

 

THE QUADRANTID METEOR SHOWER

Chart showing the Radiant Point of the Quadrantid Meteor Shower on 3rd January

There will be a meteor shower at the beginning of this month, called the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. The shower is active between 1st and 4th January with a noticeable increase in activity in the early morning hours of 3rd January. There will be a full Moon in the south east but some of the brighter Quadrantids will still be visible especially later on through the night.

The Quadrantids are associated with an asteroid 2003 EH1. The asteroid takes about 5.5 years to orbit around the Sun. This means that some of the meteoroids (the particles moving through space) may be of a rocky nature so they will often be bright and survive for quite a long time. When they enter Earth's atmosphere, about 100km up, they often produce a bright and persistent trail.

The type of meteor that occurs in showers usually originates from a comet and is much more common than the longer lasting and brighter trails that generally originate from asteroids. The Quadrantid shower owes its name to the now-defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis . The constellation was left off a list of constellations drawn up by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1922. However as the shower had already been named after Quadrans Muralis, its name was not changed. The Quadrantids are also sometimes called Boötids after the modern constellation of Boötes where it's radiant is located .

Quadrantid meteors appear to radiate from the upper part of the constellation of Boötes which is above the horizon from around midnight. The meteors can be seen for most of the night and in almost any part of the sky.

If you are intending to have a look remember to wrap up warm before you go out because you will soon feel very cold and that will spoil your enjoyment of the shower. Make yourself comfortable in a garden lounger chair and spend at least an hour looking.

 

COMET 2017 T1 (Heinze)

The path of comet 2017 T1 (Heinze)

There is a new comet, called 2017 T1 (Heinze), visible this month moving through the ‘Zenith' (the point in the sky directly overhead). It will be visible, using binoculars, looking like a fairly faint ‘fuzzy' patch of light. It will be moving slowly night to night from a point almost directly overhead on the 1st January towards the distinctive ‘W' shape of Cassiopeia on 10th January.

Comet Heinze (C/2017 T) was only discovered this year and will zoom past Earth during January and may just be visible using binoculars. It was only a tiny, 17th-magnitude patch of fuzz with a short, fan-shaped tail when it was discovered on 22nd October by Mike Olason.

When first spotted on 2nd October it was just a faint 18th magnitude crumb in the constellation of Hydra. A preliminary orbit calculation seemed to indicate that the object was a near-Earth asteroid releasing dust. This could have been an unprecedented discovery! However another set of images taken on September 28th indicated that the computer had missed the object because of light from a nearby star. With the additional positions, a better orbit was calculated and confirmed the object was a comet.

Perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) occurs on 21st February at a distance of 87 million km but prior to that, on 4th January the comet will pass just 33 million km from Earth. Despite its intrinsic faintness, it is predicted to peak at magnitude 8.8 putting it within range of small telescopes and 50mm or larger binoculars.

To see the comet it will be best to lay flat on a garden lounger chair or even lay flat on a patio. Use a pair of 50mm binoculars and look in the area of sky indicated by the dates shown on the chart above. It will be difficult to see any apparent motion from minute to minute but the movement will be obvious from hour to hour or night to night. A sketch of the position of the comet and the brightest stars will help show and record the movement.

When closest, the comet will be travelling about 7° a day or ~17' per hour, this is fast enough to see movement in real time. During the first half of January, it will be circumpolar from mid-northern latitudes and visible all night. See the chart above.

 

THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH

This chart below is included for printing off and use outdoors

Position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes with south at the bottom.

The chart shows the sky at 21:00 on 15th January 2018

 

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