Night Sky Guide: January to March 2014

HIGHLIGHTS

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower peaks a few days after New Moon

Jupiter reaches opposition

The Smallest Full Moon of the Year

The Equinox brings spring to the Northern Hemisphere

Venus brightens the morning

Best time of year for the Zodiacal Light

Author: Kelly Whitt

Poor Comet ISON did not survive its meeting with Sun, so we'll never get to see just how bright it might have been. Another bright sky object, Venus, will leave us in the beginning of the year. On January 2 find the crescent Moon above Venus before the brilliant planet disappears from the evening sky.

Jupiter will be the planet to watch the next few months, shining at magnitude -2.7 in the constellation Gemini. Jupiter reaches opposition on January 5, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise. On this date, use a telescope in North America to watch the volcanic moon Io emerge from behind Jupiter. The other three Galilean moons are already stretched out in a line on the opposite side of the giant planet, from Europa to Ganymede to Callisto. Moons are constantly disappearing and emerging from behind and passing in front of the King of the Planets.

Jupiter and its moon Io
Jupiter with Io emerging in 2011.
Credit: John Chumack

On January 14, the Moon and Jupiter come within about five degrees of each other. The Moon will reach full phase the next night. January's Full Moon, the Wolf Moon, occurs at 4:52 UT on January 15, just three hours after apogee, when the Moon is farthest from Earth in its orbit. Therefore, January’s Full Moon is the smallest of the year.

The Moon has quite a few other notable encounters in January. On the 11th, Aldebaran and the Moon will be near to each other as the Moon edges into the Hyades star cluster in Taurus. On January 18, the Moon will be to the lower right of the bright star Regulus in Leo. Just after midnight on January 23, the star Spica will be just below the Moon with Mars a bit farther above them. On January 25, the Moon and Saturn will be exceptionally close just before sunrise.

Starting around January 22, can you spot Mercury rising in the southwest after sunset? The crescent Moon will be to the lower right of Mercury on January 31 after sunset. The sliver of a Moon will be a challenge to spot at just 26 hours old.

Two other astronomical events of note for January include Earth reaching perihelion, its closest to the Sun, on January 4, and the Quadrantid meteor shower that peaks on January 3. If you can brave the temperatures, it's worth a look, with up to 90 meteors an hour possible at peak. The Quadrantids are named after an obsolete constellation named Quadrans Muralis. The location is now best described as the conjunction of Hercules, Bootes, and Draco.

In February, the month opens with a crescent Moon just above Mercury, and Neptune a little over three degrees to Mercury’s upper left. But due to the Sun recently setting, Neptune will be difficult to impossible to see in the still-fading light.

Stars in wintertime night skies
Some of the brightest stars lie in winter constellations
Credit: John Chumack

Jupiter is surrounded by the bright winter stars in the east and will continue to dominate the evening sky. Jupiter is in Gemini with its stars Castor and Pollux, and below are the bright stars Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius and Canis Major. To the right is the very recognizable Orion with a slew of bright stars. Capella in the constellation Auriga is above and to Jupiter’s upper right is Aldebaran in Taurus. On February 10, the Moon visits Jupiter.

The Moon meets up with two bright stars in February. On February 7 and 8 find the Moon near Aldebaran, and on February 14 the Moon will be near Regulus in Leo. Also on Valentine's Day is the Full Moon, which becomes 100-percent lit at 23:53 UT or 5:53 p.m. CST.

Mars begins to rise a bit earlier each evening but will still be an object for later nights. The Red Planet and Spica rise together in February: Mars is orangish and brighter than Spica. On February 18 and 19, the Moon will join both Spica and Mars.

For early risers, Venus will be prominent in February and March just before the Sun rises in the east.

Late February is a good time of year to look for the zodiacal light. The zodiacal light is solar system space dust that lies along the path of the ecliptic. This faint light can be seen in February an hour or two after dark when the ecliptic rises at a steep angle away from the horizon. The light takes a pyramidal shape, with the base broadening near the horizon/Sun. Because the zodiacal light is so faint, few stargazers have ever seen it. The Moon is new on March 1, which will help keep the skies dark for viewing. An observing spot away from light pollution is also necessary.

Zodiacal Light
The pyramidal form of zodiacal light seen from Chile.
Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

Find the Moon just two degrees from Aldebaran in Taurus on March 7, and then later in the month the Moon forms a trio with Mars and Spica on March 19. Two day later, on March 21, the Moon and Saturn appear together late in the evening, with Saturn about two degrees above our satellite.

In North America, Daylight Saving Time begins March 9 when clocks are set forward one hour. Europe changes their clocks to Summer Time on the last Sunday in March. The spring equinox for the Northern Hemisphere occurs on March 20 at 16:57 UT. On this day the Sun rises directly east and sets directly west.

If you're confused by any of the astronomy terminology used on this page take a look at our: explanation of astronomy basics. Also, do visit our section on CCD Imaging to see what other amateur enthusiasts have managed to capture with their equipment. If there are any amateur astrophotographers out there who would like to exhibit their images on Astronomy Today do contact us.

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