Astronomy Guide to the night sky, January 2024

Astronomy

ASTRONOMY GUIDE TO THE NIGHT SKY – JANUARY 2024

With the Newbury Astronomical Society

The chart above shows the night sky at 20:00 on 15th January 2024

Click on the chart to enlarge and click to the side of the chart to close

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 20:00 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 (in red) 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 brightest stars often appear to form a group or recognisable pattern; we call these ‘Constellations’.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are Sagittarius (the Archer), Capricornus (the Goat), Aquarius (the Water Carrier), Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab) and Leo (the Lion).

The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, we called this the Zenith and it is marked with a red cross and the word Zenith on the chart.  Around the edge of the chart the Cardinal Points of the Compass are marked in red.  South is at the bottom, North at the top, East to the left and West to the right.  We generally observe to the south because any visible planets and the Moon are always in the southern part of the sky.

The Pole Star Polaris in the constellation of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is the only star in the sky that does not move so it is very useful.  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 and is always quite easy to find.  This month it is located in the North.

On the chart, on the previous page, look for the distinctive saucepan shape.  It has four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle.  Follow an imaginary line (indicated by the yellow arrow), 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 (the Zenith) 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.

The Milky Way flows north from the Summer Triangle through the rather indistinct constellation of Lacerta (the Lizard), past the pentagon shape of Cepheus and on through the ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia and down through Auriga and Orion to the south eastern horizon.

Prominent in the south is the constellation of Pegasus (the Winged Horse).  The main feature of Pegasus is the square formed by the four brightest stars.  This asterism (shape) is known as the ‘Great Square of Pegasus’.  The square is larger than might be expected but once found is easier to find again.  The Great Square can be used to judge the condition of the sky for observing.  If stars can be seen within the square there seeing should be good.  If no stars can be seen then seeing will not be good.

Moving into view in the south east is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull).  The most obvious star in Taurus is the lovely Red Giant Star called Aldebaran.  It appears slightly orange to the ‘naked eye’ but it is very obviously orange when seen using binoculars or a telescope.  Aldebaran is located at the centre of the ‘flattened’ X shape formed by the brightest stars in Taurus.  At the end of the top right (upper west) arm of the ‘X’ is the beautiful ‘naked eye’ Open Star Cluster Messier 45 (M45) known as the Pleiades (or the Seven Sisters).  It really does look magnificent using binoculars.

Following Taurus is the constellation of Gemini (the Twins).  The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux and they are named after mythological twins.

To the south of Taurus and Gemini is the spectacular constellation of Orion (the Hunter).  Orion is one of the best known constellations and hosts some of the most interesting objects for us amateur astronomers to seek out.  The constellation of Orion is featured in this month’s Newbury Astronomical Society Monthly Magazine.

WHERE TO FIND THE PLANETS THIS MONTH

Mercury will appear very close the Sun just before sunrise in the east.  It is fairly easy to find it in the brightening morning sky but it will require a clear view to the eastern horizon.  It will then rise just before the Sun in the east in the morning and at its furthest from the Sun on the 12th January..

Venus will be visible and very bright in the east in the early hours before sunrise.  It is bright and will be easy to find but it will require a clear view to the western horizon.  Venus was at its Greatest Westerly Elongation on 23rd October but is now moving ever closer to the Sun so it will become more difficult to see.

Mars has been in conjunction with the Sun (passing behind the Sun on 18th November) so cannot be seen.

Jupiter is past its best for this year but is still good for observing in the evening.  Jupiter was at its very best when it was at opposition on 26th September.  Jupiter is now moving towards the western horizon during the evening.  It will set over the horizon at 02:30 GMT at the beginning of this month and set by 01:00 GMT at the end of the month.  In reality it will start to be unsteady up to an hour before these times due to the turbulent and muggy air closer to the horizon.

Saturn has now effectively moving over the western horizon and is too low to observable.

Uranus was at Opposition on 9th November and is now at its best position for observing this year.  This means Uranus will be in the south at 19:30 GMT and at its highest point above the southern horizon.

Neptune will be just visible this month using a telescope.  It will be difficult to find in the as it is very small at just 2.2″ (arc-seconds) only magnitude +7.9.  The Moon will be very close on 15th making it a little easier to find.

Direct link to full observing guide January 2024: Whats_Up_January_2024.pdf – Google Drive

To read our monthly magazine click on: January 2024 Magazine

Link to Newbury Astronomical Society website: Home – Newbury Astronomical Society

Our next meeting will be at Stockcross Village Hall on Wednesday 17th January 2024 starting at 19:00 until 21:00.

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