Monthly Sky Guide: January 2002
This month the evening sky is dominated by the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, and the bright constellation Orion.
JUPITER in Gemini is currently the brightest planet in the evening sky (magnitude -2.7). On January 26th the Moon will pass in front of Jupiter. The event, known as an occultation, will be visible from the far north UK and Scandinavia (central hour 18h UT). Skywatchers elsewhere in Europe will still be treated to an impressive display. Instead of an occultation that same evening they will witness a very close pairing of the Moon and Jupiter--currently the two brightest objects in the night sky. To some it may give the illusion that a piece of the Moon has "broken off" and is floating away in space. Observers in North America will need to wait at least 6 hours to view the pair by which time the Moon will have moved some distance away from brilliant Jupiter.
SATURN shines at near zero magnitude and remains an impressive object in Taurus. On January 24th the Moon will pass in front of the ringed planet. The occultation will be centered at 15h UT and will only be visible from southern Asia. Saturn's magnificent rings are currently open at their widest.
MARS moves from Aquarius at the start of the month into Pisces. Look for a magnitude 1.0 orange "star" in the southwest at sunset.
MERCURY is the innermost and hence most elusive of the naked-eye planets. However, for the first three weeks of January skywatchers should be able to catch a glimpse of Mercury low in the west-southwest about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. Look for a solitary white "star".
VENUS is the brightest of all the planets but it is unfortunately too near the Sun to be seen this month.
COMET LINEAR (C/2000 WM1) [Southern Hemisphere only] is low in the southwest at the end of evening twilight (see map). The comet is nearest to the Sun (perihelion) on January 22nd and should make a fine object in binoculars or telescope. Look for a diffuse object of about 6th magnitude. Comet LINEAR is expected to fade quickly by the end of the month.
ORION is the brightest constellation in the heavens. The famous figure of a hunter is easy to recognize because it contains several bright stars and a prominent line of three bright stars that make up his belt. Just below the belt are three fainter stars that form his sword. The middle of these stars is surrounded by the Great Orion Nebula (M42 on the map). A look through even a small telescope reveals an intricate glowing gas cloud that fills the view in any eyepiece. The Hubble Space Telescope has discovered over 700 young stars that are forming from the gas in this stellar nursery.
Clear skies until next month!
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