Last modified: Tuesday, December 30, 2003
STAR TRAK/January 2004
January presents bright planets and meteors
The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking on Jan. 4 during the hours before dawn. The moon will be almost full, so moonlight will wash out all but the brightest meteors. The rate of this shower varies considerably and unpredictably from year to year.
The Quadrantid meteors will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker. In the 18th century, this area was called Quadrans Muralis and gave the Quadrantid meteor shower its name.
Try facing northeast toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle's three stars, it forms an "arc to Arcturus." Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be. For details about the Quadrantids, see http://comets.amsmeteors.org/meteors/showers/quadrantids.html. More information about meteor showers is available from the American Meteor Society at http://www.amsmeteors.org/showers.html.
Three planets will be visible as the evening sky darkens after sunset. Venus will glow brightly in the southwest, the first "star" to appear in evening twilight. It will set about two and a half hours after the sun at the beginning of January and even later by month's end. Venus will rapidly move north during the next few months, making it appear much higher for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. In 2003, Mars was a spectacle in the evening sky. In 2004, Venus will play that role.
Mars will come into view high in the south as evening twilight fades. It will not be nearly as bright as Venus, but it will still outshine any star in its dim section of the sky and will be easy to spot. Several spacecraft will arrive at Mars during January and begin sending back new information about our red-orange neighbor.
Saturn will rise in the east at dusk and be visible all night throughout January. After being opposite Earth from the sun on Dec. 31, Saturn will remain at almost the same brilliance this month as it dominates the bright stars of the constellations Gemini, Orion and Auriga. This winter is the best time in 30 years for viewing Saturn at its biggest and brightest with a telescope. The planet's famous rings are tilted toward us almost the maximum amount. The best telescopic views will be when Saturn is high in the south around midnight, above most of the turbulence in our atmosphere.
Jupiter will be even brighter than Saturn, rising in the east around 10:30 p.m. local time at the beginning of the month and two hours earlier by month's end. The giant planet, second only to Venus in brilliance, is getting still brighter as it moves toward opposition (being opposite the sun) in early March.
Mercury will be low in the southeast about an hour before sunrise during the middle two weeks of January. Look for the small planet to the lower left (east) of the bright orange star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.
The moon will be full on Jan. 7, at third quarter on Jan. 15, new on Jan. 21 and at first quarter on Jan. 29.