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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2003

STAR TRAK/January 2003

Jupiter, Venus and Saturn nearly at their best in January

Jupiter, Saturn and Venus will all be nearly at their best in January.

Jupiter will be at opposition (opposite the sun in our sky) on the night of Feb. 1-2, which means it will be approaching its biggest and brightest during January. Jupiter will rise about an hour after the end of evening twilight at the beginning of this month and in bright twilight by month's end, in the dim constellation Cancer the Crab. Wait until the brilliant white object is high in the sky and then use binoculars to see the four moons of Jupiter that Galileo discovered with one of the first telescopes. These tiny bits of white light are strung out on both sides of the planet and appear to slide back and forth like beads on a string from one night to the next as they orbit Jupiter. You may need to steady the binoculars by resting your arms on a surface to keep the image from wobbling, but then you'll be able to see the moons in a clear dark sky.

First to appear every night will be yellow Saturn, low in the east-northeast. Saturn will be only about a month past its own opposition and therefore still near its greatest size and brightness. Its rings will continue to be tilted the maximum amount toward us, offering a splendid view for those with telescopes when the planet is high in the sky. Saturn will be high in the south before midnight and will set in the west before dawn.

To the lower right (first south and then west) of Saturn will be the familiar constellation Orion the Hunter, adding its own array of bright stars to the spectacle crossing the southern sky.

Venus will be the last and best of this trio of bright planets, rising in darkness around 4 a.m. local time and shining in the southeast as a gorgeous white "morning star." Venus will be so bright that it may continue to be visible after sunrise.

Mars will shine a relatively dim orange to the upper right (south) of Venus during January, gradually drifting away from its dazzling companion as the month passes. By midmonth, the two planets will form a nearly equilateral triangle with the bright orange star Antares below them. Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius, and its name translates as "rival of Mars." In January you can see for yourself why it was so named.

Mercury will be out of sight in the solar glare for most of January, reappearing at the end of the month very low in the southeast far to the lower left (east) of Venus.

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking on Jan. 4 during the hours before dawn. Observers in ideal conditions have sometimes seen as many as 100 Quadrantid meteors per hour at the peak, but the rate varies unpredictably from year to year, and the highest rates last only a few hours.

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.

Lunar occultations

The moon will pass in front of (occult) several bright stars and planets during January, which will be visible in some places but not others. In this interesting event, a star or planet disappears behind the moon and then pops out again minutes later. Information about where and when to watch is available at http://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/. Scroll down to "2003 Predictions."

Moon phases

The moon will be new on Jan. 2, at first quarter on Jan. 10, full on Jan. 18 and at third quarter on Jan. 25.