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Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2006


Saturn at its best all night during January


Photo by: NASA


Jan. 4, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The highlight of January will be the planet Saturn, which will be opposite the sun as seen from Earth on Jan. 27. On that night Saturn will be closest to us in its orbit, rising in the east at dusk and shining all night at its biggest and brightest as it crosses the southern sky. When Saturn is high in the south on a clear night, there is no better opportunity to view its famous rings with a telescope. Saturn will remain at almost the same brilliance all month as it dominates the bright stars of the constellations Gemini and Orion. Observers with binoculars will see the planet in the same field of view as the Beehive star cluster slightly above it, an added treat.

A year ago, the European Space Agency's Huygens spacecraft landed on Saturn's moon Titan, which is larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto, and sent back the first images of the huge moon's surface. Titan can be seen with any telescope in a clear dark sky. It will be directly north of Saturn on Jan. 1 and Jan. 17 and directly south of the planet on Jan. 9 and Jan. 25.

Jupiter will be even brighter than Saturn, rising in the east around 3 a.m. local time in early January and 1 a.m. by month's end. Jupiter will be fairly high in the southeast by daybreak.

Venus and Mercury will disappear into the solar glare during January, Mercury passing behind the sun on Jan. 26 and Venus crossing in front of it on Jan. 13-14. Brilliant white Venus will be visible very low in the southwest after sunset for a few days at the start of the month. By month's end it will rise in the east more than two hours before the sun.

Mars will be high in the southeast at sunset. The red planet will lose brightness during the month as our distance from it increases. Nearby to the east will be the Pleiades star cluster, a beautiful sight in binoculars. Mars will still outshine the bright orange star Aldebaran close by on the left (east).

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking on Jan. 3 during the hours before dawn. The moon will be approaching first quarter during the peak, so conditions should be favorable for viewing 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 of the sky 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 More information about meteor showers is available from the American Meteor Society at

Moon phases

The moon will be at first quarter on Jan. 6, full on Jan. 14, at third quarter on Jan. 22 and new on Jan. 29.