Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2002
New year begins with 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 only a few days past full, however, so all but the brightest meteors will probably be obscured by bright moonlight. Observers with a clear dark sky have sometimes seen as many as 60 Quadrantid meteors per hour, but there will be fewer visible this year. The rate varies considerably and 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.
For the first half of January, skywatching can begin right after sunset. Find a spot with a clear view of the western horizon about 45 minutes after sunset and look just above where the sun disappeared. The small planet Mercury will be there, glittering white in the fading afterglow of sunset. Mercury will be at its greatest distance from the sun on Jan. 11, lingering low in the west-southwest for a while before setting. Nearby trees or buildings can easily block your view, but in a clear sky Mercury will be a bright object visible without binoculars. It will fade rapidly and disappear into the solar glare after midmonth.
Bright yellow Saturn will be high in the southeast as the sky darkens, looking like a new member of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Accompanying Saturn will be the Hyades' bright orange star Aldebaran below and the brilliant white Pleiades star cluster to the upper right (south).
Jupiter will be at opposition this month (opposite the sun in our sky), which means it will be at its biggest and brightest, dominating the constellation Gemini the Twins. Jupiter will rise in the east soon after sunset and be visible all night, reaching its highest point in the south around midnight and setting in the west at dawn. Wait until the brilliant white object is high in the sky and then use binoculars to see the four moons 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.
Below dazzling Jupiter and Saturn and their accompanying stars will be the familiar constellation Orion the Hunter, adding its own array of bright stars to the spectacle in the southeastern sky.
Mars will be visible about halfway up the sky in the southwest when evening twilight has ended. The red planet is a faint orange now as it travels the far side of the solar system. It will set about two hours before midnight local time.
Venus will be out of sight during January as it passes behind the sun.
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 a few minutes later. Information about where and when to watch is available at https://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/planets2002/planets2002.htm
The moon will be at third quarter on Jan. 6, new on Jan. 13, at first quarter on Jan. 21 and full on Jan. 28.