This will be an easy to follow, slightly tongue in cheek (but hopefully still useful) monthly digest on what’s up above you in the night sky of January 2017, for latitudes similar to that of the UK (Canada, N America, Eastern Europe, etc – tough luck Australia) Unless explicitly stated otherwise, you don’t need any special equipment to observe anything listed here, just your eyeballs – although if you can get hold of a good set of binoculars you’ll find it a much more satisfying experience!
Caveat: For astrologers, and those who follow their horoscopes, the main takeaway is that this month none of this will affect your life in any way, shape or form. At all. And, barring meteor impacts, coronal mass ejections and gamma ray bursts, it never will.
This month, the constellation to watch is Orion. Look East in the evening, and you will see a set of seven bright stars – three of them forming a very tight belt in the middle of what looks like a rectangle on its end – imagine a man, legs apart, arms outstretched above him, with the belt around his middle. He’ll be there all night; a stunning constellation – a mix of hot young stars (Rigel, 800 light years distant), and cool old red giants (Betelgeuse, some 4-500 light years away) nearing the end of their lives. If you have a set of binoculars, or even a telescope, the nebula (M42 on the chart) is a stunning sight – a vast cloud of gas and dust, the birthplace of stars. Seeing it at the age of 9 made me an astronomer.
Anyway, here’s what’s happening this month:
9 Jan 17: from about now, the waxing moon starts to make back garden astronomy a bit difficult. Try again from about the 15th. The planets, however, are putting on a treat in the meantime; Venus is brilliant in the Western sky after sunset. In the morning, Mercury is quite close to Saturn in the Western dawn skies.
12 Jan 17: Full moon. The moon appears biggest when close to the horizon due to an optical effect (it doesn’t actually change size, and if anyone ever says “supermoon” throw an astrophysics textbook at them), but as it’s full it’ll wash out all but the brightest stars, somewhat spoiling the rest of the sky. It’s just too bright.
Venus at its highest point in the Western Sky after sunset tonight – go out straight after sunset, look at where the sun sets on the horizon, and now look up and left. See that really bright dot? Brighter than everything else in the sky except the moon? That’s Venus, the closest planet to us. Now is the best time to see it, although it will remain quite brilliant for a few weeks. Its brilliant, beautiful shine comes from its blanket of clouds. It’s also the hottest planet out there due to an awful case of global warming, with acid clouds that would melt your face off. Best avoided.
If you see a really faint red dot near it, that’s Mars.
15 Jan 17: looking at anything other than the moon will slowly begin to become possible, as it continues to wane and is no longer so bright.
19 Jan 17: Mercury at its highest point in the morning sky. As it’s winter, you don’t even need to get up too early to see this one, which is fortunate as Mercury is quite elusive. Check the weather report the night before, get up before sunrise and look at where the sun is due to come up (it’s in the East). Up and right will be a bright speck which will linger into the dawn sky for quite a while after the stars have faded. That’s the planet Mercury.
28 Jan 17: New moon. The moon is nowhere to be seen at night; now is the best time to observe stars and (if you own a decent telescope) deep sky objects like distant galaxies.
A lot of my source material has come from: http://astropixels.com/ephemeris/astrocal/astrocal2017gmt.html If you’re an amateur astronomer, check it out, it’s really cool.