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JANUARY 3, 2010: Good Observing for 2010!
It is the first StarWatch of the New Year and usually a time when I like to reflect upon the next upcoming 12 months. Astronomically, the year is probably above average. There are three highlights, two which are not visible from the US. A major ringed solar eclipse moves across Africa, India, and China on January 15, while a total solar eclipse sweeps across the South Pacific on July 11. Only the winter solstice total lunar eclipse of December 21 will be visible across the Americas. The bad news is that it does not start until 1:35 a.m. Mid-eclipse occurs at 3:20 a.m., and it’s all over just after 5 a.m. I’m already shivering. What are the planets doing in 2010? Ruddy Mars, reaching opposition to the sun on January 29, dominates the winter sky. Saturn with its thin, nearly edge-on rings rules the spring months, and it is opposite to the sun on March 22. Venus is the brilliant summer goddess in the west, while Jupiter hovers low in the south during late summer, fall, and early winter. From June 6-11 Jove passes within a half degree of Uranus in the morning sky. Then Jupiter retrogrades (moves backwards) and brightens, passing within a half degree of Uranus again on September 22. Jove finally overtakes Uranus for a third time from January 3-6, 2011. Venus and Jupiter are snuggling, very low in the WSW on February 16, 2010. Two days later, asteroid Vesta is an easy bet through binoculars right next to Leo’s bright star, Algieba. The WSW is again favored when Mars, Venus, and Saturn form a larger triangular grouping during the first two weeks in August. Four major meteor showers will dominate in 2010: the Lyrids (Apr. 22—8-day moon), the Perseids (Aug. 13—4-day moon), the Leonids (Nov. 17—11-day moon), and the Geminids (Dec. 14—8-day moon). Here’s to clear skies and good observing for 2010!
JANUARY 10, 2010: Eclipse: Jewel of the East
Early Friday EST (Jan. 15), there is a central solar eclipse which sweeps over Africa, India, and China. Across a small swath of the Earth’s surface, observers will witness the center of the moon’s disk pass in front of the sun. Unlike most ideas regarding solar eclipses, the sky will only get marginally darker because the moon will not appear large enough in the sky to cover the sun’s disk completely. For over 11 minutes in the best locations, observers using the proper filtration can see the black disk of the moon surrounded by an annulus or ring of sunlight, an annular eclipse. In the scheme of solar eclipses, ringed events are just a little more common than total solar eclipses, where the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, shines like striated jewels around the completely hidden sun. Friday’s annual eclipse is extremely long. The Earth’s and the moon’s orbital paths are ellipses, or ovals, and they are constantly changing their distances from their parent bodies. The longest ringed eclipses occur when the Earth is closest to the sun at perihelion and the sun appears largest in the sky. Earth reached this point on January 4 at 10 a.m. EST. The moon must also be at its greatest distance from Earth called apogee, and therefore appear smallest in the sky. The moon reaches apogee 43 hours after the eclipse, but this is good enough to generate the longest period of annularity in the third millennium, 11 minutes, 8 seconds in the mid-Indian Ocean along the equator between eastern Kenya and the southern tip of India. For the US, the next solar eclipse is also an annular happening, occurring during the afternoon of May 20, 2012. Crescent City, CA; Lassen NP; Reno, NV; Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks; and Albuquerque, NM get nearly central hits from this one. I plan to be located somewhere along the north rim of the Grand Canyon if weather conditions permit.
JANUARY 17, 2010: Ring in the Red
Reddish Mars is now dominating a relatively bland part of the late winter sky. It has been prominent in the morning for quite some time, but when it reaches opposition on January 29, it will make the switch to an object that is best viewed in the evening. If you want to catch Mars this week, to see just how bright it has become, then head outdoors around 7:30 p.m. Mars will be low in the ENE, but is unmistakable because of its pinkish hue and luminosity. By 10:30 p.m., Mars will have climbed to mid-sky in the east. It will be almost as dazzling as Sirius of Canis Major, the Big Dog, which is the most prominent luminary of the nighttime heavens. Twinkling Sirius will be low and almost due south. Mars will be shining with a much steadier light to the left. In between Sirius and Mars is another barn burner of a star, Procyon, the alpha star of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. If you view Mars, you may notice that the Red Planet is not as bright as its past oppositions to the Earth in previous years. That is because each successive pass of Mars by the Earth occurs about 780 days later and nearly 50 degrees farther along the Martian orbit. Since Mars’s path around the sun is the second most oval-shaped orbit of the planets, successive oppositions occur at differing distances which affect the brightness of the Mars. On August 27, 2003 Earth was only 34.57 millions miles from Mars, and Mars had not been brighter or closer in 60,000 years. The opposition distances increased to 43.14 million miles in 2005, 54.78 million miles in late 2007, and 61.71 million miles for this opposition on January 29, 2010. But there is hope. Mars has only one more opposition (April 8, 2014) at a greater distance. Then successive passes of Mars by the Earth will occur closer to the Red Planet until July 27, 2018, when Mars will be a scant 35.78 million miles from us and shining four times brighter than at present.
JANUARY 24, 2010: Traveling Moon
It is a wonderful week for watching the moon trek across the sky, your own personal tour guide in locating some interesting celestial sights. Because Luna will be bright between first quarter and full moon, binoculars may be helpful in isolating some of the targets that the moon will be passing. Point your binoculars towards the moon on Sunday evening (J-24) and move Luna to the right. If you look left in your field, you’ll find a grouping of faint stars known as the Pleiades. You might see a dozen or so members, but the young cluster of blue-white stars actually contains about 1,000 members. In a moonless sky, even from mid-sized cities, you’ll catch the Pleiades as a faint glow, but from rural locales, it absolutely dazzles. The next evening (J-25) the moon has traveled another 13 degrees and is situated left of the Pleiades and about 9 degrees above Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull, the 14th brightest luminary of the night. By covering the moon with your thumb, it should be an easy view. Aldebaran is an aged, giant star, slightly cooler than our sun, and through binoculars appears orangey. Three days later, on Thursday (J-28) the nearly full moon slips 7 degrees under Gemini’s Pollux. Above and lightly to the right of Pollux will be Castor, the other bright star of the Gemini Twins. Respectively, they represent the 17th and 23rd brightest stars of the night. Below the moon will be Procyon, ranked 8th in luster, appearing similar in color to Aldebaran but only a scant 11 light years away. If you’ve kept an eye on the moon’s progress, you’ll see it’s headed towards a very bright pinkish “star.” That’s Mars, now at its most vivid and closest position to Earth. On Friday (J-29), the full moon passes below Mars and just below the Beehive star cluster in Cancer the Crab. Luna will also be at its closest distance from Earth since December 12, 2008.
JANUARY 31, 2010: Peak Time for the Winter Group
Early February is peak time for the winter group. Orion the Hunter, Taurus the Bull, Canis Major and Minor, and the Gemini Twins are now front and center stage this week. Look due south at 9 p.m. to view one of the most recognized star patterns in the heavens, Orion, with his three luminous blue supergiant belt stars. Above the belt and to the left is red supergiant Betelgeuse, nearly ready to supernova. To Betelgeuse’s right is blue Bellatrix. Both stars together create his broad shoulders. Below the belt and to the right is dazzling blue Rigel flanked by Saiph, the faintest luminary of four bright “corner” stars of the constellation. Examine Orion with binoculars to enhance the color of his diamond-like stars. Under Orion’s belt is his sword; each “star” in reality is a cluster of luminaries. The middle “star” is really a cloud of hydrogen and helium, the famous Orion Nebula, containing some of the youngest stars in the galaxy. Using Orion’s belt as a runway, zoom upward to find Aldebaran, the orangey eye of Taurus the Bull. Viewing with binoculars in a suburban locale will reveal a “V” shaped pattern of stars which denote Taurus’s head, and further along, a nebulous patch of sky that binoculars will bring to light as a star cluster called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. Sliding down Orion’s belt brings the eye to the brightest star of the nighttime heavens—white Sirius, the Dog Star of Canis Major. Binoculars will help reveal the dog standing on his hind legs trying to get Orion’s attention. Above and to Sirius’s left, and in line with Orion’s Betelgeuse, is Procyon, the brighter of the two stars that comprise Canis Minor. Finally, extending a line upward from Rigel and Betelgeuse brings the eye above two bright stars, Castor and Pollux of the Gemini Twins. The stars represent the heads of the two famed soldiers that rallied Rome against a barbarian attack. A map is included in the web edition of this article.