Eyes on the Night Sky – January 2022
Welcome to the New Year edition of Eyes on the Night Sky, where we will select the best night sky objects to study with the unaided eyes, binoculars and telescopes. Make the most of the long, winter nights – provided we get clear skies!
Quadrantids Meteor Shower
The Quadrantids meteor shower will peak on 3rd January at around 8.40pm. The radiant is named after an unclassified constellation Quadrans Muralis, located just below the constellation of Draco.
The New Moon’s lack of light will provide a dark sky to spot these ‘shooting stars’, which can peak at around 120 meteors per hour (or ZHR – zenithal hourly rate). Find a dark, rural sky to increase your chances of seeing this meteor shower, as light pollution can obscure the fainter streaks of light.
Plenty of Planets in January
During the first week of January, there will be the opportunity to view the diminutive but mighty planet Mercury as it appears just after sunset. On 6th January from dusk, look to the south-western horizon to see a brace of planets and the waxing crescent Moon with Jupiter to its right. Saturn and Mercury appear as faint stars, low in the darkening sky. If you can’t find Mercury with the eyes, use your binoculars to scan directly above the low south-western horizon. The four-day-old Moon will look lovely with earthshine, where the Earth’s light reflected on the sun, illuminates the darker portion of the Moon. Wait until the Sun has completely set as it is dangerous to observe direct sunlight through optical equipment.
At the end of the month, another pretty planetary conjunction will occur. On 29th January, the waning gibbous Moon will lie low on the south-eastern horizon, with Mars making a re-appearance in the morning sky. Bright Venus lies in a westerly position to Mars and the Moon.
The New Moon falls on 2nd January and Full Moon on 17th January.
For Binoculars: An Asterism or Two in Auriga
The constellation of Auriga is well placed in the sky this month and contains a couple of fun asterisms to be found with binoculars.
Look for a collection of stars light lie at the corner of an imaginary right angle, its perpendicular lines terminating at the stars Hassaleh and Elnath.
Raise your binoculars to your eyes and spot a collection of stars that resemble a jumping fish. This asterism is called the ‘Leaping Minnow’ asterism. Within the same field of view, you will spot a second collection of stars which is meant to resemble a celestial ‘splash’ of water.
If you cannot see this, then try to spot a third, fun asterism which looks like a smiley face within the splash asterism.
For Telescopes: A Rare, Supernova Event
Crab Nebula (Messier 1) Location: RA 5h 34m 32s | Dec +22° 0′ 52″
Take the opportunity to study the remnants of a very old star. Messier 1, or the Crab Nebula, is the remains of a supernova, or exploded star, that blew a thousand years ago (AD 1054) in the Perseus arm of our galaxy. Chinese astronomers were fortunate to spot this, and according to their records it shone brighter than the planet Venus. It was even visible in daylight for 23 days and was seen at night for nearly two years.
This supernova was even observed and recorded by the Anasazi people (Native Americans), who created a pictograph in Chaco Canyon. There has been a lot of dispute as to whether this actually represented the supernova, but it’s interesting to note that on that day, the waning Moon passed close to it, the supernova resembling a bright star.
Lord Rosse with his 36 inch reflecting telescope spotted this object in 1848 and sketched it, thinking it resembled a crab.
He later observed it in his ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’ 72 inch reflecting telescope, which was thought to be the largest in the world at the time. This telescope has been reconstructed on the grounds of Birr Castle in Ireland.
Today, the object resembles a faint oval of light through small telescopes and begins to show filament-type structure and rough edges with telescopes of 8 inches or larger in a dark sky. Even though it may appear unimpressive nearly a thousand years later, it is amazing to consider the impact it had on ancient peoples over the world as supernovas in our own galaxy are rare.