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Looking Up

How about we start the year off with a meteor shower? The Quandrantids max out on the morning of January 4th though many don’t look for it due to the cold. The Moon is a couple of days past first quarter so the morning sky is mostly dark. The name of the shower comes from an outdated constellation called “Quadrans Muralis,” penned by Lalande in the late 18th century. The constellation was dumped but the meteor shower kept the name! The radiant point will be high in the northeast during peak hours, which are thought to be between 2am and 6am on the 4th, and it’s a narrow peak. If you time it right, you could see two meteors per minute if skies are clear, otherwise we’re looking at 25 meteors per hour. A few fireballs have been known to accompany the swift streaks of light. The Internation-al Meteor Organization is putting the max right about 2am our time. The Quandrantids seem to originate from an extinct com-et found in 2003. Let us know if you see any!
The first full Moon of the year occurs on the 10th and we’ll have the first of four penumbral lunar eclipses. Well, in theory. We won’t see it (see the “Look at 2020” article in this issue). Still the “Wolf Moon” will howl over the snowy landscape at the end of the first full week of January.
Venus continues to increase altitude as we go through the month. Now that Jupiter and Saturn have slipped behind the Sun (technically Saturn does this on January 13th but it’s all but impossible to see now), Venus is the only easily-visible planet in our evening sky. Look in the southwest as the Sun is setting. Venus’s set time goes from 2.75 hours after the sunset to 3.5 hours at the end of the month. Telescopically, Venus bright-ens a bit this month and seems to get larger as the gibbous phase gets a bit smaller.
Venus welcomes two visitors this month. In mid-January, Venus is joined by Mercury which gradually appears below and right of Venus. Look after the 27th low in the west-southwest. Mercury will increase in altitude and be easier to see next month. On Janu-ary 27th, Venus is only 10 arc minutes to the upper left of the planet Neptune! Neptune, though larger than Venus, is 28 times farther away and thus at magnitude +7.9. It’ll certainly take a telescope. You should wait until you can spy Venus in a darkened sky. A beautiful crescent Moon is below Venus on the evening of the 27th and to the upper left of Venus the next night.
Unless you want to check out Uranus (OK, stop what you’re thinking), the rest of the action is in the morning sky. Mars is heading eastward along its ecliptic path but the Earth is moving faster in its orbit. The result is that Mars’ rise time changes but changes slowly. On New Year’s Mars rises just after 4am but this only shifts to about 3:50am by month’s end. On the morn-ing of January 12th, Mars stands above the reddish star Antares. You may recall that “Ant-Ares” can be translated to “the rival of Mars.” Antares is actually a bit brighter than the planet. The two are closest on the morning of the 17th. A waning crescent Moon makes for a nice trio three days later (pictured here).
Closer to sunrise you can catch a glimpse of Jupiter. By the end of the month, it’s rising as the morning twilight begins. Look low in the southeast.
The magazines report two asteroids coming to opposition this month. Astraea reaches magnitude 8.9 on January 21st and Davida is fainter at magnitude 9 on January 15th. You might be able to snag them in binoc-ulars if you know where to look. Astraea is in Cancer and Davida is in Gemini. Finder charts can be found on p. 49 of the January issue of Sky & Telescope.
The Earth is at perihelion (closest point to the Sun) on the morning of January 5th. We are just over 91 million miles from the Sun. Does it feel like it?