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January Skies

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January Skies

by Dick Cookman


Highlights: Comet Journal, Martian Landers, Meteor Showers, Planet Plotting, January Moon

Focus Constellations: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Camelopardalis, Lynx, Gemini, Auriga, Perseus, Pegasus, Andromeda

Comet Journal

The Prayer Vigil for Comet ISON started when it disappeared behind the Sun on 11/28/13. After passage through the corona of the Sun at perihelion, the slight brightening of the comet as a small tail started increasing in size was short lived. The comet rapidly faded into a cloud of dust which dissipated into space. The Wake for the comet followed and mourners turned their attention to:

Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) which moved from northern Bootes and through Hercules in December.

It is now near the boundary of Hercules and Ophiuchus and has decreased in brightness since passing through perihelion on December 22nd. It is still 5th magnitude and will drop to 6th in early February and fade to 8th magnitude in March. Look for it with binoculars above the eastern horizon before dawn.

With the exception of fading Comet Lovejoy, no other naked eye comet is expected until –– wait for it, wait for it, wait for it –– Comet C/2012 K1 (PanSTARRS) in the early summer.

Mars Landers

Opportunity is ascending the north facing southern slope of a westward trending valley cut into Solander Point. On Sol 3496 (Nov. 23, 2013) the rover moved toward a rock outcrop (Moreton Island) of which it began examination on the 25th with the Microscopic Imager (MI) mosaic and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). It moved on to investigate another rock outcrop on the 29th. Between Dec. 2nd and Dec. 5th (Sol 3507), Opportunity progressed another 300 feet uphill before experiencing elevated but stable right-front wheel current. Mars Odyssey orbiter went into safe mode on Sol 3509 (Dec. 7, 2013) eliminating relay support for Opportunity. Odyssey exited safe-mode on Dec. 10, 2013, and is expected to resume relay service. By Sol 3509 (Dec. 7, 2013), solar array energy production dropped to 268 watt-hours.

The voltage drop experienced by Curiosity on Nov. 17th was evaluated by mission engineers and determined to be an internal short in the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, the rover's power source. The robust design of the rover enables it to tolerate such events and does not influence operations so when the rover returned to pre-Nov. 17th voltage levels, the science mission resumed.

Analysis of samples retrieved from Curiosity's second rock drilling (Cumberland) earlier in the mission were reported noting that organic molecules were present. Although scientists could not eliminate the possibility that the molecules were brought from Earth, increasing the sample size also increased the amount of organic molecules measured.

Further analysis of Cumberland reveals radiometric age dates of 3.68 - 4.56 billion years old. It has also been determined that it has been exposed to near surface conditions for 60 to 100 million years, indicating that the preexisting surface veneer of rock layers were stripped away relatively recently.

A 3rd report about the rock layers in and near Yellowknife Bay concludes that there was an ancient lake in Gale Crater  in an interval since 4 billion years ago and that the lakebed clay composition indicates environmental conditions met the "GoldiLocks" criteria –– not too hot, not too cold, not too acidic, not too alkaline, not too dry, not too salty. In addition, the clays contained the basic elements of life (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus).

As of Dec. 20th, Curiosity was undergoing a software upgrade to increase rover capabilities and the wheel conditions are to be investigated due to apparent acceleration of wear in the last month related to the rough terrain traversed.

Meteor Showers

The main Meteor Shower of January is the Quadrantid Shower culminating on the 3rd and emanating from an extinct constellation (they die out too) invented by Jerome de Lalande in the 1795 edition of Fortin's celestial atlas. The constellation which was in the vicinity of Draco and Bootes rapidly fell into disuse due to the dimness of its members (let that be a lesson to some of our political groups).

The New Moon will provide no competition for the 60 to 1000 meteors per hour occasionally observed in dark sky locations. Look in the eastern sky after midnight on the nights of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

The source of the Quadrantids is not thoroughly established. Comet 96/P Machholz and asteroid 2003 EH1 have been proposed as likely progenitors by Kanuchova and Neslusan who state: "Due to an uncertainty in the orbit determination and non-gravitational effects, it is impossible to to decide which one of these two bodies is the dominant parent or whether both these bodies have significantly released the meteoroids into the stream."

Planet Plotting

Venus in Sagittarius is the evening planet in the southwest after sunset, almost 10° above the horizon 30 minutes after the Sun goes down. Enjoy the very slender crescent presented by the evening planet for Venus will rapidly fall into the sunset glow as it approaches its inferior conjunction with the Sun on the 11th when it appears north of the Sun. Later in the month, it will appear in the predawn sky and remain there until the next conjunction in October. Neptune (+8.0 in Aquarius) is between Venus and Uranus (+5.9 in Pisces) which is half way between the horizon and the zenith in the southern sky. Both planets are visible in 7x50 binoculars.

Jupiter (-2.7) in Gemini is at Opposition on the 5th when it rises as the Sun sets and sets as the Sun rises. It is visible all night and is closest to Earth and at its brightest for 2014. The four Galilean Moons and the giant Red Spot present an impressive view in telescopes. Mars rises in Virgo about midnight and brightens by almost 60% in January as it moves toward opposition in April when it makes its closest approach to Earth. By month's end, surface details will become apparent in views through an 8 inch diameter telescope.

Following solar conjunction in December, Mercury appears low in the southwest in Capricornus and Aquarius after sunset in middle to late January and reaches its greatest eastern elongation (28°) from the Sun on the 31st when it is about 10° above the horizon.

PlanetConstellationMagnitudePlanet Passages
SunSagittarius-26.8New Moon, 1/1, 6:14AM EST
SunCapricornus-26.8New Moon, 1/30, 4:39PM EST
MercurySagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius-1.3 to -0.7Greatest Eastern Elongation 1/31, 5AM EST
VenusSagittarius-4.4 to -4.8Inferior Conjunction 1/11, 7AM EST
MarsVirgo+0.8 to +0.3 
JupiterGemini-2.7 to -2.6Opposition 1/5, 4PM EST
SaturnLibra+0.6 to +0.5 

January Moon

January's New Moon on the 1st at 6:14AM EST is the beginning of Lunation 1126. The lunation ends 29.43 days later with New Moon on January 30th. Full Moon is in Gemini on January 15th at 11:52PM EST. It was the "Winter Moon" in Colonial America. Celts referred to it as “Quite Moon” and Chinese call it “Holiday Moon." Medieval English named it “Wolf Moon” and Anishnaabe (Chippewa and Ojibwe) of northern Michigan call it “Gichi-manidoo-giizis” (Great Spirit Moon).

The Moon is closest to Earth at perigee on the 1st at 3:59PM EST, 9.8 hours after New Moon when the Sun and Moon are lined up with Earth and combine to produce the highest tides of the month. When the 3 are lined up at New and Full Moon the extra high tides are referred to as "Spring" high tide. These tides are further intensified in January by the proximity of both the Moon and Sun. Earth is closest to the Sun at perihelion on the 4th. Earth's orbital distance from the Sun varies by over 3 million miles through the year. In January Earth's distance from the Moon varies by 30,826 miles. On the 1st it is at 221,781 miles or 55.96 Earth Radii at perigee then moves to 252,607 miles or 63.74 Earth radii at apogee on the 14th. Almost 12 hours before New Moon on the 30th, the Moon has a slightly more distant perigee, 221,879 miles or 55.99 Earth Radii. The proximity of perigee, perihelion and New Moon in early and late January will produce higher than normal Spring ocean tides. Since the Moon is near apogee during Full Moon on the 15th the Spring tide is lower than at perigee.

Although the Sun is much more massive than the Moon and has a far greater gravitational influence on Earth, the Moon has a greater tidal influence because its variance in distance of about 12% of its orbital radius significantly exceeds the 3% variance of the Sun. The resulting difference in the Moon's gravitational attraction is greater than differences of the Sun's gravitational influence on Earth, producing a larger lunar differential tidal effect.

PlanetConstellationMagnitudeMoon PassageMoon Phase/Age
SunSagittarius-26.86:14AM EST, 1/1New ~ 0 days
SunSagittarius-26.84:39PM EST, 1/30New ~ 0 days
MercurySagittarius-1.36.6°N, 2PM EST, 1/1Waxing Crescent ~ 0.32 days
VenusSagittarius-4.42.0°NNW, 6AM EST, 1/2Waxing Crescent ~ 0.99 days
VenusSagittarius-4.72.0°S, 10PM EST, 1/28Waning Crescent ~ 28.66 days
MarsVirgo+0.44.0°S, 1AM EST, 1/23Waning Gibbous ~ 21.78 days
JupiterGemini-2.75.0°S, 1AM EST, 1/15Waxing Gibbous ~ 13.78 days
SaturnLibra+0.50.6°S, 9AM EST, 1/25Waning Crescent ~ 24.12 days
UranusPisces+5.93.0°N, 8AM EST, 1/7Waxing Crescent ~ 6.07 days
NeptuneAquarius+8.05.0°N, 9PM EST, 1/4Waxing Crescent ~ 3.62 days


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