The Night Sky January 2016

Compiled by Ian Morison

This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky.  It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.

Cambridge University Press has recently published two books by the author. An Amateurs Guide to Observing and Imaging the Heavens is a handbook aimed to bridge the gap between the beginner's books on amateur astronomy and the books which cover a single topic in great detail.   Stephen James O'Meara and Damian Peach have both given it excellent reviews. 'A Journey through the Universe' covering our current understanding of the Universe (up to June this year) was published on the 25th of September.   Martin Rees has written a very nice review of it.

Image of the Month

Arp 87

Merging Galaxies: Arp 87

Image: ESA, NASA

This Hubble image shows two galaxies in a dance to one of their deaths.   As they co-rotate around each other and gravity brings them inexorably closer together they will eventually merge into one.   The pair of peculiar galaxies are known together as Arp 87 and lie at a distance of ~300 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Leo.   A bridge of stars, gas and dust between them, stretching over 75,000 light years in length, is evidence of a previous close encounter.   The prominent edge-on spiral in the lower left of the image is more distant and not part of the on-going merger.

Highlights of the Month

January - a great month to view Jupiter.

Jupiter imaged by Damian Peach

This is a really good month to observe Jupiter..   It now lies in southern Leo and so is still reasonably high in the ecliptic and hence, when due south, at an elevation of ~45 degrees.   It is looking somewhat different than in the last few years as the north equatorial belt has become quite broad.   The Great Red Spot is currently a pale shade of pink but can be easily seen as a large feature (though possibly shrinking in size) in the South Equatorial Belt.

The features seen in the Jovian atmosphere have been changing quite significantly over the last few years - for a while the South Equatorial Belt vanished completely (as seen in Damian's image) but has now returned to its normal wide state.   The diagram on right shows the main Jovian features as imaged by the author at the beginning of December 2012.

The image by Damian Peach was taken with a 14 inch telescope in Barbados where the seeing can be particularly good.   This image won the "Astronomy Photographer of the Year" competition in 2011.

See more of Damian Peach's images: Damian Peaches Website"

Jovian Features
Features in Jupiter's atmosphere - December 2013.

January: Comet Catalina

Path of Comet Catalina
The path of Comet Catalina.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Comet Catalina moves into our northern skies this month perhaps just reaching unaided eye visibility as it does so but the use of binoculars or a small telescope will be better.   It starts the month just above the bright stars Arcturus in Bootes and tracks northwards until, at mid-month, it passes by the handle of the Plough in Ursa Major.   The chart shows its path during January.   If you have an Android tablet or Apple Mac, I would recommend that you buy Sky Safari Plus for 10 pounds.   It will automatically download the orbital elements of comets that will be visible to us and show exactly where there are to be found.   I have prepared the accompaning chart with its use.

January 3rd and 4th: Mars and the Moon

Mars and the Moon
Mars and the Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

Around 6 am on the mornings of the 3rd and 4th of the month Mars will be seen close to a waning crescent Moon which is to its right on the third and to its left on the fourth.

January 9th - 1 hour before dawn: Saturn and Venus within a few arc minutes!

venus and Saturn
Venus and Saturn close by.
Image: Stellarium/IM

Before dawn on the 9th of January Saturn, at magnitude +0.5, will lie just 6 arc minutes from, 60 times brighter, Venus at Magnitude -4   Both have very similar angular diameters at 14 (Venus) and 15 (Saturn) arc seconds.   But Saturn will be still noticeably brighter than Antares 7 degrees down to their lower right.

January 19th - A gibbous Moon crosses the Hyades Cluster

A gibbous Moon close to Alderbaran in the Hyades Cluster.
Image: Stellarium/IM

After sunset on the 19th of January, A waxing Gibbous Moon will, if clear, be seen just to the right of the Hyades Cluster in Taurus.   During the following evening and night, it will be seen to move across the cluster and by 4 am next morning will lie very close to Aldebaran.  (As seen from North America a little later, Aldebaran will be occulted.)

January 27th - A gibbous Moon passes below Jupiter

Moon and Jupiter
A gibbous Moon close to Jupiter..
Image: Stellarium/IM

After sunset on the 27th of January, A waning gibbous Moon will be seen, if clear, to pass below Jupiter as it lies in the southern part of Leo.   At their closest, about midnight, they will lie 4 moon diameters apart.

January 18th: Two Great Lunar Craters

Tycho and Copernicus: Ian Morison

Two great Lunar Craters: Tycho and Copernicus
This is a great night to observe two of the greatest craters on the Moon, Tycho and Copernicus, as the terminator is nearby.   Tycho is towards the bottom of Moon in a densely cratered area called the Southern Lunar Highlands.   It is a relatively young crater which is about 108 million years old.  It is interesting in that it is thought to have been formed by the impact of one of the remnents of an asteroid that gave rise to the asteroid Baptistina.   Another asteroid originating from the same breakup may well have caused the Chicxulub crater 65 million years ago.   It has a diameter of 85 km and is nearly 5 km deep.   At full Moon - seen in the image below - the rays of material that were ejected when it was formed can be see arcing across the surface.   Copernicus is about 800 million years old and lies in the eastern Oceanus Procellarum beyond the end of the Apennine Mountains.   It is 93 km wide and nearly 4 km deep and is a clasic "terraced" crater.   Both can be seen with binoculars.

Tycho's Rays
Full Moon showing Tycho's rays: Ian Morison

A Messier Object imaged with the Faulkes Telescope: Messier 1 - The Crab Nebula

Messier 1
The Crab Nebula, M1
Image:Nik Szymanik
Faulkes Telescope North.

The Crab Nebula, M16, imaged by Nik Szymanek.
This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Nik Szymanek - one of the UK's leading astro-photograpers.   The Crab nebula - the first entry in Charles Messier's catalogue - is the remnant of a supernovae that was seen to explode in the year 1054.   It is visible as the lower right of the pair of stars at the centre of the nebula and is a "neutron star" just 30km across but weighing more than our Sun!   Under the intense pressure of gravity, the protons and electrons fused to form neutrons and the compact object became stable as gravity was opposed by "neutron degeneracy pressure" - a quantum mechanical force.   It is now spinning just under 30 times a second and emitting two opposed beams of light and radio waves which pass across our location in space.   We thus detect very regular pulses and so objects like this are called pulsars.   At 8.4 magnitudes it is easily seen in a small telescopes under dark transparent skies appearing as a smudge of light which is a little underwhelming to see!

Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope"

Observe the International Space Station

The International Space Station
The International Space Station and Jules Verne passing behind the Lovell Telescope on April 1st 2008.
Image by Andrew Greenwood

Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)

Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.

Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index

See where the space station is now: Current Position

The Moon

3rd Quarter Moon
The Moon at 3rd Quarter. Image, by Ian Morison, taken with a 150mm Maksutov-Newtonian and Canon G7.
Just below the crator Plato seen near the top of the image is the mountain "Mons Piton".   It casts a long shadow across the maria from which one can calculate its height - about 6800ft or 2250m.
new moon first quarter full moon last quarter
January 10th January 16th January 24th January 2nd

Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images

A World Record Lunar Image

World record Lunar Image
The 9 day old Moon.

To mark International Year of Astronomy, a team of British astronomers have made the largest lunar image in history and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records! The whole image comprises 87.4 megapixels with a Moon diameter of 9550 pixels. This allows details as small as 1km across to be discerned! The superb quality of the image is shown by the detail below of Plato and the Alpine Valley. Craterlets are seen on the floor of Plato and the rille along the centre of the Alpine valley is clearly visible. The image quality is staggering! The team of Damian Peach, Pete lawrence, Dave Tyler, Bruce Kingsley, Nick Smith, Nick Howes, Trevor Little, David Mason, Mark and Lee Irvine with technical support from Ninian Boyle captured the video sequences from which 288 individual mozaic panes were produced. These were then stitched together to form the lunar image.

Plato and the Alpine valley
Plato and the Alpine Valley.

Please follow the link to the Lunar World Record website and it would be really great if you could donate to Sir Patrick Moore's chosen charity to either download a full resolution image or purchase a print.

The Planets

 A montage of the Solar System
A montage of the Solar System. JPL / Nasa


A Cassini image of Jupiter . Nasa

Jupiter shining at magnitude -2.2, rises at around 20:30 UT at the beginning of the month lying low in south-eastern Leo.   It begins its retrograde motion, moving westwards across the heavens, on January 8th.   By the end of the month it rises at around 19:30 UT with a slight increase in magnitude to -2.4.   It will then be due south and so highest in the sky at an elevation of 45 degrees around 01:30 UT.   As the Earth moves towards Jupiter, the size of Jupiter's disk increases slightly from 39 to 42.4 arc seconds so one should be easily able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.

See highlight above.


The planet Saturn. Cassini - Nasa

Saturn is now a morning object, rising at 06:15 UT as the month begin but by about 04:30 UT at its end.   It lies in the southern part of Ophiuchus some 7 degrees up and to the left Antares and close to the stars that mark the head of Scorpius.   Its diameter increases from 15.3 to 15.8 arc seconds during the month with its ring system spanning some 35 arc seconds.   It will be shining at magnitude +0.5 and be high enough in the south-east before dawn to make out the beautiful ring system which has now opened out to ~25 degrees.

See highlight above.


Messenger image of Mercury Nasa

Mercury. On New Years Day Mercury shines at magnitude -0.4 about 7 degrees above the south-western horizon 30 minutes after sunset.   Binoculars will be probably needed to spot it but please do not use them until after the Sun has set.   Over the next week it falls back towards the horizon with a much reducing magnitude (down to +1.8) and will be increasingly difficult to spot.   It passes through inferior conjunction with the Sun on January 14th and might be just possible to spot in the east before dawn at the end of the month shining at at magnitude 0.0.   At its next inferior conjunction on May 9th it will be seen to transit across the face of the Sun, its first transit for 10 years.

See highlight above.


Mars showing Syrtis major.
A Hubble Space Telescope image of Mars.
Jim Bell et al. AURA / STScI / Nasa

Mars, moving eastwards relative to the stars, starts the month in Virgo, 6 degrees from Spica, but moves into Libra mid month.   Its brightness increases slightly from magnitude +1.3 to +0.8 during the month as the angular size of its disk increases from 5.6 to 6.8 arc seconds.   Mars rises about 01:30 on New Years Day and around half an hour earlier by month's end when it will lie just 1.3 degrees north of the double star Alpha Librae.   Given really good seeing, some details on the surface such as Syrtis Major and the polar caps may be visible with a telescope, but will be far better seen at opposition in May when it will appear around three times wider.

See highlights above.


Venus showing some cloud structure

Venus rises around three hours before the Sun as January begins but only 2 hours at month's end.   Starting January around one degree from Beta Scorpii, it moves quickly into Sagittarius, passing close to the Trifid Nebulae (M20) on the 24th and reachs the handle of the 'teapot' by February.   Its angular size reduces from 14.3 tp 12.4 arc seconds during the month but, as it does so, the percentage of the disk which is illuminated increases from 77 to 85% and the brightness hardly changes, staying at magnitude -4 for much of the month and falling by just 0.1 of a magnitude by month's end.

See highlights above.

Radar Image of Venus
Radar image showing surface features

Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System

The Stars

The Mid to Late Evening January Sky

The January Sky in the south - mid to late evening.

This map shows the constellations seen in the south around midnight.   The brilliant constellation of Orion is seen in the south.   Moving up and to the right - following the line of the three stars of Orion's belt - brings one to Taurus; the head of the bull being outlined by the V-shaped cluster called the Hyades with its eye delineated by the orange red star Aldebaran.   Further up to the right lies the Pleaides Cluster.   Towards the zenith from Taurus lies the constellation Auriga, whose brightest star Capella will be nearly overhead.   To the upper left of Orion lie the heavenly twins, or Gemini , their heads indicated by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux.   Down to the lower left of Orion lies the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, in the consteallation Canis Major.   Finally, up and to the left of Sirius is Procyon in Canis Minor.   There is also information about the constellation Ursa Major, seen in the north,in the constellation details below.

The constellation Taurus


Taurus is one of the most beautiful constellations and you can almost imagine the Bull charging down to the left towards Orion.   His face is delineated by the "V" shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades, his eye is the red giant star Aldebaran and the tips of his horns are shown by the stars beta and zeta Tauri.   Although alpha Tauri, Aldebaran, appears to lie amongst the stars of the Hyades cluster it is, in fact, less than half their distance lying 68 light years away from us.   It is around 40 times the diameter of our Sun and 100 times as bright.

The Pleiades
AAO Image of the Pleiades, M45, by David Malin

To the upper right of Taurus lies the open cluster, M45, the Pleiades.   Often called the Seven Sisters, it is one of the brightest and closest open clusters.   The Pleiades cluster lies at a distance of 400 light years and contains over 3000 stars.   The cluster, which is about 13 light years across, is moving towards the star Betelgeuse in Orion.   Surrounding the brightest stars are seen blue reflection nebulae caused by reflected light from many small carbon grains.   These relfection nebulae look blue as the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red.   The grains form part of a molecular cloud through which the cluster is currently passing.   (Or, to be more precise, did 400 years ago!)

The Crab Nebula
VLT image of the Crab Nebula

Close to the tip of the left hand horn lies the Crab Nebula, also called M1 as it is the first entry of Charles Messier's catalogue of nebulous objects.   Lying 6500 light years from the Sun, it is the remains of a giant star that was seen to explode as a supernova in the year 1056.   It may just be glimpsed with binoculars on a very clear dark night and a telescope will show it as a misty blur of light.

The Crab Nebula
Lord Rosse's drawing of M1

Its name "The Crab Nebula" was given to it by the Third Earl of Rosse who observed it with the 72 inch reflector at Birr Castle in County Offaly in central Ireland.   As shown in the drawing above, it appeared to him rather lile a spider crab.   The 72 inch was the world's largest telelescope for many years.   At the heart of the Crab Nebula is a neutron star, the result of the collapse of the original star's core.   Although only around 20 km in diameter it weighs more than our Sun and is spinning 30 times a second.   Its rotating magnetic field generate beams of light and radio waves which sweep across the sky.   As a result, a radio telescope will pick up very regular pulses of radiation and the object is thus also known a Pulsar.   Its pulses are monitored each day at Jodrell Bank with a 13m radio telescope.

The constellation Orion


Orion, perhaps the most beautiful of constellations, will be seen in the south at around 11 - 12 pm during January.   Orion is the hunter holding up a club and shield against the charge of Taurus, the Bull up and to his right.   Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuse, is a read supergiant star varying in size between three and four hundred times that of our Sun.   The result is that its brightness varies somewhat.   Beta Orionis, or Rigel, is a blue supergiant which, at around 1000 light years distance is about twice as far away as Betelgeuse.   It has a 7th magnitude companion.   The three stars of Orion's belt lie at a distance of around 1500 light years.   Just below the lower left hand star lies a strip of nebulosity against which can be seen a pillar of dust in the shape of the chess-board knight.   It is thus called the Horsehead Nebula.   It shows up very well photographically but is exceedingly difficult to see visually - even with relativly large telescope.

The Orion Nebula
The Horsehead Nebula: Anglo Australian Observatory

Beneath the central star of the belt lies Orion's sword containing one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens - The Orion Nebula.   It is a region of star formation and the reddish colour seen in photographs comes from Hydrogen excited by ultraviolet emitted from the very hot young stars that make up the Trapesium which is at its heart.   The nebula, cradling the trapesium stars, is a beautiful sight in binoculars or, better still, a telescope.   To the eye it appears greenish, not red, as the eye is much more sensitive to the green light emitted by ionized oxygen than the reddish glow from the hydrogen atoms.

The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula: David Malin

The constellation Ursa Major

Ursa Major
Ursa Major

The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky.  Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out!   The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North.   The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star.   A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects.   The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too.   In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below.   M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy".   They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82
M81 and M82

Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy.   It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects.   It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms.   With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy

Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough.   Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left.   This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge.   M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen.   It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy

Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes.   It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right.   Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun.   When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.

Owl Nebula                                        Owl Nebula
          M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula             Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula