Another new year is here, and already there is much talk in astronomy circles about the two bright comets due to grace the sky in 2013.
Comet ISON, due to make an appearance in the night sky this coming autumn, is anticipated to be the comet of the century, perhaps blazing bright enough to be visible in broad daylight.
This comet has the potential to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of us, rivalling or even surpassing some of the great comets from the past.
Though not expected to put on as dazzling a display as Comet ISON, Comet PanSTARRS, visible here in the northern hemisphere in March, is anticipated to glow brighter than any comet in the past six years.
Other anticipated celestial events for 2013 include the following: a fine apparition of Mercury in the evening sky of February; a spectacular viewing of Saturn in late April, when, at opposition, it lies closest to earth, and is at its largest and brightest in the sky; the Perseid meteor shower under a moonless sky in mid-August; a brilliant display from Venus in late November and early December.
It promises to be a fine year for watching the night skies.
In the meantime, here’s what lies ahead for January: Mars appears low above the southwest horizon just after sunset all month long. As January opens, Mars drops below the horizon about two hours after the sun and, by month’s end, about 90 minutes afterward. Use binoculars to look for a reddish star low on the horizon.
On the final evening of the month, look for our solar system’s innermost planet, Mercury, to the lower right of Mars. Mercury will be more readily spotted in mid-February when it will be at its highest altitude in the evening sky for the year.
Having reached opposition in early December, Jupiter is still magnificently brilliant, radiating at -2.6 magnitude. That’s three times brighter than the night’s brightest star, Sirius, in Orion, which rises near the end of twilight.
Jupiter will appear high in the eastern sky about 30 minutes after sunset. And will be visible until the pre-dawn hours. It sits in the midst of the constellation of Taurus – the bull this month. Look for Aldebaran (the brightest star in Taurus) to the lower left of Jupiter, with the beautiful, veiled Pleiades (Seven Sisters) star cluster to the planet’s upper right.
On the evening of Jan. 21, the waxing, gibbous moon passes just below Jupiter, appearing to kiss the planet. For those into celestial photography, this would make a great photo.
Saturn rises just before 3 a.m. as January begins and about 30 minutes earlier with each passing week.
The best views of this magnificent planet will come in the pre-dawn hours when Saturn sits at its highest point in the sky, about a third of the way up above the southern horizon. Saturn’s ring system is tilted favourably towards earth this month.
Bright Venus is the last planet to make an appearance on the celestial stage, rising in the SE just as the morning twilight begins. It will prove more and more difficult to spot, however, as its elongation from the sun diminishes as January progresses.
On the morning of Jan. 10, a thin crescent moon (less than 35 hours before its new phase) rises with Venus. Binoculars should help you find the crescent moon to the planet’s left.
Though we will have missed its peak performance, which occurred earlier this morning, the Quadrantid meteor shower will still be visible until about mid-January. If you are up in the pre-dawn hours, you might still spot a goodly number of meteors streaking across the sky from the east.
Though the waning gibbous moon is still above the horizon (washing out many of the fainter meteors), the Quadrantid meteor shower is well known for its display of a large number of very bright meteors.
The shower’s radiant lies in the northern part of the constellation of Bootes – the Herdsman, well-placed high in the pre-dawn NE sky.
Comet C/2012 K5 will be visible high in the NE sky, in the constellation of Auriga – the Charioteer, during the early evening hours of the first week of January.
The waning moon will rise around 11 p.m. Jan. 3 and about an hour later each evening. Unfortunately, this comet has already made its closest approach to earth on Dec. 31 and is now receding back into the dark depths of outer space.
Viewers with, or having access to, a 6-to-8 inch telescope might catch a glimpse of this 11th magnitude visitor as it sweeps through the constellations of Auriga and Taurus, before disappearing into the southern hemisphere night sky.
January’s full moon on the 27th was called the wolf moon by the native peoples of North America, in reference to the wolves that could be heard howling on the long, winter nights. It is sometimes also known as the “Old Moon” or the “Moon After Yule.”
Until next month, clear skies and Happy New Year.
Glenn K. Roberts is a member of the Charlottetown Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). His column appears in The Guardian once a month. He welcomes comments from readers.