by Tristan Radtke
Coastal Journal contributor
In the dead of winter, stargazing is far from the minds of most who seek comfort and warmth. January is still a great time to catch a last glimpse of the Christmas constellations as they begin to disappear over the horizon -- long (although cold) and often clear nights, combined with the lack of bugs and other irritants that plague Maine starwatchers in the more balmy months, make January a great time to get outside and watch the night sky.
This month begins with a meteor shower, the Quadrantids, that reaches its peak near the very beginning of the month at about midnight on January 3. Stragglers from the storm will still be active around the weekend, particularly on Friday night, January 7. This shower is a relatively mild one, generally, but the Moon will be new during this shower, making it more attractive a prospect to watch.
While the rest of the month appears to be somewhat quiet, the very beginning of February will begin the half-year long process to usher out an era of space exploration. On February 3, the Space Shuttle Discovery will launch (hopefully; STS-133 has been scrubbed five times previous, originally scheduled for launch at the beginning of November) on mission STS-133 to maintain the International Space Station. Based on the original plans, this mission would have been the last (STS-134) of the Space Shuttle, but delays due to changes to the payload switched their order, and the delay of STS-133 has resulted in STS-134 being scheduled for some time in April. That will mark the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour, and would originally have marked the end of the Space Shuttle program, except NASA concerns surrounding the capability of commercial payload delivery have resulted in STS-135, scheduled tentatively for June, the final flight of both Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Space Shuttle program.
Right now, the spectacular Orion Group dominates the night sky. Orion the Hunter is being followed by his two faithful dogs, Canis major (whose alpha star, Sirius, is the brightest star in the night sky) and Canis minor (which we refer to lovingly as the 'hot dog' constellation, as it has only two stars). Orion is shielding himself against Taurus, the Bull, on whose shoulder rest the Pleaides, the mythical seven sisters, which is in actuality a small nursery of hot blue stars, surrounded by the gases that gave birth to them. Although six or seven can be seen with the naked eye, in reality, there are hundreds of young stars in the region. Orion itself is an interesting study in stellar life - its alpha star is a star near the end of its life, Betelgeuse, a red giant located in the Hunter's western shoulder, and its beta star is a hot young blue-white giant, Rigel, located at his eastern knee. Hanging from Orion's characteristic three-star belt is a fuzzy patch of light called the Orion Nebula, a birth cloud of gases that will one day provide life to many new stars, and just south of the easternmost star on the belt, and difficult to see without a very good telescope, is the Horsehead Nebula, another nebula in the process of making young stars. In Taurus, between his massive horns, lies the Crab Nebula, a leftover from a supernova that exploded in 1054 CE. It has a pulsar at its center, and long, tendril-like arms that give it its name. To the naked eye, the Crab Nebula appears as a hazy patch of light if the skies are dark enough. It has the distinction of being the first of the Messier objects, catalogued to help stellar astronomers avoid 'junk' in the night sky that they might mistake for a star.
** The Planets **
• Mercury: Mercury will start off the year rising around 6 a.m. and ends the month likely lost in the glare of the sun, although possibly visible just before sunrise to the southeast.
• Venus: Venus will continue to fill the morning star role in January, rising at about 3:30 a.m. in Libra at the beginning of the month and slowly moving back towards the glare to end the month rising at about 4:30 a.m.
• Mars: Mars remains the lost planet this month, hiding in the sun's glare.
• Jupiter: Jupiter will begin 2011 almost directly overhead (slightly to the south) at sunset, a good anchor for spotting the dim Uranus still dancing with Jupiter in close proximity, and ends the month of January setting around 8 p.m.
• Saturn: Saturn starts off January rising at just about midnight and becomes a more prominent evening planet all month, ending January setting at about 10 p.m.
• Uranus: Without a telescope, Uranus is almost impossible to see this month, but starts the month just to the north of Jupiter. It swaps places with Jupiter, ending up the earlier planet to set by February, around 8 p.m.
• Neptune: Neptune starts off the year setting around 7:30 p.m. and moves progressively into the sun's glare, ending the month setting around 5:30 p.m., likely still visible but in dangerous proximity to the sun due to the need for a telescope.
• Pluto: Pluto begins the month in the Sun's glare, but moves out of it by February, rising about 2 hours before sunrise at the end of the month.
** The Moon **
The Moon begins the month of January almost completely new, reaching the new phase by January 3. The Moon reaches first quarter waxing on January 12, full on January 19, third quarter waning on January 26 and wanes out of the month, setting 2011 up for a familiar lunar cycle until the "Blue Moon" in July.