What’s in the sky for January 2021 – Ian Bradley

For last December’s sky notes see last month’s sky notes.

Astronomy weather forecast sites

They are customizable to your location – the links below are set to Kendal.

Nice resources

Sky Notes for January – Ian Bradley

The Moon

Phase January February
3rd Quarter 6th 4th
New Moon 12th 11th
1st Quarter 20th 19th
Full Moon 28th 27th

The Planets

Mercury is visible in the evening sky. Look out for the close encounter with Jupiter and Saturn on January 10th.

Sun set is at 16:10 at which point Mercury is only 5° above the horizon, so you’ll need a very good south-western horizon to see this. Helsington? Shortly after sunset, you might be able to pick up Mercury as Jupiter and Saturn point the way – a close encounter of the third kind? The red line above Jupiter is the 10° altitude.

Venus is visible all month in the eastern sky at dawn. It rises about 7:30 mid-month and will be very bright at magnitude -4.

Mars has both faded (magnitude 0.1) and shrunk in size to only 9. It is still unmissable in the early evening sky.

Jupiter/Saturn are still obvious in the early evening [see above] so you’ll need a good south-western horizon to see this well.

Uranus is visible most of the night at magnitude 5.8. It should appear a small (only 4” angular diameter) slightly blueish coloured disk in binoculars or a small telescope. It scuttles just under Mars on the 19th, less than 2° away, but is relatively close a week or so either side. On the 10th Uranus is 5° east of Mars and on the 31st, nearly 6° west of Mars.

Neptune is visible until around 21:30 (mid-month) at around magnitude 7.9. At only 2” angular diameter, and being so faint, you’ll need to use an optical aid to see it. It should appear a lovely blue colour.

ISS visible passes

With early morning ISS visible passes at the start of the month which cease on the 6th before reappearing as evening passes on the 20th. Have a look at Heavens Above for a Kendal location website for the specific times

Sky Charts

The charts are for mid-January at 19:00 GMT. The text hasn’t changed much from last month.

Looking up, [below] south is at the bottom.

We still have the fabulous Milky Way right over your heads and the asterism of the Summer Triangle consisting of Altair, Vega and Deneb still very prominent although we lose it by mid evening. This is a great time of year to see objects of interest in the constellations at the zenith: Auriga, Perseus and Cassiopeia.

The most obvious star cluster is The Double Cluster (NGC 884/869) situated between Cassiopeia and Perseus. In addition, there is Caroline’s Rose, NGC7789, and M103 in Cassiopeia, M34 in Perseus, M29 and M39 in Cygnus for starters. The area is a joy to behold in binoculars on a dark night. For wide field imaging photographic targets, what could be better than M31 , The Great Andromeda Galaxy and nearby telescopic M33. In addition, there is the North America Nebula complex, NGC7000, in Cygnus and the California Nebula, NGC1499. With a tracked 70mm lens you could capture both NCC7000 and the Pleiades, M45, in one shot.

Whilst on double stars, you must look at Albireo , b-Cygni. This is a beautiful low power telescopic object the brighter star golden and the dimmer one blue. See photograph later. Similarly, Almach in Andromeda is a pretty colourful double and not too far away, roughly half way between Almach and Cassiopeia, is the planetary nebula M76, The Little Dumbbell in Perseus.

In Perseus, we have another open cluster, M34, and nearby is Algol, the prototype for a class of eclipsing variable stars. Usually magnitude 2.1, it drops to 3.4 every 2.86 days – (2 days 20 hours 49 min), a rather noticeable change. The star is eclipsed for about 2 hours. The Sky & Telescope magazine website has a useful calculator for the predicted mid-eclipse times.

See The Minima of Algol

Looking south

Three planets to look for here: Mars is unmissable, Uranus in Pisces should be visible in binoculars and quite close to Mars – see earlier, but tiny distant Neptune will be more of a binocular challenge. You might want a good star chart/app for that one!

Orion is now prominent in this general direction.

The most obvious telescopic and binocular target is the Great Orion Nebula, M42, always a joy to look at. In nearby Taurus, there are The Pleiades, M45 , which are easily seen as a fuzzy patch easily resolvable as stars in a pair of binoculars. This object makes a good widefield photo-op as well as a great telescopic image when misty gas becomes visible. You can also get both M45 and the California Nebula, NGC1499, using a 70mm focal length lens on a DSLR mounted on a tracker mount (i.e. Ioptron or Skywatcher Star Adventurer etc). A much more open cluster in Taurus is the vee of the Hyades with Aldebaran at one end. In addition, there is the Crab Nebula, M1, roughly midway between Capella and Betelgeuse. This fine supernova remnant, the result of the supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054, is a wonderful photographic object. If you have sufficient resolution, and image every few years, it is possible to see changes within the nebula – a great long-term project!

Looking east

Scanning through Auriga with binoculars, the trio of Messier objects, M36, M37 and M38 will appear as faint misty clouds if you have a dark sky. Gemini is also now rather prominent too with white Castor above orange Pollux. The only really interesting binocular object is the open cluster M35. There is another hazy naked eye object in the eastern sky – the open cluster M44 Praesepe or the Beehive cluster. A spectacular sight in binoculars.

Looking west

Cygnus is still prominent for a few more weeks although Lyra is getting lower now but still worth a look. Look out for Delphinius, the Dolphin, as it [being fanciful] frantically tries to swim away from the horizon! The whole constellation neatly fits in the field of view of a standard pair of binoculars.

Looking north

Watch out for aurora across this region of sky. Ursa Major is not at its best for our map times but it provides a handy reference for north. Of interest is the double star of Mizar and Alcor, once regarded as a test of eyesight but I find fairly easy. Mizar is also a splendid double of unequal components. The separation of only 14.5” requires a telescope to split them. And the pointers, Dubhe and Merak tell you where to look to find Polaris. Finally, there is the binocular and telescopic galactic duet of M81 and M82, also known as Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy respectively. M81 is a near face on spiral whilst M82 is edge on. However, M82 is undergoing massive star burst and colour photographs show a striking ‘jet’ of hot hydrogen streaming from the core. The duet makes a fantastic photographic composition. You’ll need long exposures and a focal length greater than 400mm to show it well.

Next Observing Evening

Given the current situation regarding coronavirus, observing evenings can not occur.