Starwatch: Mars and moon go at itThe first month of 2010 belongs to Mars, but the moon does its best to upstage the Red Planet.
By: Deane Morrison, University of Minnesota, Lake County News Chronicle
The first month of 2010 belongs to Mars, but the moon does its best to upstage the Red Planet.
Mars waxes brighter and rises earlier nearly all month long as Earth catches up to it in the orbital race. On the 29th, Earth passes Mars, an event called opposition because it puts Mars exactly opposite the sun in the sky. Mars will, therefore, rise in the east around sunset that night, appearing as a celestial ruby trailing the Gemini twins into the night sky.
But a moon only a few hours from full will rise a few short degrees from Mars, washing out much of its glory. To catch the Red Planet free of moonlight during evening hours, look before the 19th, when the moon sets around 9:45 p.m., or else wait until the first day of February.
January’s full moon, known to Algonquin Indians as the wolf moon or old moon, will be the closest and biggest of the year. It rises about 5 p.m. on the 29th, but at that moment it will still be six hours from complete fullness, so sharp-eyed viewers may see that its roundness leaves a little to be desired.
Following Mars into the sky is Leo, the lion, with the bright star Regulus anchoring the Sickle of stars outlining the great beast’s head. Below and behind Leo comes Saturn, which brightens as it opens its rings. In March the ringed planet will reach its opposition, and then all amateur telescopes will be turned toward it and its gorgeously gossamer girdle.
January is the best month to enjoy the bright winter constellations, namely Orion and his entourage, as they hold court in the south. The lowest but brightest of the bunch, Sirius, the Dog Star, ornaments Canis Major, the larger of Orion’s two hunting dogs. Above Sirius, Procyon, in Canis Minor, marks the smaller dog.
Immediately west of Procyon and Sirius, the angular form of Orion contains all sorts of wonders. Hanging from his three-star belt, the sword of Orion is home to a great cloud of gas and dust called the Orion Nebula, which houses one of the Milky Way’s most active nurseries for young stars. Just northwest of Orion, the Hyades star cluster of Taurus is always fun through binoculars; look for it between Orion and the equally fun, fuzzy Pleiades cluster.
Nearly directly overhead twinkles the multicolored star Capella, in Auriga. And don’t forget the Andromeda galaxy, our Milky Way’s nearest large neighbor. It appears as a faint oval patch in the northwest, between the W- or M-shaped form of Cassiopeia and the Great Square of Pegasus.
Earth reaches perihelion, the closest approach to the sun in its orbit, on the 2nd. On that day we’ll pass a mere 91.4 million miles from our parent star—but absent a January thaw, we’ll still be plenty chilly.
The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth campus. For more information and viewing schedules, see Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d. umn.edu/~planet. Contact Deane Morrison at (612) 624-2346 or firstname.lastname@example.org .