WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1, 2014
We ring in the New Year with a new moon. When new, the Moon is in
conjunction with the Sun and is not visible. We have begun lunation
cycle 1126 and a phase cycle will begin anew. Just after
conjunction, the Moon passes through the waxing crescent phase. One
will notice it in the western evening sky for the next few nights.
Then, as its illumination percentage increases, the Moon will become
visible in the daytime sky, as well. (Note: The "illumination
percentage" refers to the amount of the illuminated moon we can see on
Earth. The moon, itself, is always half illuminated.)
MOON AT PERIGEE
We sometimes classify an astronomical event as "academic," meaning that
the event isn't "visible," but is included because it only interests
those readers who have a pathological fixation on astronomy. We
could deem the "perigee" event as 'academic,' but, in fact, the perigee
moon will produce a visible phenomenon. "Perigee" is the closest point
in the moon's orbit around Earth. As is true with the planets, the Moon
travels along an elliptical orbit. Such orbits, not being perfectly
circular, move the orbiting body alternately closer and then farther
away from the parent body. During each orbit, the Moon reaches its
point of least distance (perigee) and that of greatest distance
This month, the Moon reaches perigee on the same day it is new! This
coincidence will have a profound ramification on ocean tides. Tides
result primarily from the Moon's influence and secondarily on the Sun's.
When the Moon and Sun are aligned along the same action-line, during
either a New Moon or a Full Moon, the high tides will be higher. We'll
have Spring tides. Now, if the spring tides occur when the Moon is at
or near perigee, the tides will be higher still. The perigee new
moon happens today and the tides will consequently be quite high.
The perigee moon and the new moon don't generally correspond because
the time period between successive new moons (a synodic month) is about
29.5 days and the period between successive perigees (an anomalistic
month) is 27.5 days.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 2, 2014
MOON 2.0 DEGREES NNW OF VENUS
Generally, the Moon-Venus close approach warrants a bronze medal at the
very least. This time, however, the Venus-Moon gathering isn't much to
write home about The Moon is only one day into its new cycle and will
appear as a razor-thin sliver. Venus, though still bright, lurks low
in the southwestern evening sky and is quite difficult to observe unless
one seeks it soon after sunset along an unobstructed western sky.
2014 will offer other Moon-Venus couplings that will be more pleasing to
the eye than this one.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 3, 2014
QUADRANTID METEOR SHOWER PEAKS (SILVER EVENT!)
We have dozens of meteor showers throughout the year. However, we
specify the "Big Three showers," defined as those that produce the
highest meteor numbers. The three are the Quadrantids (January),
Perseids (August) and Geminids (December). We experience the first of
this trinity straight away in the new year. We have to wait more than
eight months for the second and nearly all year for the third.
The Quadrantids is often called the "extinction event," as the
constellation from which the meteors appear to emanate is the now
obsolete constellation called "Quadrans muralis," whose stars now
comprise the northern section of bootes the sheepherder. Despite the
constellation's extinction, it lends its name to this meteor shower.
(Meteors showers are named for the constellation which contains its
radiant - apparent origin point.)
The parent comet, itself, might well be extinct. Astronomers
recently identified the extinct comet of 2003 EH1 as the quadrantid's
parent body. Meteor showers occur when earth passes through a
particle stream emitted by comets -rarely by asteroids. Analysis of
2003 eh1's trajectory show similarities with the quadrantid's meteoroid
This year is a favorable one for the meteor shower as the moon will not
interfere with viewing. the best time to observe a meteor shower is
after midnight. as the moon sets well before midnight, the sky will be
beautifully dark this evening for quadrantid viewing. the moon will
obscure the other two big meteor showers this year.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 4 EARTH AT PERIHELION
Cast your mind back to that segment pertaining to the perigee moon.
We recall that all orbiting bodies in our solar system travel along
elliptical orbits.* Consequently, a planet's distance from the Sun
varies continuously: veering from the minimum distance of perihelion to
the maximum of aphelion. Today, Earth reaches perihelion and will
be 91.45 million miles from the Sun. (Earth next reaches aphelion on
July 4). While our closeness to the Sun exerts a negligible effect
on our weather, it does affect the tides and the length of the seasons.
We know that the Moon is new and at perigee on January 1st. The
coincidence of this phase and perigee along with Earth's nearness to
perihelion will magnify the January 1st tides significantly.
The Sun's contribution to the tides is 44% that of the Moon's, so when
they are aligned at new or full moon, the tides are highest. Add to
that alignment the proximity of the Moon to Earth and Earth to the Sun.
The combined effect will produce the famous King Tide!
Also, Earth's elliptical orbit affects the duration of
each season. Our seasonal variations result from Earth's 23.5 degree
tilt (obliquity.) In winter, Earth's northern hemisphere is aligned
away from the Sun and in summer, it is directed away from it. Were
Earth's orbit circular, each season would be of equal duration.
However, as Earth is closest to the Sun during our winter, it is moving
fastest in its orbit. (Remember: the closer a planet is to the Sun,
the faster it moves). The current duration of the seasons: spring
92.76 days ; summer 93.65 days; autumn 89.84 days; winter
88.99 days. (Note: we used the word "current" because perihelion will
not always occur in early January. Over a 21,600 year period, the
perihelion shifts along Earth's orbital path, so that perihelion will
occur progressively later in the year throughout this period.)
SUNDAY, JANUARY 5 JUPITER AT OPPOSITION (GOLD EVENT!)
Yes, Jupiter is this month's pick planet and we confer the gold medal
onto its opposition. Though Venus captivated us at the end of 2013,
Jupiter is now brilliant, prominent and, up all night. (We will never
see Venus up all night.) Today, Earth passes directly between the Sun
and Jupiter. As Earth moves faster than Jupiter, the former will leave
the latter behind. Around opposition, Jupiter is closest to Earth
and therefore at maximum brightness. While Jupiter wont' outshine
Venus (it never does), it will remain visible throughout the night.
Learn more about Jupiter in the Planet Watch section.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 7 VENUS 6.4 DEGREES N OF MERCURY
This one is just a shade shy of being an academic event. One will be
hard pressed to observe these planets in the western evening sky as they
are less than seven degrees from Sol. We're including this event
because it involves two planets, both of which are about to vanish, only
to emerge later this month.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 8 FIRST QUARTER MOON
The first quarter moon rises around noon and sets around midnight.
(These times are approximations.)
SATURDAY, JANUARY 11 VENUS AT INFERIOR CONJUNCTION
Yes, this is an "academic" event. As it passes between Earth and
the Sun today, Venus will not be visible. The only time one can
observe Venus at inferior conjunction is when it is in transit (passes
directly across the Sun.) The last Venusian transit occurred in June
2012; the next transit won't happen until December 2117. Venus can
only transit the Sun when it is directly between the Sun and Earth.
Venus doesn't remain hidden for long. It will rapidly emerge into the
pre-dawn eastern sky later this month. See more about Venus in the
Planet Watch episode.
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 15 MOON 4.9 DEGREES S OF JUPITER
An easy sight! We'd give it a medal had we not already given the gold
to Jupiter's opposition. See the nearly full moon and Jupiter
ascending through the early evening eastern sky! Even though this
late waxing gibbous moon is quite bright, it won't obscure Jupiter.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 16 FULL MOON
The "Wolf Moon," or so is its traditional name, owing, perhaps, to
stories of voracious wolves prowling through barren, snow-covered
forests searching desperately for food under the pale moonlight.
Other, less ominous names for the January full moon are "Moon After
Yule," "The Old Moon," and the "Snow Moon." Of course, the term snow
moon has applied to full moons in other months.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 19 SUN ENTERS CAPRICORNUS
The strange, zoologically impossible "seagoat." Even by mythological
standards, a particularly chimerical hybrid. This faint constellation
is poised to the northeast of the much brighter Sagittarius the Archer.
The Sun occupies Sagittarius when winter begins. We're trudging
through the deepest part of winter when the Sun passes through
Capricornus. Each year the Sun appears to migrate through thirteen
constellations comprising the "zodiac." These constellations are
CAPRICORNUS THE SEAGOAT, Aquarius the Water Bearer, Pisces the Fish,
Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, Leo
the Lion, Virgo the Maiden, Libra the Scales and Scorpius the Scorpion,
Ophiuchus the Serpent Charmer and Sagittarius the Archer. The Sun enters
Aquarius on February 16.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 23 MOON 3.5 SSW OF MARS
As we'll learn in the Planet Watch, 2014 will be a good year for Mars.
One will find the red planet and waning gibbous moon rising together in
the eastern late evening sky. This Moon-Mars gathering is eye candy
for the night owls.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 24 LAST QUARTER MOON
The last quarter moon rises around midnight and sets around noontime.
Again, these times are approximations.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 25 MOON 0.57 DEGREES SOUTH OF SATURN (BRONZE
This event would have earned the gold had it been an occultation for
us. An occultation is the direct passage of one body in front of the
other. Today, the Moon will appear to occult Saturn when seen in
some Southern Hemisphere locations. For us, the Moon and Saturn appear
quite close together in the eastern early morning sky. Saturn will
become more prominent as the weather warms, but for now it remains a
post midnight object. See Saturn and the Moon together in the wee
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 29 MOON 2.2 DEGREES SOUTH OF VENUS
Venus returns to the early morning sky and is accompanied by the Moon.
Though low, Venus burns bright and is a lovely companion to the thin
waning crescent moon. Only a sight for those who venture outside
THURSDAY, JANUARY 30 NEW MOON (MAGENTA MOON)
The second full moon of the month is called a "blue moon." The second
new moon of the month is called a Magenta Moon, though nobody is quite
sure why. One cannot see the Magenta Moon as it is new. Having a
blue moon or a magenta moon is possible because the Moon's synodic
period is 29.5 days. This is the period between successive new moons.
Except for February, every month is longer than the moon's synodic
period, so it is not uncommon to have a phase repeat in one month.
Interestingly, there will be no blue moons in 2014.
This new moon begins lunation cycle 1127
THURSDAY, JANUARY 30 PERIGEE MOON
The perigee moon and the new moon together in one month…twice!
There must be a name for two perigean new moons that happen in one
month, but its probably written in Old English and nobody can pronounce
it. Except high tides…although not King tides as Earth is not quite
as close to the Sun as it was earlier this month.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 31 MERCURY AT GREATEST EASTERN ELONGATION (18.4
degrees from the Sun.)
Mercury was difficult to see at month's beginning. Now, one can find
it in the western evening sky. Mercury is never an easy planet to find,
but at least at greatest elongation, Mercury is slightly less
elusive….if that makes any sense at all.
We adore the planets because they're inexorable. Continuously moving
around the Sun without impediment. They don't stop on December 31st to
don stupid hats in Times Square. No matter the occasion, they
describe their wide orbits about their parent star just as they have
done for billions of years. This section looks at each of the naked
eye planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Where are they?
Are they worth seeking out? Which one is the pick planet? If
you're new to the DA, the planet watch concludes the night sky calendar,
as, of course, you would have guessed once noticing that nothing follows
it except the footnotes.
The first planet is scarce at month's beginning. We notice it rising
higher in the western evening sky starting mid month. Mercury reaches
greatest eastern elongation on January 31st . When visible, it is
brighter than Arcturus, but not as bright as Sirius. Of course, what
it has in brightness, it lacks in position. Even at its greatest
elongation, Mercury is not high in the sky. VERDICT: The later the
better. Best to find Mercury in the western evening sky at month's
MERCURY 2014: Mercury will be all over the place this year. It
vanishes for awhile during part of Feb, Apr, May, most of June, parts of
July, August, most of October, part of November and all of December.
Meanwhile, it oscillates between the evening and morning skies.
Keeping up with Mercury is not for the lazy!
It was a spectacle toward the end of 2013, particularly late November,
early December. However, we lose it quickly in early January, only to
have it reappear with a vengeance late this month. It is always
brilliant, of course, but not necessarily easy to find. One might see
it low in the western early evening sky, but not in mid month when
through inferior conjunction before returning to the morning sky.
VERDICT: A few nights after New Year's Eve, one might glimpse Venus
soon after dark. Your better bet would to be to wait until the
pre-dawn hours late this month. Venus will be at its maximum
brightness for the year in early February, so by the end of January,
Venus will be as bright as it will be this year.
VENUS 2014: Strange year for Venus. It remains a morning sky object
of gradually diminishing brightness from late January through late
August. It then disappears from the sky until the very last part of
December, when it returns in the early evening. We won't see Venus at
all this autumn. So, essentially, Venus is a morning star throughout
the winter, spring and most of summer and then an evening star just as
we're preparing to welcome 2015.
The fourth world wasn't an easy planet to observe in 2013. Now, it
rises just before midnight and will become brighter throughout the
month. Mars' crimson color makes it distinctive against the stellar
backdrop. VERDICT: Mars is still a sight for those who prefer not to
retire early. It is becoming brighter and more prominent, so even if
you miss it this month, you'll have ample opportunity to see it later.
MARS 2014: Mars is visible all year. Even though Venus takes a hiatus
lasting more than three months, Mars will remain in view for at least
part of the night throughout 2014. It brightens rapidly throughout
late winter until reaching its maximum brightness in April, when it
reaches opposition. At this time, Mars will be as bright as Sirius.
Mars will linger in the evening sky throughout the rest of the year.
By year's end, it will set around 8:00 p.m.]
JUPITER (PICK PLANET!)
Now that Venus is leaving the evening stage, Jupiter will become the
brightest evening sky object apart from the Moon. The fifth sphere
reaches opposition in January and is up all night. VERDICT: How
could it be easier? Jupiter outshines all the stars and is visible from
dusk to dawn! No wonder it was picked as the pick planet!
JUPITER 2014: Like Venus, Jupiter will be at its brightest at year's
beginning. However, it will remain quite a spectacle throughout most of
2014. It leaves the sky in early July, but is back in the pre-dawn
skies of mid August and will climb higher in the early morning sky for
the year of the year.
So, here's the deal: Mars and Saturn are equally bright at month's
beginning, but Mars overtakes it in brightness by month's end. Saturn
rises well after midnight throughout January, even though Earth's
orbital motion makes it rises about four minutes earlier each day.
VERDICT: Don't go out of your way, but if you're up in the early
morning or before dawn, catch a glimpse of Saturn in the eastern sky.
As was true with Mars, if you miss Saturn this month, you'll have plenty
of opportunities to see it later this year.
SATURN 2014: Saturn rises earlier and grows brighter throughout the
winter and early spring. We can expect Saturn to be the pick planet in
May when it reaches opposition and its maximum brightness for the year.
It will remain dimmer than Venus, Jupiter and, for most of the year,
Mars. Mercury alternately becomes brighter and dimmer then brighter
than dimmer. Saturn will sneak off stage from late October to early
December. The rest of the time, however, Saturn is somewhere, just
waiting to be found.
*One can land into a great deal of trouble when making such broad
statements. However, every known body in the solar system travels
along an elliptical orbit, although the orbital eccentricities vary.
"Eccentricity" measures a ellipse's departure from circularity An
ellipse with a zero eccentricity is a circle. An ellipse with an
eccentricity of 1 is a parabola. Earth's orbit is nearly circular, as
its eccentricity is 0.016. Triton, Neptune's largest moon, has the
smallest measured eccentricity in the solar system (0.0000016).
Triton's orbit is quite close to being perfectly circular.
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