In the Sky This Month – January 2010

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of January 2010. Mars is at its closest and brightest towards the end of the month. Bright red Mars anchors the eastern sky in the early evening while even brighter yellow Jupiter rules the western sky. The month’s single major meteor shower, the Quadrantids, will be washed out by bright moonlight (they will have already passed by the time you read this due to this entry’s late posting).

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment and I’ll post them on the blog.

Planets

Mercury and Venus - Both planets start the month to close to the Sun for observation. Venus slowly moves into the evening sky after ~9 months in the morning sky. By month’s end it will still be a very difficult object to observe. Only those with a clear sky and no obstructions on their WSW horizon have a chance of catching Venus a few minutes after sunset. This coming evening apparition will allow for easy Venus viewing from March through September. For observers in the Southern Hemisphere this will be a great apparition, especially from July to October.

Mercury is traveling the other way and will pop out in the morning sky by mid-month. It will be located in the SE sky an hour or less before sunrise. This apparition is also better for southern observers.

Jan 4 - Mercury at Inferior conjunction
Jan 11 - Venus at Superior conjunction
Jan 27 - Mercury at Greatest elongation (West/Morning)

Jupiter - Jupiter is slowly sinking in the SW sky during the early evening hours. At magnitude -2.1, Jupiter is still many times brighter than the brightest stars. This is the last month to easily see the king of the planets.

  Jan 18 - Moon passes 4° from Jupiter

Neptune – Jupiter is rapidly pulling away from Neptune after the third of their 3 conjunctions last year. As a result, it is getting harder to use Jupiter as a guide to locate Neptune. A detailed PDF star chart for finding Neptune can be downloaded at the end of this Sky & Telescope article.

Uranus – Uranus is located in western Pisces and is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.9 but will still require a telescope in order to see it as anything other than a star (it’s disk is only 3.5″ across). A detailed PDF star chart for finding Uranus can be downloaded at the end of this Sky & Telescope article.

Mars – This month Mars is at opposition (the point opposite the Sun in the sky) on January 29. Opposition means Mars is closest to Earth and at its brightest. It also means it is visible nearly all night long, rising in east in the early evening, at its highest around midnight, and setting in the west around dawn.

Mars spends the whole month retrograding (moving from east to west) in the constellation of Cancer. Already a bright magnitude -0.7 at the start of the month, Mars will peak at magnitude -1.3 on opposition before slightly fading to -1.2 by month’s end. It’s opposition brightness almost matches that of Sirius, the brightest star. Note that unlike the stars which twinkle, Mars shines with an unwavering red glow.

Jan 3 - Moon passes close (6°) to Mars
Jan 27 - Closest to Earth (0.664 AU)
Jan 29 - Opposition
Jan 30 - Moon passes close (6°) to Mars

Saturn – Saturn is easy to observe during the morning hours and is sufficiently high enough to be observed in the eastern sky by midnight. Located in Virgo, the planets will appear as bright as a magnitude +0.8 star. Telescope users should note that Saturn’s rings are still close to edge-on.

Jan 6 - Moon and Saturn within 7° of each other

Meteors

January hosts one of the better annual showers of the year in the Quadrantids. Unfortunately this year’s display will be wrecked by bright moonlight. The background rate of meteors crashes in January.  The year is usually split in 2 with January through June having low rates with few major showers while July through December (really through the 1st week of January) have high rates with many major showers.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During January, 8-10 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

Quadrantids (QUA)

The Quadrantids are the best shower that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s bad enough that this shower peaks in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, but it is also named after a long defunct constellation. When first identified in the early 1800s, the meteors were observed to radiate from the small faint constellation of Quadrans Muralis (the Mural Quadrant). Unfortunately, the constellation didn’t make the cut when the official list of 80 constellations was set in 1930. Today, Quadrans Muralis and the radiant of the Quadrantids can be found north of the constellation of Bootes.

Another strike against observing the Quadrantids is their short duration. Showers, like the Perseids and Orionids, produce high rates of meteors for a few days near their maximum. The Quadrantids are only highly active for 12-24 hours. As a result, the shower can be missed if the peak does not coincide with your early morning observing.

This years display was predicted to peak on the night of Jan 2/3. A very bright nearly full Moon will keep rates very low.

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors. Starting this month, info on most of the minor showers will be provided on a weekly basis by Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook.

Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

None

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet 81P/Wild 2

Comet Wild 2 is a short-period Jupiter-family comet on a 6.4 year orbit. In 1974 a close approach to Jupiter placed the comet on its current orbit which allows (relatively) close approaches to the Sun and Earth. Swiss professional astronomer Paul Wild found the comet photographically on its first close perihelion in 1978. During its last perihelion passage it was the target of the NASA Stardust spacecraft which flew through its coma, collected cometary dust, and returned the dust to Earth. Though Wild 2 has become bright enough to be seen in small backyard telescopes before, this year’s apparition will be its best since discovery. Not till 2042 will it come closer, and even then only marginally so.

This year Wild 2 will reach perihelion on February 22 at 1.60 AU and closest approach to Earth will occur on April 5 at 0.67 AU. Though the comet will only reach a brightness of magnitude ~9.2 to 9.5 in March, it will remain brighter than magnitude 10.0 from January through May.

Currently the comet is around magnitude 10.0 to 10.5 and should be around magnitude 10.0 or even brighter by the end of the month. Currently the comet is located in Virgo (not far from Saturn) at a distance of 1.64 AU from the Sun and 1.10 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2007 Q3 (Siding Spring)

This long-period comet was first seen on 2007 August 25 by Donna Barton of the Siding Spring Survey in Australia. This past Oct. 7th the comet reached a rather distant perihelion at 2.25 AU from the Sun. Unfortunately, the comet and Earth are located on opposite sides of the Sun so the comet is rather far from Earth. Still the comet is observable in the early morning hours as a slowly fading ~9.5 to 10.5 magnitude comet in Bootes. At mid-month the comet is 2.52 AU from the Sun and 2.23 AU from Earth.

A finder chart for Comet Siding Spring can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 9.0)

(4) Vesta

Though not as large as Ceres, Vesta is more reflective making it the brightest asteroid in the Main Belt. Vesta is peculiar in that it appears to have evidence of volcanism on its surface. Similar to the Moon, Vesta may be covered with large expanses of frozen lava flows. It is classified as a V-type asteroid and is the only large asteroid with this classification. Many of the smaller V-type asteroids are chips of Vesta blasted off it by past asteroid and comet impacts. Vesta is similar in size to Pallas with dimensions of 347x336x275 miles or 578×560×458 km. Vesta will also be visited by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which will arrive in 2010.

Vesta is once again observable in the morning sky before the start of dawn. It is brightening from magnitude 7.1 to 6.5 as it travels to the northeast of Regulus in Leo.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Vesta from Heavens Above.

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About Carl Hergenrother
I am a professional astronomer specializing in the study of comets, asteroids and meteors. This blog will focus on my professional and amateur work in this field

23 Responses to In the Sky This Month – January 2010

  1. claire says:

    Hi i go out about between 8-9 pm and i always see 3 bright stars, one of them to the left one slightly to the right and the other is to the right. i would like to know what they are as i now seen them so many times between december and current month! I live in the midlands if any help!( they look orange )

  2. claire says:

    west midlands uk

  3. Thor says:

    At 5:30 am my wife saw a huge “burning Christmas tree” fall from the sky. Not different colors just flickering flames. The “fireball” looked like it just fell from the sky. We are in Northern Saskatchewan Canada. Present time is 10:30am

  4. Jennifer says:

    I just saw a fiery meteorite in the northern sky about 9:15 pm PST. I live in LA and ironically it looked as if it were right over the Observatory!

  5. Veronica Mara says:

    hi I just saw a comet over Auckland it was heading west it was so visible and bright red tail behind her ( the comet ) just happened 30 minutes ago :-) now it`s 9:40pm

  6. Veronica Mara says:

    sorry auckland , new zealand southern hem.

  7. Linda says:

    Wow, just saw something — comet? meteor? — trailing blue and white heading east at 5:38 pm EST in Reisterstown, Maryland. Any idea what it was? Visible for ~ 40 seconds and left a gorgeous flume that reflected the setting sun…

    • sarah says:

      On January 18th we were in Northern Pennsylvania driving south on route 15 and saw what I think was a meteor. It was around 5:30 PM too. We then saw another one in Northern Virginia near Tyson’s Corner at around 9:30 PM. Incredible!

    • Lorraine Clementi says:

      I saw it too. Driving south-southwest on Route 295 in south Jersey (Gloucester County)at 5:36PM. What looked like a super white flashing ball of light became visible through my windshield – it streaked at lightening speed from behind me (from the east) and disappeared over the tree line in the glow of the setting sun. Didn’t know if it hit or just burned up. I was so excited I looked around to see if any other drivers noticed but they were all busy talking on their cell phones! See what you miss when you yak too much? :) Awesome!

    • beachgirl says:

      I was walking with my children in the Philadelphia area and saw it as well; have been looking all over for what it was. Was it confirmed as an asteroid?

    • Brian Pahucki says:

      We saw it in Orange County NY at 5:36pm on January 18th!!!
      Amazing!!!

  8. Mike C. says:

    My wife saw an asteroid entering the atmosphere over Baltimore, Maryland right before sundown tonight. She said the “trail” lasted for several seconds.

    • Ryan says:

      Wow. I knew I saw it too. In Wynnewood which is just northwest of Philadelphia County. The sky wasn’t yet black and it was amazing to see it across a bluish sky. It was huge too…bigger than any shooting star I have seen before.

  9. Bob S. says:

    My wife & I saw the January 18th, 5:30 pm trail. We were driving West about 5 miles from the Delaware shore on Route 16 when it shot in the same direction we were going (East to West) right in front of us. It was a higher that 45 to 50 degrees off of the visible horizon. It streaked too quickly to be a plane. The trail encompassed about 15 degrees of our field of view. It looked like part of it broke off about 2/3 of the way down and appeared to burn. Before the part broke off, the trail was straight. The rest of it seemed to spiral.

    If that trail was at the edge of the horizon then it was a long way to the west of us. likely 1000s of miles.

    • Brian Pahucki says:

      My daughter and I saw at 5:36pm in Pine Island, NY a shooting star in the SW sky.
      It appeared to be coming straight down with a lite green glow. As it came close to
      the horizon, it changed color to a yellow/orange and grew in size of it’s glow.
      Amazing sight. So glad I wasn’t the only one who saw it.

    • Danielle says:

      i was driving on the PA turnpike on the 18th,in plymouth meeting at 5:30pm. the sun was just setting. I saw what looked like a giant burning clump with a long trail. it was very close and i think it may have burnt out before hitting the ground. what was this?

  10. Bob S. says:

    Bob S. :My wife & I saw the January 18th, 5:30 pm trail. We were driving West about 5 miles from the Delaware shore on Route 16 when it shot in the same direction we were going (East to West) right in front of us. It was a higher that 45 to 50 degrees off of the visible horizon. It streaked too quickly to be a plane. The trail encompassed about 15 degrees of our field of view. It looked like part of it broke off about 2/3 of the way down and appeared to burn. Before the part broke off, the trail was straight. The rest of it seemed to spiral.
    If that trail was at the edge of the atmosphere then it was a long way to the west of us. likely 1000s of miles.

  11. Laura P says:

    I saw what looked like an amber burning ball with a tail falling out of the sky around 9:30pm on January 18th heading towards the southwestern sky. It was the biggest falling “star” I have ever seen and beautiful. This was in Virginia.

  12. Joe Buckley says:

    On Jan.18th aprox.9:30pm driveing east on US50 near Crownsville,MD I saw a meteror traveling in an easterly direction.Looked like a roman candle firework.It lasted about 2-3 seconds and then faded out.

  13. Joe Buckley says:

    Joe Buckley :On Jan.18th aprox.9:30pm driveing west on US50 near Crownsville,MD I saw a meteror traveling in an westerly direction.Looked like a roman candle firework.It lasted about 2-3 seconds and then faded out.

  14. Renee Harris says:

    I witnessed what I believe was a meteorite or something falling similar from the sky this afternoon between 5:00- 5:16pm. Eastern Standard Time (Newfoundland, Canada). It was travelling what I believe to be SW. Anyone else witness anything today? At first it struck me as tragic as a airplane, it took about 16 minutes until it went out of our site but did not seem to diminish in size, speed, etc.

  15. Linda says:

    Hi All, I posted above on 1/18 about the burning mass. It WAS a meteor, and it landed in northern Virginia in a dentist or doctor’s office. I know because my husband, who had contacted the Baltimore Sun blog about it, was in turn contacted by someone from the SCIENCE Channel. Apparently, seeing a meoeor with such a flume is quite rare. Peace, Linda

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