In the Sky This Month – January 2009
January 1, 2009 96 Comments
This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of January 2009. The month starts off with Mercury and Jupiter close together in the evening sky. January also has one major meteor shower, the Quadrantids on Jan 3/4.
Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.
Venus rules the month of January. Located about 30-40 degrees above the southwest horizon, Venus is the brightest “star” in the sky for the first few hours of the night. Through a telescope, Venus appears like a brilliant half moon. The Moon will pass within 2.5 degrees of Venus on the night of the 30th.
Jupiter is located well below Venus in the west-southwest during the first week of January. After that Jupiter will be too close to the Sun to be seen.
Mercury is also visible a few degrees above Jupiter during the 1st week or so of January. It will be furthest from the Sun on the 4th and highest above the horizon on the 6th. By mid-month, Mercury will be too close to the Sun to be seen.
This month Saturn rises in the east around 11pm on the 1st and 9pm on the 31st. The best time to observe it, though, is when it is located directly overhead (5am on the 1st and 3am on the 31st). The Moon will pass close to Saturn on the night of the 15th.
Mars is still too close to the Sun to be seen.
The month of January experiences 1 major shower, the Quadrantids, and only a few minor ones.
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 November, six (6) or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.
Major Meteor Showers
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 year there are 2 predictions for the peak. Based on past Quadrantid peaks, the International Meteor Organization predicts a peak on January 3 at 12h 50m UT. That’s 5:50 am MST or 4:50 am PST. If this prediction is correct, the Quadrantids will be best over western North America and probably pretty good for all of North America.
A second prediction is based on work by Jeremie Veubaillon and published in a chart in Peter Jenniskens’s book “Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets”.It predicts an earlier peak on January 3 at ~1:00 UT. That’s in the early evening for North America at a time when the shower will not be easily visible. The Veubaillon prediction is based on all of the Quadrantids having been released during the break-up of a comet in 1490.
Last year rates reached as high as ~80 meteors per hour under a dark sky. Like most meteor showers, the Quadrantids are only observable early in the morning a few hours before dawn. The International Meteor Organization will post up-to-date observations of the activity level at their ZHR Live site.
Where do the Quadrantids come from? According to Peter Jenniskens, the Quadrantids are the result of an outburst of material or even the break-up of a comet in 1490. This comet was observed by Chinese, Korean and Japanese astronomers. In 2003, a new asteroid was discovered named 2003 EH1. It now appears that 2003 EH1 is either the same as the comet seen in 1490 or the largest surviving piece of that comet.
Minor Meteor Showers
Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.
Coma Berenicids (COM)
The Coma Berenicids are a minor shower with rates of ~5 meteors per hour at their peak. The shower is active from mid-December to late January as its radiant moves from southern Ursa Major through Coma Berenices and into Virgo. The shower may have been created by Comet C/1913 I (Lowe) a retrograde Halley-type comet. That is assuming Comet Lowe ever existed. There are some doubts that the comet was real since other observers were not able to observe the comet.
According to Peter Jennisken’s book “Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets” a number of meteor outbursts seen between the years of 609 AD and 764 AD may have caused by this shower.
Additional information on these showers and other minor showers not included here can be found at the following sites: Robert Lunsford’s Meteor Activity Outlook, Wayne Hally’s and Mark Davis’s NAMN Notes, and the International Meteor Organization’s 2008 Meteor Shower Calendar.
Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)
There are no comets bright enough to be seen without binoculars or a telescope.
Binocular Comets (V < 8.0)
Comet C/2007 N3 (Lulin)
The brightest comet of the month can be seen low in the southeast right before dawn. Starting the month near the “head” of Scorpius, the comet will move into and cross the constellation of Libra during the month. Comet Lulin was discovered by the Lulin Sky Survey in Taiwan on 2007 July 11. At the time the comet was located beyond the orbit of Jupiter.
The comet will be closest to the Sun on 2009 January 10 at 1.21 AU from the Sun. It will be closest to Earth in late-February when it will be only 0.41 AU from us. At that time the comet may be as bright as 4th magnitude making it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes. In fact, the comet will be visible to the naked eye as a small faint fuzzball from dark sites.
The comet is currently around magnitude 7.5 which makes it an easy object for binoculars and small telescopes from a dark sky. By the end of the month, it should be around magnitude 6 and perhaps visible to naked eye observers in very dark skies.
A finder chart for Comet Lulin can be found at Comet Chasing.
Small Telescope Comets (V < 10.0)
Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)
This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.
The comet is currently around magnitude 10.2 and will slowly brighten during the month. It will be traveling south through the constellation of Lacerta and is nicely positioned for evening observing. I was able to observe the comet visually with my backyard 12″ reflecting telescope in November. Being small and condensed, the comet was fairly easy to see.
The comet will continue to brighten as it approaches perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At the time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.
A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing.
Comet C/2006 OF2 (Broughton)
Similar to Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen), C/2006 OF2 (Broughton) is another intrinsically bright comet with a large perihelion distance. It was the 2nd comet discovered by amateur astronomer John Broughton of Queensland, Australia. He first saw it on 2006 July 17 with a CCD-equipped 0.25-m telescope. At first, no cometary activity was detected and the object was classified as an asteroid. In late September of 2006, I was able to find evidence of cometary activity on images taken with the University of Arizona 1.54-m and the object was reclassified as a comet.
Comet Broughton passed perihelion on 2008 September 15 at a distance of 2.43 AU from the Sun. Based on its prior brightness behavior, it was not expected to be brighter than 10th magnitude. In the past few weeks, the comet has experienced a minor outburst in brightness. At its current magnitude of 9.8, the comet can be seen in large backyard telescopes. Moving south through the constellation of Auriga, the comet should fade as it moves away from both the Sun and Earth.
A finder chart for Comet Broughten can be found at Comet Chasing.
Comet Kushida was discovered by Japanese amateur astronomer Yoshio Kushida back on 1994 January 8. With an orbital period of 7.6 years, this year marks its 3rd appearance since discovery.
The comet was not expected to get brighter than magnitude 10 or 11 but recently observers have estimated it is as bright as magnitude 8.8. With perihelion this January 26 at 1.44 AU from the Sun, the comet may brighten a little more over the next few weeks. It is currently retrograding through western Taurus.
A finder chart for Comet Kushida can be found at Comet Chasing.
Yet another comet discovered by Eric Christensen may be visible in backyard scopes in January. This comet is a short-period comet with a period of 5.7 years. It is very faint except when close to the Sun. Perihelion occurred on December 19 at a distance of 0.53 AU from the Sun.
Alan Watson found Comet 210P/Christensen on images taken by the STEREO-B spacecraft on 2008 December 8 and 9. At the time, he thought the comet might be new until Maik Meyer suggested the STEREO comet was actually Comet 210P/Christensen. STEREO (which stands for Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) is a NASA mission to study the Sun and its immediate environment. Though not designed specifically to observe comets, its cameras have the ability to pick up bright comets close to the Sun. Quite often, these comets are too close to the Sun to be seen from Earth due to the scattering of sunlight by Earth’s atmosphere.
Though too close to the Sun to be seen from Earth, another spacecraft was able to see the comet as it sped past the Sun. Observations by the SOHO spacecraft estimated that the comet reached a brightness of 6th magnitude. The comet may still be bright enough for large backyard telescopes during the 1st half of January. The comet should be 9th-10th magnitude as it speeds through the constellation of Ophiuchus in the pre-dawn sky.
Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)
Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below the surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. This month Ceres is located in Leo brightening from magnitude 7.9to 7.2.
Pallas is also a carbonaceous asteroid though with a slightly bluish B-type spectrum. Due to its high inclination (tilt of its orbit with respect to Earth’s orbit) of 34 degrees it is a difficult target for future spacecraft missions. Pallas is large with dimensions of 350x334x301 miles or 582x556x501 km. This month it moves through the far southern constellations of Caelum and Eridanus. It fades from magnitude 8.0 to 8.2 over the course of the month.
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. On October 30, Vesta was at opposition (directly opposite from the Sun in the sky) and at its brightest. This month Vesta will fade from magnitude 7.6 to 8.1 as it moves from Pisces into Cetus.
Euterpe was the 27th asteroid discovered when it was first seen in 1853. It is an S-type asteroid with a stoney or silicate composition. With a diameter of 75 miles (125 km) it much smaller than Ceres, Pallas or Vesta. The reason it can get as bright as them is due to its orbit which brings it closer to the Sun and Earth. This month Euterpe will be roughly 1 AU from Earth and 2 AU from the Sun.
This month Euterpe will brighten from magnitude 9.7 to 8.9 as it moves from Leo into Cancer. The asteroid will be at its brightest in early February at magnitude 8.8.
[Thanks to Sam Millar for calling attention to this asteroid.]
Harmonia just barely makes the cut this month. Starting the month at magnitude 9.9, it peaks in brightness on January 12 at 9.5. By the end of the month, Harmonia is back below 10th magnitude.
Similar to Euterpe, Harmonia is a stoney silicate-rich S-type in the inner Main Belt. At opposition on the 12th, it will be 2.30 AU from the Sun and 1.31 AU from Earth.
Finder chart for Harmonia from Heavens Above.