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The Sky This Week, 2015 January 27 - February 3

Tired of winter? Relief is on the way.
The Moon, imaged with USNO's 12-inch (30.5-cm) f/15 Clark/Saegmüller refractor

The Moon brightens the night as she traverses the stars of the Great Winter Circle.  She begins the week near the First Quarter phase well west of the bright star Arcturus, then ends the week in the company of Jupiter.  Full Moon occurs on February 3rd at 6:09 pm Eastern Standard Time.  February’s Full Moon is popularly known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, appropriate names for the winter’s harshest month.  Look for Luna about four degrees east of the bright star Aldebaran on the evening of the 29th.  On the 31st she passes just one degree above the second-magnitude star Alhena, which marks one of the “feet” of Pollux, one of the Gemini twins.

The bright light of the Moon will wash out most of the fainter objects in the sky this week, but you should still be able to find Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) as it drifts northward into the stars of Andromeda.  The most recent reports I’ve seen still show it performing better than predictions would have it, glowing at a solid fourth magnitude.  It should be fairly easy to follow with binoculars from suburban locations, visible as a condensed ball of light as it edges toward the second-magnitude star Gamma Andromedae, the easternmost bright star in that constellation.  The comet will be located within one degree of the star on the evenings of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th.  The best time to hunt it down is during the early evening at around 7:00 pm, when the comet will be just west of the zenith.  Here is a finder chart showing the comet’s position at 7:00 pm EST for the next two weeks.

Venus is becoming more prominent in the hour after sunset.  The dazzling planet continues to forge her way into darker skies and by the end of the week sets a half an hour after the end of evening twilight.  As the sky darkens, look about 10 degrees above her for the fainter but pink-hued glow of Mars.  Venus continues to keep the red planet in her sights, and by the end of the week she trails her target by just seven degrees. 

Jupiter reaches opposition at the end of next week, and you’ll find that he is in prime viewing position shortly after sunset, casting his cream-colored glow in the eastern sky in the early evening.  By the late evening he’s high in the southeast and beckoning for a view through the telescope.  Last week’s rare “triple shadow transit” of the moons Io, Europa, and Callisto was unfortunately obscured by clouds here in the DC area, so it looks as if I’ll have to wait until the year 2032 to see another one, but transits of the shadows of single Galilean moons are fortunately quite common.  If you have a modest telescope you can watch the shadow of Io cross the face of the planet on the evening of February 1st between 9:00 and 11:00 pm EST.  At the same time see if you can catch a glimpse of Jupiter’s most famous atmospheric feature, the Great Red Spot.

Saturn continues to be best seen by early risers in the southeastern sky just before the onset of morning twilight.  The ringed planet spends the week slowly drifting eastward above the second-magnitude star Graffias in the “head” of Scorpius.  His yellow tint should contrast nicely with the blue-white hue of the star.

We can’t let the week go by without mentioning one of our favorite little-known astronomical celebrations.  Groundhog Day falls on the 2nd, marking one of the “cross-quarter” days in traditional agricultural calendars.  Transplanted to the U.S. from European traditions by German immigrant farmers, the date marks the mid-point of the season of winter.  It is believed that if the groundhog sees his shadow on that date there will be six more weeks of winter, and if he doesn’t there will be an early spring.  The groundhog (or woodchuck, take your pick) was an easy substitute for the European badger in the legend for the transplanted farmers, so their tradition now lives on in something of a minor media circus that we all look forward to.  The six-week prediction is actually fairly accurate; the vernal equinox falls six weeks and four days after the groundhog’s prognosticative appearance!






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