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The Sky This Week, 2015 January 6 - 13

A busy celestial start to the new year!
Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), 2015 JAN 1, 03:51-04:27 UT
Imaged from near Morattico, Virginia, USA
80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor,
Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

Happy New Year from the U.S. Naval Observatory!

2015 gets underway with a bang as the evening sky plays host to four bright planets, bright stars, and a “prime-time” comet.  Keep those binoculars and telescopes handy, since they will be getting quite a workout over the next couple of weeks.

The Moon wends her way into the morning sky this week, waxing from near Full to Last Quarter, which occurs on the 13th at 4:46 am Eastern Standard Time.  Look for bright Jupiter five degrees north of the Moon in the late evening on the 7th.  She passes just under two degrees north of the bright star Spica before dawn on the 13th.

We are currently experiencing the latest sunrises for the year as we wind up the phenomena associated with the winter solstice.  Here in Washington the Sun will continue to rise at around 7:27 am EST until the 11th, when the time of sunrise begins to slip to a bit earlier.  Some of you may already have noticed that sunset now occurs after 5:00 pm, some 15 minutes later than it was on December 7th.  It’s a sure sign that spring can’t be too far behind.

Take the time this week to look just after sunset for a pair of planets in the glow of evening twilight.  One of them, Venus, should be almost instantly obvious within 20 minutes of sunset.  The other is Mercury, and you may have to work a bit harder to find him.  However, both planets are separated by about one degree or less for most of the week, and this should make Mercury an easy target for binoculars and the naked eye.  I glimpsed both of them on my trip home on Monday night at about 5:30 pm thanks to the transparency offered by the crisp, clear skies over Arlington.  The two objects will be closest together on the evenings of the 10th and 11th with just over half a degree of the sky between them.  They will remain fairly close to each other through much of next week.  If you’ve never seen Mercury before, this is one of the best opportunities you’ll have for the next few years.

The next planet in Venus’ sights is ruddy Mars, which glimmers a dull pinkish hue among the faint stars of Capricornus, the Sea Goat.  The red planet is keeping pace with the Earth, setting at 8:14 pm each night for the rest of the month, but he’s losing ground to the rapidly approaching Venus and the slightly less speedy Sun.  He should be easily visible in the southwest about 45 minutes after sunset about 20 degrees above and to the left of Venus as the week begins.

By mid-evening the familiar outline of Orion and his attendant Great Winter Circle of bright stars dominates the eastern sky.  While there are many interesting things to explore among the stars of the Hunter and his friends, for the next couple of weeks a celestial interloper will be getting most of my attention.  Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy on August 17 of last year.  At the time it was a faint 15th magnitude smudge of light among the stars of the constellation Puppis deep in the southern Milky Way.  Since that time it has surprised most of us by brightening to between fourth and fifth magnitude and is now drifting northwestward toward the constellations of Taurus and Aries.  It should be quite easy to spot with binoculars as it wends its way through the sparse area of stars to the west (right) of Orion.  I first glimpsed it around Christmastime with binoculars and had very nice views of it from Virginia’s Northern Neck around New Years, despite the close proximity of the nearly Full Moon.  As the week progresses and the Moon moves into the morning sky it should be easy to spot from the suburbs as a glowing greenish-grey fuzzy  ball of light, and if you can get out to a dark-sky site you should be able to easily spot it with the naked eye.  Binoculars under these conditions should also show a nice, ropy tail.

Jupiter is now becoming very prominent in the late evening eastern sky as he marches inexorably toward opposition in another month.  The giant planet now rises at around 7:30 pm, and by 10:00 pm he should be well above the trees and rooftops for telescopic viewing.  Jupiter’s constantly changing cloud belts are now under near-constant scrutiny by a small army of amateur astronomers around the world who track the day-to-day changes in the planet’s extraordinary weather.  I’ll soon be adding my telescope to their ranks for the current apparition. 

Fans of Saturn will still have to wait until the pre-dawn hours to glimpse the distant ringed planet, but those who do will get a taste of what’s to come when he reaches opposition in mid-May.  He’s slowly drifting eastward toward the stars that form the “head” of Scorpius, and he’ll spend the next year in this general vicinity.  If you spot him, just think of the warm late spring nights to come when he’ll be best-placed for viewing.




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