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 The new year is upon us - we at Telescope House wish all of our readers the very best for 2018.  Here's hoping the weather is kind to us during the coming year - after all, we have numerous highlights coming up: a very bright opposition of Mars, the late Spring and early Summer oppositions of Jupiter and Saturn respectively, Total Lunar Eclipses in January (more of below) and July, the return of some reasonably bright periodic comets (again, covered below).  Of course, we'll be here to cover these and many more developments.

January, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, is traditionally the coldest month.  While observing in freezing temperatures is a test of one's mettle, we are often greeted by some of the best seeing conditions of the year.  At this point in time a lot of the major planets are best seen in the mornings - so we encourage you to get out early and make the most of clememt seeing conditions when they come long.  Winter in the northern hemisphere brings a wealth of deep sky objects into view in the evenings, with the "Winter" side of the Milky Way alive with star clusters and nebulosity, which make for rich pickings in binoculars and telescopes.  Of course, we mustn't neglect our southern hemisphere readers, basking in the height of their Summer - spare a thought for us frozen northerners as you're observing in comfort...

As ever, there's plenty to see, wherever you are in the world.

 

The Solar System

 

The Moon

 

The Moon starts the year at close to Full phase in Gemini. High in the sky for those of us observing in the northern hemisphere (and low for those in the southern).  Being Full Moon, naturally, this is not the best time for deep sky observations, or imaging faint objects without significantly narrowband filtration. 

 

This particular Full Moon coincides with a lunar perigee syzygy event, making it a Supermoon in popular parlance. The Moon will look fractionally larger in the sky as a result of being at its closest orbital point to Earth. This effect will be magnified by atmospheric lensing as it is rising and low in the sky. Although there's no great scientific significance to a "Supermoon", it's a term that seems to have captured the public imagination - and anything that encourages people to pay more attention to the skies above them, should be welcomed (even if Full Moon is the worst time to observe our Moon).

 

The Moon reaches Last Quarter on the 8th, when resident in Virgo. Our natural satellite comes together in conjunction with Jupiter and Mars in Libra on the morning of the 11th, the three objects forming a distinct triangle, low in the predawn sky - the Moon being the most northerly tip. It should be quite a beautiful sight and well worth a photograph, if you're an early riser. 

 

The Moon reaches New phase on January 17th, on the Sagittarius/Capricornus borders, making the mid-month period ideal for deep sky imaging and observation. 

 

After this point in the month, the Moon rises north in the ecliptic, tracking through Capricornus, Aquarius and Cetus, until it reaches First Quarter in Pisces on the 24th. 

 

The Moon then continues its journey through the northern part of the ecliptic as it reaches the second Full Moon of the calendar month - a so-called "Blue Moon" - in Cetus, on the 31st. This, again, is a perigee syzygy "Supermoon" Full Moon and also coincides with a Total Lunar Eclipse. Sadly, for those of us in Europe, Africa, and the Eastern part of the Americas, the Eclipse will occur when the Moon is set - so we won't see it. However, if you're in the Western Americas, Eastern Asia and Australasia, you should have a great view of the event. 

 

The Moon entering eclipse from Sydney, Australia, 31st January. Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.



Mercury 

 

Mercury starts the year as a morning object, in Ophiuchus - very well-placed for observation before dawn (at -0.3 mag, 6.7 arc seconds diameter), as the 1st coincides with the planet's maximum western elongation from the Sun, at an angle of 22 2/3 degrees. At this point, Mercury sits just over 11 degrees high in the SE at sunrise (from 51 degrees N), making it relatively simple to spot before dawn. As is always the case with Mercury, things don't stay this way for long, as after the 1st, it begins its dive back towards the Sun. 

 

On the 13th, Mercury and Saturn are in close conjunction in Sagittarius - the two separated by 2/3rds of a degree. It may be possible to pick both worlds up in the same field of view in binoculars and low power telescopes, but you will need a clear south easterly horizon and cooperative atmospheric conditions to do so. 

 

Mercury and Saturn, Dawn, 13th January.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


By mid-month, Mercury is still a morning target, at -0.3 mag, but is now separated from the Sun by under 19 1/2 degrees. On the morning of the 15th, Mercury, the very old and razor-thin crescent Moon and Saturn form a triangle in the SE before dawn, though it make be tricky to pick them out in the glare of the dawn sky. 

 

By the end of the month, Mercury has brightened a little to -0.6 mag, but has decreased its separation from the Sun to just under 12 degrees and is now sitting in a very shallow angle in the ecliptic from the temperate northern hemisphere, which will make observations impractical from these parts - though observers in the equatorial and southern parts of our planet will fair better for a little while longer. 

 

 

Venus

 

Venus starts the year just over a week from superior conjunction, so will be unobservable to all intents and purposes until it reappears as an evening target. Superior conjunction occurs on the 8th, when Venus passes to the south of the Sun in Sagittarius. 

 

Inner Solar System, mid-January 2018.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


By the 31st, Venus is 5 1/2 degrees from the Sun and stands 2 2/3 degrees high in the west at sunset (from latitude 51 degrees N). The planet's proximity to the Sun will mean it remains a challenging target to say the least, despite its -3.9 mag brightness. 

 

 

Mars

 

Mars begins the year in Libra. The Red Planet presents itself as a rather disappointing +1.5 mag, 4.8 arc second diameter target, transiting around sunrise on the 1st. The nearby and much brighter Jupiter provides a useful signpost for its fainter neighbour, sitting 2 1/2 degrees to the east. The two planets draw closer together during the first week of January and come together in close conjunction, separated by just a quarter of a degree at sunrise on the 7th. This is an opportunity to see these two very different worlds in the same eyepiece of a telescope - though the much larger and brighter Jupiter will be much the more interesting to observe at the present time. 

 

Mars, Jupiter and Moons, 5.30am (GMT), 7th January.  Blue circle represents a 1/4 degree field.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Mid-January finds Mars little changed: it has brightened fractionally to +1.4 mag and is now 5.1 arc seconds across. It stands 20 3/4 degrees high in the south (from latitude 51 degrees N) at sunrise. Slowly, Mars is increasing its angular separation from the Sun, which now stands at 62 degrees. 

 

By the end of the month, Mars is in Scorpius, and has increased its brightness to +1.2 mag. It's angular size is now 5.6 arc seconds across and it stands 18 1/2 degrees high at sunrise (from latitude 51 degrees N). 

 

 

Jupiter 

 

The beginning of 2018 finds Jupiter in Libra, shining at -1.8 mag and displaying a 33.2 arc second diameter. Rising at a little past 3.30am (GMT), the planet is just a little shy of transiting as the Sun rises at 8.06am, when it will be just under 22 2/3 degrees high (from 51 degrees N).

 

Jupiter, GRS and Ganymede Transit, 7.30am (GMT), 5th January.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 

As previously reported January 6th/7th finds Jupiter and Mars in very close conjunction with one another, the two being under 1/4 of a degree at closest. Jupiter will certainly help in locating the much fainter Mars - the difference in the two worlds appearing striking in the eyepiece. 

 

Mid-month finds Jupiter much the same: it has brightened a little to -1.9 mag and is now 34.2 arc seconds diameter. The King of the Planets now rises at 2.53am (GMT) and transits a little before sunrise at 7am, when it stands 22 degrees high in the south (from 51 degrees N).

 

Late January finds Jupiter in Libra at -2.0 mag, 35.8 arc seconds diameter and standing 21 1/2 degrees high at transit point, which it reaches at 6.35am (GMT). The planet rises at just after 2am local time (from 51 degrees N).

 

Saturn 

 

Saturn begins the year in Sagittarius. Having recently reemerged as a morning object after December 2017's superior conjunction, the ringed planet is not best placed for observation at the present time, being only 9 degrees from the Sun on the 1st. 

 

The situation has improved somewhat by month's end, with the  +0.6 magnitude Saturn sitting around 11 degrees high in the SSE at sunrise, now separated from the Sun by 36 degrees. 

 

 

Uranus and Neptune 

 

Uranus and Neptune are both early evening targets during January, in Pisces and Aquarius respectively. At +5.8 magnitude and 3.5 arc seconds diameter, Uranus is definitely the easier target and is technically a naked eye object - though you will need an exceptional observation site, good eyesight and very favourable atmospheric conditions to spot it without optical aid. Binoculars or a telescope provide a much better chance to find the planet, which appears as a green-gray disk in telescopes. Uranus is found in the central "V" of Pisces and transits around 6pm (GMT, from 51 degrees N) during the middle of the month, setting at a little before 1am. Being further east in the ecliptic than Neptune is, Uranus is better placed for observation than its neighbour. 

 

Urnaus and Neptune, early evening, 15th January 2018.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 

Neptune, at +7.9 magnitude is fainter and subsequently much more tricky. However, larger binoculars or a telescope will reveal the planet's tiny 2.2 arc second disk, which in larger instruments will show a blue tinge. The planet will set at a little before 9pm (GMT, from 51 degrees N) on the 15th. Being closer to the Sun than Uranus, it offers a shorter window for observation. 

 

Comets

 

There are no reasonably bright comets predicted to be observable during January.  Comet 2017 O1 ASASSN didn’t reach peak predicted brightness and is now most definitely in decline.  For Southern Hemisphere observers, there’s the chance to catch the reasonably recently discovered Comet Heinze 2017 T1 as it passes just 0.2AU from the Earth in early January.  It will only be of around 10th magnitude when it does so, as it is quite a small comet.

 

We have the distinct probability of three naked eye comets during 2018 - the recently discovered comet Pan STARRS 2017 S3, which should reach a peak in August/September, and the return of periodic comets 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (which could reach mag 4 in August/September) and 46/P Wirtanen (which is due to reach naked eye visibility in the latter part of the year, peaking in December for those in the northern hemisphere).

 

Meteors

 

The Quadrantids are the major shower of January and are normally fairly numerous in ZHR, yet rather muted brightness-wise in comparison with the major showers of the year.  The Quadrantids emanate from the northern polar region of the sky around Bootes, Draco and Hercules.  Possibly seeded by Minor Planet 2003 EH1, which may well be an extinct comet, the Quadrantids are numerous at their peak, sometimes reaching a Zenithal Hourly Rate of approaching 200 (though of course not all of these will be seen from a given location).  This year, the peak date of the Quadrantids  - January 3rd/4th - coincides with a fairly Full Moon, which will rather spoil the show somewhat.  The Quadrantids sometimes peak with major storms, but the cloud of debris that seeds it is often perturbed by the passage of the major planets, which can't be easily predicted.  With the Moon in the way, the Quadrantids won’t be at their best this year sadly.

 

Deep Sky Delights in Orion and Lepus

 

Almost inevitably, at this time of year, we must cover with the spectacular constellation of Orion.  As a constellation, it is perhaps the the most instantaneously recognisable of all those in the sky.  It is home to many deep sky wonders, so it won’t surprise many readers that we practically we should start with one of the most recognisable of astronomical targets: the Orion Nebula complex - M42, M43 and the outlying NGCs 1973, 1975 and 1977.  This remarkable set of objects are the most prominent part of the larger Orion Molecular Cloud, a huge collection of clouds of gas and material that were we to be able to see it all, would take up almost the entirely of the constellation.

 

Orion and Lepus.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


M42, the brightest part of the complex and the best know is visible to the naked eye as a misty patch in the "Sword Handle" of Orion, a patch of sky hanging below the three stars in Orion's belt: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka (Zeta, Epslion and Delta, respectively).  At +4.00 mag, the Orion Nebula is the brightest of all the nebulous regions in the sky and can be easily seen well in binoculars and small telescopes.  It has a huge area of 85 arc minutes x 60 arc minutes and has a heart-shaped void, amidst two "wings" flying out to either side.  This void is often described as resembling a fish mouth, in which nestle the compact cluster of stars, the Trapezium.  This cluster was first described by Galileo in 1610, who mysteriously neglected to mention the huge amount of nebulosity surrounding them!  The Trapezium stars are very young and are formed out of the nebulosity that surrounds them.  Four of these stars, A ,B, C and D are easily resolved with all manner of instruments.  The fainter E and F stars are more of a challenge and can be used to test seeing conditions and the resolving power of optics.  The A and B stars of the Trapezium are both eclipsing binary stars: A drops  in magnitude every 65 days as an unseen companion, most likely a nascent star or large brown dwarf eclipses it; whereas B drops by a magnitude every 6.5 days as it is eclipsed by a star the size of our Sun.  Confusingly B is a double double or quadruple star system.  Many of the large amount of stars seen around the M42/Trapezium area are also members of this central star cluster.  In all there are thought to be 400 stars in close proximity which have been born from the interior of the Nebula.  As large globules of superheated gas have been observed within the confines of M42, active star formation is still very much ongoing.  The "Fish Mouth" feature is thought to be caused by the young stars pushing away gas and dust with their solar wind.  

 

M42, M43 and the Running Man. Image Credit: Mark Blundell

 

Adjacent to M42 is M43, a very bright globular-shaped ball of gas and dust of +9 mag., which is separated from M42 by a large dust lane.  This nebula, though not as prominent as M42, is easy in small telescopes and has its own associated small cluster of stars imbedded within it.  Larger telescopes of 8-inch+ will show much of the dark striation of the border lane with M42.  This nebula was first identified by Jean-Jaques Dortous de Marian in 1731.  It lies around 1400 light years from us.

 

To the north of both M42 and M43 lies the complex and beautiful reflection nebulae of NGC 1973, 1975 and 1977.  Otherwise known are  The Running Man Nebula, due to the impression of a running stick figure which is easily visible in long duration photographs of the area.  This feature is much less easily seen visually as filtration rarely aids visual observation.  With a large scope and good skies, it is possible to see the striation of the running figure with averted vision, but it is a challenge.  The nebulosity of this area is clear enough with a medium-sized scope.  However, the distance to this collection of objects is disputed.  Many sources list it as part of the Orion complex at around 1500 light years away, though others put them at a closer 650 light years away.

 

Moving NE of the M42/43 and Running Man Complex, we come to the most easterly star in Orion's belt, Alnitak, Zeta Orionis.  This star is flanked by two well known, beautiful, but challenging nebulae - NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula and the IC434/Barnard 33 the famous Horsehead Nebula.  

 

Of the two, the Flame Nebula is technically the fainter at +10.0 mag and is about half a degree by half a degree (30 arc minutes) in area.  With a small scope and less than optimal skies, it is a challenge, but with an 8-10-inch class scope and a UHC filter, this nebula can be quite easily observed from a reasonable location and photographs well too.  It does, both visually and photographically, resemble the shape, if not the exact hue of a flame.  Photographically NGC2024 can appear as a yellowy-brown nebula, though some more detailed images do reveal a pinkish tinge too.  The Flame is an emission nebula and its glow is caused by the Ultraviolet radiation of nearby Alnitak exciting the Hydrogen gas of the Flame and stripping electrons from their atomic bonds.  These electrons then combine with ionised Hydrogen which causes a glow.  William Herschel is credited with the discovery of The Flame in 1786.  Again, sources differ as to the Flame's distance from Earth, some put it some 1400 light years away, while others put it at a more modest 750-850 light years away - roughly the same as Alnitak.

 

The Flame and Horsehead Nebulae.  Image Credit: Mark Blundell

 

The Flame's neighbour, the Horsehead Nebula, is one of the most stunning objects in the sky, yet one of the most challenging to observe well.  Lying under half a degree to the west of Alnitak, it is really two objects - the backdrop is the +7.30 mag emission nebula IC434, which is nearly a degree long yet only around 10 arc minutes wide, against which lies the dark lane nebula Barnard 33.  This is the famous Horsehead silhouette, know form countless images and a perennial target for astrophotographers.  Visually however, observation of the Horsehead requires aperture, a really dark sky and/or proper filtration.  Observers have reported seeing the Horsehead feature against IC434 with medium aperture telescopes, though these have tended to be from a very dark location.  The Hydrogen Beta filter is the best aid to any attempt to observe the Horsehead with any telescope, as it is one of the relatively few objects that really responds well to the wavelength.  Experienced observers have reported observations in smaller scopes, but this must be down to exceptional conditions.  Those with 12-inch+ telescopes, the H-Beta filter and reasonable skies stand a good chance of locating it.

 

A little further to the north of Alnitak and the Flame Nebula lurks an often overlooked, but very interesting object - or series of objects - M78.  Discovered by Pierre Mechain in 1780, this reflection nebula is a group of objects (NgCs 2065, 2067 and 2071), clustered around two minor 10th magnitude stars.  The light from these stars reflected from the nebula is the reason we can see this part of the Orion Molecular Cloud.  M78 isn’t as bright as its illustrious neighbours, but can be relatively easily observed with a reasonable-sized telescope.  M78’s visual magnitude is about +8.3 and its area is about 8x6 arc minutes.  Interesting internal structure is visible in large telescopes and in images - though it’s a trick object to catch as most of the nebulosity is so dark.

 

M78.  Image Credit: Mark Blundell

 

More challenging still - and by far the largest of the nebulous objects in the Orion area - is Barnard's Loop or Sharpless 2-276.  Reputedly (though rather controversially) discovered and described by William Herschel in the 1786 - he mentions faint nebulosity in the area of Barnard's Loop - it is E. E. Barnard who in 1896 photographically definitively discovered this large, expansive and extremely illusive nebula, which is an amazing 14 degrees arc at its widest point.  Though technically listed as being a +10 mag object, it is so diffuse that it seems almost impossible to see from all but the darkest areas on Earth.  Yet some observers have even reported seeing it without the aid of a telescope.  Rigging up "goggles" of two H-Beta filters appears to be an inventive way of attempting observations of this kind, as does binoculars with these filters attached to the objectives.  Telescopically, one has a greater chance of seeing some of the brighter parts of Barnard's Loop, but dark skies are of paramount importance whatever the method used. The rule is: if you don't have them - don't bother!

 

Barnard's loop shows up very well in long-duration ultra-widefield astrophotography, but again, this will require very good sky conditions, patience and multiple, stacked exposures to get the nebula to stand out from the sky background.  

 

Barnard's Loop.  Image Credit: Hunter Wilson, Creative Commons

 

It is thought that Barnard's Loop is a supernova remnant that has been expanded by further supernovae and subsequent star forming over many millions of years, forming a "bubble" of gas, part of which is visible as the loop.  This awe-inspiring piece of stellar architecture is thought to be around 300 light years in diameter and lie around 1600 light years from our Solar System.

 

Lepus, the constellation representing the Hare, sits to the south of Orion and is much less spectacular to the naked eye.  From light polluted environments it is often difficult to see at all.  The only major object of interest in this particular constellation is M79.  This object is an unusual globular cluster, situated so far from the usual "Halo" of globulars which surround the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.  It could well be an inherited object from the adjacent Canis Minor dwarf galaxy, a satellite of our Milky Way which is located not too far away from this point in the sky.  M79 is a fine globular of +7.73 mag and 1.3 arc minutes diameter.  Discovered by Pierre Mechain - Messier’s fellow in observation and responsible for many discoveries in the Messier list - in 1780 and added to Messier's list in the same year, this globular can easily be resolved into stars in a medium-sized 6-8 inch telescope.  Lying some 40,000 light years hence, M79 is a reasonably tricky object to observe from a northern hemispherical perspective as it rises a mere 14 degrees high at transit point from latitude 51 degrees N.  It is better seen by readers in the southern hemisphere, who will have to battle considerably less with atmospherics to resolve individual members.  Still, compared to the likes of the Messier globulars in southern Ophiuchius, Scorpius and Sagittarius, M79 is best seen during the evening in the northern hemisphere at a time of the year when the atmosphere tends to be steadier and more settled.  Due to its location in the sky, M79 is better imaged by astrophotographers in more southerly climes - though observers worldwide are encouraged to seek it out.

M79.  Image Credit: Siding Spring Observatory, Public Domain.

 

Text: Kerin Smith