Inconstant stars in stunning New Year sky
Our evening sky is bursting with stellar interest but devoid of bright planets. Instead, Mars partners Jupiter in the predawn in the south-east to south while the impending spectacle of the annual Quadrantids meteor shower is rather blunted by bright moonlight.
The charts show Taurus high on the meridian, above and to the right of the unmistakable form of Orion whose brightest stars are the distinctly reddish supergiant Betelgeuse and the contrasting blue-white supergiant Rigel.
Between them lie the three stars of Orion’s Belt, while hanging below the middle of these is his fainter Sword with the Orion Nebula. The latter’s diffuse glow, visible to the unaided eye under decent conditions and obvious through binoculars, comes from a region where new stars and planets are forming. It lies some 1,350 light years away and is one of the most intensively studied objects in the entire sky.
Two iconic variable stars, Algol and Mira, are well placed in the evening. Algol in Perseus, the archetype of eclipsing variable stars, has two unequal stars that orbit around, and hide, each other every 2 days 20 hours and 49 minutes. Normally Algol shines at magnitude 2.1 and is almost identical in brightness to the star Almach in Andromeda, 12° to its west and labelled on the chart.
However, when Algol’s fainter star partially obscures its brighter companion, their combined light dips to magnitude 3.4, one third as bright, in an eclipse that lasts for about 10 hours and can be followed with nothing more than the naked eye. This month, Algol is at its mid-eclipse faintest at 02:45 on the 13th, 23:34 on the 15th and 20:23 on the 18th.
Mira, by contrast, is a single red giant star that pulsates in size and brightness every 332 days on average. It lies well to the west of Orion in Cetus, the sea monster of Greek mythology which was slain by Perseus when he rescued Andromeda.
During a typical pulsation, Mira varies between about magnitude 3.5, easy for the naked eye, and the ninth magnitude, probably needing a telescope. Unlike Algol, whose variability is like clockwork, Mira is less predictable and it has been known to touch the second magnitude, as it did in 2011. Now is the time to check, for it is close to its maximum as the year begins. Markedly orange in colour, it dims only half as quickly as it brightens so should remain as a naked-eye object throughout January.
Named for the extinct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids meteors diverge from a radiant point in northern Bootes which lies low in the north at our map times and climbs to stand high in the east before dawn. Meteors are seen between the 1st and 6th but peak rates persist for only a few hours around the shower’s peak, due this time at about 21:00 on the 3rd when 80 or more meteors per hour might be counted by an observer with the radiant overhead in a clear moonless sky. However, with the radiant low in the north and moonlight flooding the sky at the time, expect to see only a fraction of these, perhaps trailing overhead from north to south.
Earlier on the 3rd, at 06:00, the Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun in its annual orbit. Edinburgh’s sunrise/sunset times change from 08:44/15:49 on the 1st to 08:09/16:44 on the 31st. The Moon is full at 02:25 on the 2nd, only four hours after it reaches its closest point to the Earth for the entire year. There is a relatively modern obsession in dubbing such an event a supermoon, because the Moon appears 17% wider than it does when at its furthest. The difference between an average full moon and this one, though, is hardly “super” and far from obvious to the eye.
The Moon’s last quarter on the 8th is followed by new on the 17th, first quarter on the 24th and full again on the 31st when it passes through the southern half of the Earth’s shadow in a total lunar eclipse. Sadly, the event is over before sunset and moonrise for Britain.
Venus slips around the Sun’s far side to reach superior conjunction on the 9th and leave Jupiter as our brightest morning planet. Seen from Edinburgh, the latter rises in the east-south-east at 04:04 on the 1st and is climbing more than 15° high into the south before dawn. Conspicuous at magnitude -1.8 to -2.0, it creeps 4° eastwards to the east of the famous double star Zubenelgenubi in Libra and rises at 02:30 by the month’s end.
Mars, much fainter at magnitude 1.5, lies almost 3° above-right of Jupiter on the 1st and tracks more quickly eastwards to stand only 14 arcminutes (half a Moon’s breadth) below Jupiter before dawn on the 7th. The pair lie below the waning Moon in our predawn sky on the 11th when Jupiter’s cloud-banded disk 34 arcseconds wide and visible through any telescope, while Mars is still too small to appear interesting. Mars is brighter at magnitude 1.2 and stands 12° to the left of Jupiter by the 31st.
Mercury, bright at magnitude -0.3, may be glimpsed through binoculars as it hovers very low above our south-eastern horizon for more than 90 minutes before sunrise until the 8th. Given a clear horizon it may still be visible on the 15th when it stands 2.6° below-right of the vanishingly slender waning Moon. Saturn, half as bright at magnitude 0.5, lies 4° right of the Moon on that morning but is easier to spot by the month’s end when it rises almost two hours before the Sun.