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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 15 January 2008
In this issue:
  1. January's Highlights
  2. Mars Update
  3. Comet 8P/Tuttle
  4. Close Passages By The Moon
  5. Tip of the Month
  6. News Links
  7. Become a confident Astronomer
  8. Contact Us
January's Highlights

Highlights for this months observers include your last chance to get a good look at Mars, the Moon giving us some close approaches and a comet that might become 'naked eye' bright.

If you like meteor watching then conditions should be good for the Quadrantid shower this month. They have a fairly short period of activity between the 1st to the 5th of January and should have a 'peak' of activity on the 4th at 06h 40m UT (Universal Time is the same as Greenwich Mean Time).

They get their name from a now defunct constellation which wad located just to the north of Bootes the Herdsman and from which the meteors seem to emanate. This can be a rich shower, so if it's a clear night, wrap up warm and go and enjoy them!

If you got a new telescope for Christmas, then there are a host of wonderful objects in the winter sky that you can point it at and see perhaps, for the first time.

Don't miss the Great Orion Nebula and Mars of course, and also such delights as star clusters such as the Pleiades and the Andromeda galaxy. If you like a challenge, see if you can find M1, the Crab Nebula in Taurus and if you stay up late or get up early, then Saturn is tantalising in the Eastern sky in the early morning before sunrise.

FInally at the end of the month, try seeing if you can spot the planet Mercury in the West after sunset. It is at its greatest elongation on the 22nd so if you have a clear horizon you might be able to track it down.

Mars Update

Mars is just past opposition (exactly opposite the Sun in our sky) which occurred on December 24th. So January is really your last chance to get a good view of it as we are now drawing away from it quite rapidly and so it will appear to shrink from our point of view and therefore any detail on it will become increasingly harder to see.

As I mentioned last month, if you have a telescope it will need a fairly high power to show any features, but please note that high magnification can make the planet appear a fuzzy pink blob if you go too far. So be prepared to experiment with different powers to see how much the atmosphere and your telescope can stand. The features on Mars can be quite subtle and can take some practice to see them. So if you are new to astronomy and especially planetary observing, let you eye relax and take a few deep breaths to charge your brain with oxygen as this can help you to see the detail. Coloured filters can also help and are certainly worth experimenting with.

Mars reaches its highest point in the sky due south (called culmination) on the 1st of January and looks like a salmon-pink star shining at magnitude 1.5 on the borders of the constellations of Taurus the Bull and Gemini the Twins. Take some time to observe this beautiful planet and it will reward you with dark marking and possibly a polar cap.

Comet 8P/Tuttle

This comet is likely to reach maximum brightness this month, which is predicted for the 5th and 6th. You can find it in the constellation of Pisces the Fishes near the point where the 'cords' that binds the two fishes together meet.

The comet will be sinking rapidly into the south, so you'll need to be quick if you would like to see it. A pair of 7x or 10x50 binoculars should show it to good effect and it should be just visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch from a dark sky site. Comets are notoriously difficult to predict however, so it is almost impossible to tell how this particular one will perform. If you do get to see it, look out for two 'tails' to the comet, one a dust tail and the other an ion tail that will be pointing directly away from the Sun. The is a tail of charged particles that are swept away from the cometary body by the 'solar wind'; a stream of charged particles that are constantly being shed by the Sun.

Close Passages By The Moon

The Moon will 'brush past' Mars this month, or at least seem to do this on the sky. Its closest approach as seen from mid-northern latitudes will bring it to around 0.5-degrees from the centre of each object, that is effectively one Moon diameter.This means that the Moon's southern edge will miss the Red Planet by as little a one quarter of one degree! Of course this is just a line of sight effect, but none the less a fascinating sight.

The action occurs just after midnight UT on the 19th and Mars should be bright enough to be seen clearly above the glare of the Moon. You will need no equipment to observe this phenomena, although again a pair of binoculars will come in handy. If you would like to try and photograph it, then try a fairly wide angle shot to show the red 'dot' of Mars near to the disc of the Moon.

The Moon will also occult several stars in the distant star cluster of M44 known as the Beehive Cluster in the constellation of Cancer the Crab. This event will occur on the evening of the 22nd January at 21:00Hrs UT. This time you almost certainly will need a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, as the brightness of the Moon will all but swamp the fainter cluster that has a magnitude of 3.7

Again if you would like to attempt to photograph this event, you will need a clear sky and I would suggest that you take one shot that has the Moon 'over-exposed' to show the cluster and another that should have the Moon at the correct exposure which you can then 'stitch together' in a program such as Photoshop.

Finally, in the early hours of the 25th January a bright Gibbous Moon will pass 3-degrees to the south of the planet Saturn.

Tip of the Month

About binoculars...

Tip: Binoculars are really useful for astronomical observing. The good news is that very 'standard' types such as 7x50 or 10x50 make the most suitable instruments for this. The second number - in this case '50' - is the diameter of the front lens or 'objective' lens of the binoculars in millimetres and the first number is the magnification that you get. It is difficult to hand hold any binoculars much above 10x magnification, as you are effectively magnify your 'handshake' as well as the object that you want to look at. So don't be tempted to overdo the magnification if you are think of buying a new pair!
  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

The Year in Space
The highlights (an lowlights!) of 2007 and what can we expect in 2008? When historians look back at 2007 - the 50th anniversary of the start of the first space race - they may well pick this date as the start of a second international space race.

Cosmic Cannonball
One of the fastest moving stars ever seen has been discovered with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This cosmic cannonball is challenging theories to explain its blistering speed. more...

Researchers in Maryland and elsewhere are preparing proposals for a new space telescope aimed at exploring dark energy's secrets.
"It addresses arguably the biggest problem physics is facing right now," said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "Dark energy makes up 74 percent of the universe, it's the dominant type of energy in the universe, and we haven't a clue of what it is." more...

Largest Digital Survey of the Milky Way Released
A collaboration of over 50 astronomers, The IPHAS consortium, led from the UK, with partners in Europe, USA, Australia, has released today (10th December 2007) the first comprehensive optical digital survey of our own Milky Way more...

Donít call the aliens, they might not be friendly
Two senior scientists have resigned from an elite international study group in protest over a lack of public discussion about the possible consequences of attracting the attention of aliens by sending signals deep into space. more...

Got a telescope for Christmas? Do you want to learn more about the night sky and how to use telescopes and binoculars to see it better?..

My online course gives you all the essential information to be a good astronomer, without lots of jargon or difficult maths. You'll get loads of free bonuses and it also has videos and animations to help make the explanations clear and concise. So if you want to know what Sir Patrick wished for...

...please take a look at my eCourse called 'Basic Astronomy with a Telescope'. It's what Sir Patrick wished he'd had when he started out in astronomy!

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