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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 39 January 2010
In this issue:
  1. January's Highlights
  2. New Chichester Course
  3. Mars at Opposition
  4. Minimum of Algol
  5. Deep Sky Highlights of January
  6. News Links
  7. Become a confident Astronomer
  8. Are you interested in Imaging?
  9. Contact Us
January's Highlights

Happy New Year! I wish you clear dark skies for 2010.

January brings us lots of interesting sights in the night skies and long hours of darkness to enjoy.

We have a comet to view this month, called 'Siding Spring'. Although it is not particularly bright, you will need to use binoculars or a small telescope to see it, it should still be worth the effort. You can find slightly west of the bright star Arcturus in Bootes on the 1st of the month. It will track up towards Gamma Bootes or 'Seginus'on the right hand side of the 'Kite' asterism of Bootes, by the end of January.

Jupiter is still on view in the early evening, but is rapidly heading towards its conjunction with the Sun at the end of February and is visible in the south west after sunset. The planet is not very well placed for viewing of itself, but you can still enjoy the Galilean moons carrying out their nightly dance about the planet.

Mercury re-emerges from behind the Sun this month and will be at its greatest western elongation, or distance from the SUn from our point of view on the 27th. You can find it low down in the south-eastern sky before dawn. You should be able to see it from around the 11th at about 07:15UT.

The Moon will be full on 30th January. This one is interesting as it will be the largest apparition for the whole year. This is because the Moon will be at 'perigee', or the closest that it gets to the Earth, just three hours later. In August, it will be at 'apogee' or the furthest point in its orbit around us, so it will appear smaller in the sky. So this month will see the Moon about 15% brighter and 7% larger than the average.
New Chichester Course

I'm starting a new season of courses this month at the Southdown's Planetarium in Chichester.

The course is called 'Basic Astronomy with a Telescope' and is designed to give beginners to the subject a good basic grounding in the essentials of getting going observing the night sky.

I'll cover topics such as how a telescope works; basic optics, so that you'll know how to either choose a scope to suite you, or how to get the best out of what you already have. We also get to grips with setting up an equatorial mount (under the stars of the planetarium dome) and learn how to read a star chart by understanding the dreaded Right Ascension and Declination co-ordinate system. This is made a whole lot easier in the planetarium, as we can project grids and other positional references onto the artificial sky of the dome.

We will also take a trip to the Clanfield Observatory, not too far from Chichester, to see a working observatory and if we have a clear sky will get to use one of the large telescopes there.

The course is held on a Monday evening starting on the 11th January at 7:15pm and lasts 10 weeks (ten consecutive Monday evenings). So if you live near the lovely city of Chichester in West Sussex and would like to really get going with your hobby, please take a look at the page on the web site Where you can download an enrolment form and book your place.

I have already started taking bookings, so if you would like to join us, please don't hold back. I'm limited to 20 places on the course! If you can't make it to Chichester, then please consider the 'online' version, about which, there is more below...
Mars at Opposition

Mars will be opposite to the Sun in the sky on the 29th of the month, otherwise known as 'opposition'. This is always the best time to see a planet, when they are at their largest and brightest and Mars is no exception.

For those of us in Europe the added bonus is that it will be quite high in the sky and due south just after midnight on the 29th. You will need a telescope to see the disc of the planet, but this should be obvious even at low power. A higher magnification should start to show some features, but remember that the planet is quite small and you might need to give it a few minutes of study before these features become noticeable.

Mars will definitely reward patient study as you begin to discern some of the darker markings and possibly a bright polar cap. A red or orange filter will help improve the contrast and make these features more obvious. I cover more about this in my course...

Minimum of Algol

There are many stars in the sky that vary in brightness of the course of days, months or even years and can vary in light output due to a number of factors and can vary just a small amount and be hardly noticeable, where other can be naked eye bright then disappear from view!

If you find the variability of stars remotely interesting, then an easy one to follow is the star Algol in the constellation of Perseus.

Algol is sometimes called the 'winking demon' as it is supposed to represent the eye in the head of a gorgon, removed from its body by the brave hero. Perseus now uses it as a weapon, as whoever looks into the face of the gorgon is turned to stone. Fortunately, this won't happen if you study this fascinating star.

Algol is an eclipsing binary star, which means that it is in fact two stars that orbit each other, one brighter than the other and as the fainter star apsses in front of the brighter from our point of view, it dim's the total light output of the pair, as it does when it passes behind the brighter star also. These stars orbit each other quite rapidly and so the variability is regular and relatively rapid taking 3.21 days between each minima. You can record this on a graph and see for yourself...

The next minima of Algol occurs at 20:06 UT on 1st of January, so if you are not too hung over from the previous evening's party, go out and see how bright the star is and follow it back up in brightness over the next two or three nights.
Deep Sky Highlights of January

There is plenty to see in the region of sky east of Orion this month and below I've selected some choice targets.

The constellation of Monoceros the Unicorn lies to the east (left) of Orion and although it isn't a bright or particularly easy constellation to pick out, it is peppered with interesting objects. Last month I briefly mentioned the Christmas Tree Cluster or NGC2264 to give it its proper title, but the area of sky has a lot more to offer the intrepid observer.

One degree south of the Christmas tree Cluster lies Hubble's Variable Nebula. This nebula varies in brightness due to an irregular variable star embedded in it, that can change its brightness over weeks or sometimes months. A 5-inch aperture telescope should be large enough to detect it from a dark sky sight, so get that star chart out an have a go.

I mentioned the Rossette Nebula last month, so if you didn't see it then, have another go, as it is the one of the loveliest nebula in this region. A UHC or Nebula filter will help you see the Rosette Nebula. Use a low power wide angle eyepiece to hunt down this region of glowing hydrogen gas, which although quite faint, nevertheless covers quite a large area of sky, around three times the diameter of the full Moon! There is a star cluster in the middle of the nebula NGC2244, the stars of which have been born from the gas and dust that makes up the Rosette nebula.

While you are in this area of sky, that a look at Messier 50 (M50) a little to the north east of the very bright star Sirius. This is a loose open cluster of stars that looks like a misty patch in binoculars, but reveals 25-30 stars in an 8-inch telescope at medium power. Fainter members of this cluster will be revealed at high power on a steady night. Good hunting!
  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

Brown dwarf pair mystifies astronomers
Two brown dwarf-sized objects ... show that planets may assemble around stars more quickly and efficiently than anyone thought possible ...

The significance of the solstice: Lights brighten dark skies of winter
The winter solstice, falling smack dab in the middle of the high-watt holidays, is easily lost in the ubiquitous glare of these artificial lights. more...

New Space Telescope to Begin Test Run
NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) will undergo a one-month checkout before beginning a detailed survey of the entire sky in infrared light. more...

British Science Funding Cuts Strike Nuclear Physics, Astronomy, and More
For astronomers, the discouraging headline is that STFC will withdraw U.K. support from a number of international projects in 2012.... After that date, U.K. astronomers will no longer have access to a major observatory in the northern hemisphere. more...

How astronomers discovered the water planet GJ 1214b
How did astronomers discover this planet and how do they know its composition is mostly water? more...

  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!

  Are you interested in Imaging?

You can learn how to take stunning images of the night sky with your digital slr camera that will amaze your friends and family with the eBook
DSLR Astrophotography - A Beginners Guide which I co-wrote with my friend Jon Walton...

To contact us

Telephone me on +44(0)208 144 1091

or contact me by email

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