Every month, AY About You outlines the night sky in these easily digestible guides. And stargazing in January is another one for the books.
This month features local astrophotography from Arkansan Tony Milligan. You can find more of his spectacular photos on his website, Captured in Time.
Third Quarter: Jan. 6
New Moon: Jan. 12
First Quarter: Jan. 20
Full Moon: Jan. 28*
*The full moon of January is often referred to as the Wolf Moon for the howling predators of the winter months, which is more than likely a Native American origination. (Although some sources claim it derived from Anglo-Saxon roots.)
Quadrantid Meteor Shower: Jan. 1 to 5
Peak Night(s): Jan. 2, 3
The Quadrantids is a better-than-average raining of meteors that gets the new year started off with plenty of “shooting stars” to wish upon. Formed from the dust grains of the extinct comet 2003 EH1, the Quadrantids mists the night skies of early January with about 40-120 meteors per hour at its peak.
This year, the moon will rest at Third Quarter during the shower’s duration, presenting decent lighting conditions to view meteors. Look to the constellation Bootes at nightfall; activity will ebb and flow throughout the night.
Planets and Special Events
Jan. 4: Close Approach of the Moon and Asteroid Vesta
On the first Monday of the year, the moon will make a close approach in our sky to the asteroid Vesta, one of the largest objects in the Asteroid Belt and the brightest asteroid in our night sky. Look to the southwest to see the pair, which will fit in the same view field of binoculars or a telescope.
Jan. 9: Close Approach of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn
Less than one week later, three of our fellow planets of this system will form a tightly knit triangle, as Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn will make close approaches with each other. This will not be a rival to last month’s Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, but it will still be a treat for stargazers. Jan. 9 actually marks a multi-day event, when the innermost planet Mercury will climb up the sky toward Jupiter and Saturn, eventually meeting Jupiter on Jan. 11 and surpassing the pair on Jan. 12. Look to the southwestern horizon just after sunset. But be quick: Mercury is closer to the sun than we are, and thus does not stick around very long after dark.
Jan. 20: The Moon Passes by Mars and Uranus
On the night of the moon’s First Quarter phase, our celestial satellite will make a close pass by both Mars and Uranus. Look to the southwest at nightfall and watch the trio slowly move westward throughout the night before eventually setting.
Jan. 23: Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation
This month, Mercury reaches its greatest point of separation from the sun in its January-February evening apparition, also called its greatest eastern elongation. This also marks the planet’s highest point in the evening sky, as it will climb to an altitude of 16 degrees above the horizon from Jan. 23 to 29, before beginning its descent in February. Look to the southwest at and just after sunset.
In the News
It’s time to go deeper into space.
While 2020 may have derailed and delayed some scientific plans due to the pandemic, 2021 still promises to be a year of science “the likes of which we’ve rarely seen,” according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Multiple missions will explore Mars, new telescopes will begin observations and plans are underway to return humans to the moon by 2024.
No public events this month. Stay home and stay well.
If you’re still itching for more space to curb your boredom this month, give Celestia and Stellarium a try. Both are free to use and provide unique and interactive experiences with the stars, planets and more.
The best stargazing results are always going to be under the darkest of skies. So, if you can, find a place as far away from city lights as possible when stargazing in January.