December 31, 2015
The Night Sky:
 January begins with meteor shower, comet

By GERRY LEBING


If you follow the curve formed by the handle of the Big Dipper, about  five times the distance between Mizar and Alkaid, it will lead you to a very bright star, Arcturus.  If you watch it rise on New Year’s morning, you might be able to see the Catalina Comet.  

Some of my sources say Catalina will reach a magnitude of only +6, which means you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to view it.  Other sources say it will reach a magnitude of +4.2.  If that’s the case, you might be able to see Catalina with the naked eye!  

Comet Catalina will be in the night skies all of January.  It will reach its closest approach to Earth on Jan. 17.   On that night, it will appear to be in the proximity of  Mizar and Alkaid  (in the handle of the Big Dipper).  At a distance of 110 million kilometers and a visual magnitude of +5, it should be a great target for night viewing.

Mercury, Neptune and Uranus will be in the western skies in the evening.  Look for Mercury near the western horizon between 5:30 and 6: 20 p.m.  It begins the month setting at 6:30 p.m. and gets lower in the skies every evening.  By Jan. 12, it will be setting at 5:30 p.m., making it difficult to spot.  Neptune will begin the month fairly high in the western part of the night skies.  It will set about 9:30 p.m.  Uranus will begin the month almost directly overhead on the Ecliptic.  

Jupiter will begin the month rising in the east at 10:40 p.m.  It will be followed by Mars at 1:30 a.m., Venus at 4:20 a.m., and Saturn at 4:55 a.m.

DECEMBER HIGHLIGHTS

In the November column, I included a picture that featured M81 and M82 together in the same image.  Here are close-ups of the two galaxies I took on Dec. 15.  Both are about 12 million light years away.



MOON PHASES

Last Quarter: Jan. 2
New Moon: Jan. 9
First Quarter: Jan. 16
Full Moon: Jan. 23
Last Quarter: Jan. 31

ASTRONOMY TALK

The "ecliptic" is the path the sun appears to take around the Earth.  The planets all appear to stay close to this same path through the skies.

(Gerry Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.  He has visited Hatteras Island since the mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013.  Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)



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