January night sky

By CLIVE JACKSON [email protected]

Clive Jackson is the Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Tavira (Sitio do Malhão, Tavira) and the Camera Obscura (next to the Castle in Tavira), specialising in education and public outreach.

Welcome to the January night sky. On the first day of the month, just after sunset over in the southwest, the brilliant planet Venus is seen, and it is the brightest star-like object in the heavens at the moment.

The crescent Moon will be close by at that date. Venus will continue to get brighter and higher above the horizon and, by the middle of January, the planet will set nearly four hours after the sun.

Through a telescope, at this time, Venus will be seen to have a half Moon shape. This is called a phase and when the planet is at maximum elongation from the Sun, the phase is 50 per cent. Venus is a planet that orbits the Sun inside the orbit of the Earth and that is why we can see phase effects; in fact we are seeing the night side of the planet.

Venus is such a beautiful sight in the evening sky that it is hard to imagine that the reality is that the conditions on the surface of Venus are extreme with a temperature of 450ºC and an atmospheric pressure 90 times greater than the Earth’s.

On January 4, our planet is at its point in its orbit that is closest to the Sun. This is called perihelion and we are then around three per cent closer to the Sun than when we are at the furthest point, called aphelion, which occurs in July.

Over on the eastern horizon, during the evening, the ringed planet Saturn is rising. This planet is now in the constellation of Leo, but the rings are not well visible this year as the Earth is passing through the plane of the rings and they are now at a shallow angle to us. On January 14, the Moon will be seen close to Saturn;  this planet will be easy to recognise as it shines with a pale yellow colour and doesn’t “twinkle” the way stars do.

The NASA probe Cassini is still in orbit around Saturn and sending back excellent data regarding the planet and its Moons. Up until now more than 60 Moons have been discovered orbiting Saturn. On one of them, Hyperion, has been discovered hydrocarbons on the surface and these are the building blocks for more complex organic compounds. And on another, nceladus, Cassini has discovered spectacular water vapour geysers that shoot up many kilometres from its frozen surface.

The Moon is at First Quarter on the 4th, full on the 11th and Last Quarter on the 18th and New on January 26.

New year, new hope!

Of all the species on Earth, only humans try to explain who they are and how they came to be.

This makes things difficult for us and it would be far simpler to live life day-by-day and not ask the question why? At this point in time, we have the brains to ask the question but we are not yet smart enough to fully answer it.

Attempts have been made to fulfil a collective need through organised religion, but personally, I am not comfortable with this. The answer lies wholly within us and not in a place of worship.

We all, deep down, know the difference between right and wrong, but we are free to choose our own destiny – if we choose badly,  are there any consequences? This is a prime example of the laws of physics being valid for us as well as inanimate objects. You see that for every action there is a reaction that comes directly back at you… do bad and you get bad back, live by the sword and you die by the sword. There is a positive side to this, and that is if you do good you receive good.

The laws of physics are directly relevant to our lives. For example, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin and the very stars that make up the Galaxy that we live in convert mass into energy and the entire universe is brimming with energy of all types.

So, for 2009, try to tap into some of this “cosmic energy” by closing your eyes and opening your mind and I feel sure that some good will come of it.

The word cosmic simply means “of the universe”. Now the universe is not just the planets, stars and galaxies but it also includes all life within it.

This cosmic energy also includes us, and the frontiers of scientific research are beginning to bring together mind and matter in ways that emphasise that everything is interrelated and our thoughts and actions really are important in the grand scheme of things, so let’s make them good thoughts and good actions for 2009.

Clive Jackson can be contacted on (00351) 281 321 754, fax: (00351) 281 324 688 or email: [email protected]. You can visit his website by clicking the link on the right of this page.