The January night sky

news: The January night sky

The month of the giant ringed planet.

THE NEW YEAR starts off with a comet called Macholz, named after its discoverer Don Macholz, who saw it in August 2004. This comet will not be spectacular; in fact, it may be barely visible with the unaided eye, but, through binoculars, it will appear as a pale blue-green fuzz ball, about the size of the moon in apparent diameter. In the late evening of January 8, it will be easy to find as it passes, practically overhead, just to the west of the Pleiades star cluster.

January is also the month of the giant ringed planet, Saturn. The planet is at opposition to the sun on the 13th and thus rises in the east at sunset. It is at its highest in the sky at midnight and sets in the west at sunrise. Saturn is easy to find in January as it is in the constellation of Gemini and will be high in the east in the late evening sky. This planet shines with a pale orange colour and doesn’t ‘twinkle’ the way that bright stars do.

In orbit, around Saturn, is a space probe called Cassini and, on January 14, an entry capsule called Huygens will land on the surface of Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. The surface of Titan is a mystery as it is covered with a dense opaque atmosphere. This moon has all the chemical ‘ingredients’ for primitive life (microorganisms), but exactly what will be found on the 14th we will have to wait and see.

On January 2, the Earth is at its Perihelion point in its orbit, which means that it is slightly closer to the Sun than average (1.5 per cent). This is due to the elliptical shape of our orbit that helps to keep our northern winters very slightly less cold than they would otherwise be.

The moon is at last quarter on the 3rd, new moon on the 10th, first quarter on the 17th and full moon on January 25.

• Clive Jackson is the director of the Astronomical Observatory in Malhão and the Torre de Tavira (Câmara Obscura) in the centre of Tavira, specialising in education and public outreach.

Tel 281 321 754, Fax 281 324 688, email [email protected] or visit website