Heavens Above

Jessica Copeland

A look ahead at some of the exciting things visible in the night sky in the first part of the New Year.

Already this year the Moon has been at its closest point to the Earth. Known as the perigee, the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth occurred on January 2.  This is fairly common, but was made more exciting by coinciding with the full moon, making the moon appear a bit brighter and larger. Two full moons will occur in January, and in March as well. When this happens it is known as a ‘blue moon’.

Just before dawn is an excellent time to see some visible planets in January. On January 6, Mars and Jupiter are visible together just above the Southern horizon; perfect for if you’re just leaving the pub!

On the January 17, there will be a new moon meaning no moon in the sky, making it perfect conditions for observing the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest galaxy to our own Milky Way and the largest in our galactic neighbourhood. The first recorded sighting was in 964AD, but you can find it by following Schedar, the brightest star in the constellation of Cassiopeia.

The dwarf planet, Ceres, will be in a good location for observation on the February 1, but you’ll definitely need a telescope! This lump of rock and ice makes its home in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but interestingly may hide inside a residual ocean of liquid water. On the night of March 11, the periodic solar comet 74P/Smirnova-Chernykh is predicted to reach its brightest. From 8:15 in the evening, it will be visible, until around 4:50 in the morning. While the future positions of comets can be calculated to a high degree of accuracy, their future brightness’s are more unpredictable. As they move closer to the Sun, increased temperature and the Solar wind will affect their brightness, as they melt or are blown away.

The Vernal Equinox will take place on March 20, the point at which the length of night and day is equal, and marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. From that point onward, astronomers will start losing the darkness!

Rounding off the period,  April sees the Lyrids meteor shower, peaking in frequency and brightness on the night of April 22 and the morning of April 23. Once a year, the path of the Earth takes it through a patch of dust particles shed by a comet with a very long return period. This dust burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere causing shooting stars that centre on the constellation of Lyra. Usually, you can observe six to 20 meteors in an hour and perhaps even a ‘fireball’; these are much brighter and leave smoky trails. Unfortunately, this year’s shower coincides with a full moon obscuring much of the show in the early evening.