January offers a glimpse of Comet Wirtanen and the
shooting starts of the Quadrantid meteor stream
As 2019 begins, Orion has returned to dominate the southern night sky. Mid-month, he is due south at 10pm. Follow Orion’s three-star Belt, 1200 light years distant, downwards to find the brightest star of the night, Sirius. Its constellation, Canis Major the Great Dog, may not be far above British horizons but it is well worth sweeping with binoculars. Orion’s Belt points upwards to Taurus the
Bull, depicted with its stars in the Lascaux Cave in south-west France by a Stone Age artist 17,000 years ago. Taurus’ sky marks are its two clusters of stars: the extensive Hyades star cluster is the Bull’s head, and its eye is the red giant Aldebaran; the Pleiades, a dainty triangle of seven blue-white stars, is quite breathtaking when seen through binoculars.
Look north-east with binoculars at the beginning of January at the patch of sky between yellow Capella, brightest star of Auriga the Charioteer, and the Plough in Ursa Major. There is currently a passing comet in this area, and if it lives up to predictions it may be visible if light pollution doesn’t spoil the view. This is Comet Wirtanen, discovered in 1948. It orbits the Sun every 5.4 years and is making a favourable approach to Earth this time round. Capella is 42 light years distant so the light we see left the star in 1976. The comet however is a mere 7 million miles away, its light takes just over half a minute to travel to our eyes.
The saucepan-shaped Plough is our unerring guide to the position of Polaris the Pole Star. Two of the Plough’s stars, Merak and Dubhe, are known as the ‘Pointers’.
Dorset’s Dark Skies Bid
Help Cranborne Chase AONB in their bid to create Dorset’s first
Dark Sky Reserve by signing up to the ‘Dark Skies Pledge’ at ccwwdaonb.org.uk. Stay up to date with their bid at chasingstars.org.uk.
If you spot a shooting star flashing across the northern sky early in January, it will probably be a member of the Quadrantid meteor stream, named after the defunct constellation of Quadrans the Quadrant.
The crescent Moon will become noticeable in the west around January 9th, waxing gradually in the southern sky until it is full on the 20th. Notice how high the Moon can be in midwinter. When the Moon is high in the sky the Sun will be low in the daytime, and vice versa throughout the year. In the dawn sky brilliant Venus and, below it, Jupiter has a spectacular encounter with the Moon very early in the month. 8 January: Members’ Short Talks at Wessex Astronomical Society, 7.30pm Allendale Centre, Wimborne wessex-astro.org.uk
11 January: Weymouth Astronomy Club kicks-off its 2019 programme with an evening of Members Short Talks, topics can range from ‘Testing Space Rockets’ to ‘How Stars Form’. 7.30pm, St Aldhelm’s Church Centre, Spa Road weymouthastronomy.co.uk
29 January: Stargazing at Cranborne Chase AONB with Bob Mizon of Wessex Astronomy Society. Amanda Scott also reveals the latest news on AONB’s International Dark Sky Reserve application. 7- 9.30pm, 1st Woodcutts Scout Group HQ, Sixpenny Handley, SP5
5NW. Booking essential via email [email protected] cranbornechase.org.uk or call 01725 517417
Bob Mizon MBE