Star Trak: January 2016

  • Dec. 31, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Mercury will have a rare double appearance during January, showing up nicely both after sunset and before sunrise. On the first night of the month it will be about 10 degrees above the southwestern horizon a half hour after the sun has set, bright enough to see easily in a clear sky. Binoculars may help bring it out in the afterglow of twilight. Over the next few days it will fade rapidly, disappearing as it passes behind the sun. During the final week of the month it will return to view in the morning sky to the lower left (east) of Venus.

Jupiter will rise around 10:30 p.m. local time as the new year begins and appear highest in the south around 5 a.m. By month’s end this will happen about two hours earlier.

Mars will climb above the eastern horizon about 1:30 a.m. local time on Jan. 1, an orange dot 6 degrees east-northeast of the bright blue-white star Spica in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.The ruddy planet will come significantly closer to Earth during the month and brighten considerably.

Venus will rise about three hours before the sun on New Year’s Day, followed by Saturn about 45 minutes later. The gap between the two planets will close rapidly during the first week of the month, and before dawn on Jan. 9 yellow Saturn will be less than a half degree to the right of much brighter Venus for observers in North America. It will be the closest approach of these two planets in a decade as they appear in the same field of view of a telescope. The bright red-orange star Antares in the constellation Scorpius will be 7 degrees to the lower right (south).

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking during the hours before dawn Jan. 4. The crescent moon won’t have much effect on the display, and observers with a clear dark sky can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour shortly before the start of morning twilight. The Quadrantids will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker.

Try facing toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle's three stars, it forms an "arc to Arcturus." Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be. More information about viewing meteor showers is available from the American Meteor Society.


Earth will be closest to the sun in its orbit, the position called perihelion, on Jan. 2 at 6 p.m. EST (23:00 Universal Time). A common misconception is that our seasons are caused by Earth's changing distance from the sun, but the actual cause is the tilt of Earth's axis. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter happens when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, so sunlight must pass through a greater amount of Earth's atmosphere to reach the surface. We actually experience the coldest time of year when we are closest to the sun.

Moon phases

The moon will be at third quarter on Jan. 2, new on Jan. 9, at first quarter on Jan. 16, full on Jan. 23 and at third quarter again on Jan. 31.

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