January 2019 Sky-Watch

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The year 2019 begins with a total lunar eclipse, when our Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow on the night of January 20/21. This astronomical treat may be seen by sky-watchers across North and South America, as our natural satellite enters the Earth’s umbra shadow at 10:34 pm. Since no direct sunlight enters the Earth’s shadow, the shadow will look dark at first, but as the Moon moves more deeply into the shadow, and as totality approaches, it appears distinctly reddish-orange.

This color is because the Sun’s light is refracted, or bent, into the shadow by the Earth’s atmosphere. The orange color will deepen at totality; when the Moon is completely inside Earth’s shadow. Totality will last for 62 minutes, starting at 11:41 pm (Jan. 20th).

Totality will end at 12:43 am ( Jan. 21st), and the Moon will exit Earth’s shadow completely at 1:51am.

Unlike solar eclipses, where we are looking directly at the Sun, and the Moon passes in front of it casting its shadow onto Earth, lunar eclipses are completely safe to observe. We are just looking at the Full Moon during lunar eclipses. The only time to look without eye protection at a solar eclipse is during totality, when the Sun is completely blocked by the Moon, and this only lasts from 1 to 7 minutes. A solar eclipse from start to finish will last about 90 minutes, while lunar eclipses are much longer. The January 20/21 eclipse will be 3 hours 19 minutes from beginning to end.

Do not pass up this opportunity to see this total lunar eclipse, because the next one will not be until May 2021. And pray for clear skies!

Mars continues to grace our southern skies through January, though it is dimmer now at +0.7 magnitude because it has moved farther away from us in its orbit. This is however, still bright enough to make it the brightest object in the south, as Mars appears among the stars of the dim zodiac constellation PISCES.

The other visible planets are all in the pre-dawn eastern sky this month. New Year’s Day itself dawns with a line-up of 3 planets near a waning crescent Moon in the last hour or so before the Sun rises. The Moon rises at about 3 am (local time) on January 1st, while Venus will rise about 3:30 am, just 5 degrees away. Jupiter will rise about 90 minutes after Venus and Mercury one hour after that. These 4 solar system objects will spread across some 35 degrees of sky that morning with Venus 30 degrees above the eastern horizon, Jupiter 15 degrees up, and Mercury 4 degrees above the horizon 45 minutes before sunrise.

Venus’s orbit will cause it to lose altitude through January while Jupiter will seem to gain altitude. By January 22nd the two will have a beautiful conjunction, with Venus at –4.6 magnitude and Jupiter at –1.8 magnitude just two degrees apart (Venus just 2 degrees above Jupiter). Both will rise by 5 am local time.

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower, named after an ancient constellation called Quadrans Muralis, will peak for us on the night of January 3rd. The direction to look is toward the northeast and the best time would be from 2 am to 5 am on January 4th, although some meteors may be seen as early as 10 or 11 pm on January 3rd. From 30 to 120 meteors are often counted from the Quadrantids, with the larger numbers coming in the early pre-dawn hours.

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