Happy New Year! The sixth year of the Universe series begins with a planet parade. Venus, Mars, and Neptune take out the old and bring in the new year with a dancing party lasting from New Year’s Eve all the way through to the next night! Even the Moon gets into the act! But wait! There’s more! Later in the month Mercury and Saturn do a predawn debut. The brightest object in the asteroid belt is prime for viewing. A blinking star that was used to coin the term, “evil eye” will be visible high above the north horizon. A new electronic eyepiece is in the offing. Orion is back and a Wolf Moon howls in the night!
So take a look starting New Year’s Eve and welcome 2017 to your Universe!
NOTE: All Sky Charts Courtesy of SkyGuide App Unless Otherwise noted.
Today (Dec. 31 2016) and Sunday (Jan. 1 2017 — Moon and Planet Parade
The Moon, Venus, Mars, and Neptune will give you a double treat saying goodbye to 2016 and welcoming the New Year! On New Year’s Eve evening (around 7PM MST), the tiniest sliver of the New Moon will appear low in the SW followed by Venus, Mars, and a near occultation of Neptune with Mars (tiny ocean blue Neptune slightly above left of orange-yellow Mars). You can sing Auld Lang Syne as you watch this alignment of Earth’s natural satellite with 3 other worlds. HAPPY NEW YEAR! The next night, a slightly larger crescent Moon nearer to Venus with Mars and Neptune switching places will help you celebrate the New Year.
Saturday (Jan. 7) — Algol (AL-gall…some pronounce it AL-gouhl as in “gouhlish”) The Demon Star at Minimum Brightness Between 8:53 and 11:12 PM MST
In years past, I’ve written about Algol as an eclipsing binary star that dims periodically as it’s larger dimmer companion orbits in front of the smaller brighter star in this gravitationally bound system. We can actually see this happening during a period of only a few hours. But for that, you need to know when Algol will be at its “minimum” and plan to observe it before that point in time. There’re several Algol minimum calculators online, but I found that the older they are, the less accurate their predictions. The good news is that the latest two predictions are less than 2 hours apart (see January 7 times in bold in subject line). I suggest you take a look at Algol at 1 hour intervals starting at 6:30 PM and see if it’s starting to “blink.” You should notice a significant change in brightness over a 3 hour period. You’ll have another chance on January 10 (minimum predicted between 7:42 PM and 8:01 PM MST) and on January 30 (minimum predicted between 7:27 and 9:46 PM MST) . Algol is positioned well for viewing for at least the next 2 months, so if you miss these, you may have another chance in February.
Thursday (Jan. 12) — Full Wolf Moon
This is also the Full Snowshoe Moon for the annual Moreno Valley Trekkers “Snowshoe by Moonlight” event. Snowshoeing by moonlight is lots of fun because the Full Moon not only provides ample light to see the trail ahead, but the reflecting snow intensifies the moonlight projecting a surreal snowscape (a new term I just made up!). As usual, I’ll have much Lunar Lore to share including both myth and science as we break trail through the cold night and (hopefully) deep snow.
Thursday (Jan. 12) — Venus-Neptune Near Occultation
At the beginning of the month, Mars did its dance with Neptune. Now it’s Venus’ turn. Look above the SW horizon about 45 minutes after sunset (5:30 MST) to see dazzling bright Venus. Neptune will be just a little less than 1 Moon width (width of your fingernail held at arm’s length) to the lower left of the closest planet from Earth. Of course you’ll need a large pair of binoculars or a telescope to see Neptune because it’s thirty-one times dimmer than Venus! Even with a telescope, you won’t see Neptune unless you move the scope down-left so that the glare of Venus is outside the field of view. Venus sets at 8:45 PM MST so if you have an unobstructed view of the SW to W horizon, you’ll have almost 3 hours to see this pair of planets (Venus at about 25 million miles and Neptune at almost 2 and 3/4 BILLION miles). At more than 100 times farther away, no wonder Neptune looks so dim!
Tuesday (Jan. 17) Asteroid Vesta at Opposition
Vesta is the second largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. At 326 miles in diameter, it’s about as wide as New Mexico. Vesta was discovered on 29 March 1807 by the German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. I searched the Internet attempting to find out what kind of telescope he used, but was unsuccessful. I did find that he owned 3 “comet seeker” refractors which typically had 4″ lenses and a large Schroter reflector of unknown size. In any case, today’s small well made backyard telescopes 4″ and larger have far superior optics than the best telescopes available during Olbers’ time. A computer aided GOTO telescope will pinpoint Vesta drifting among the background stars from one night to the next. Vesta will be magnitude 6.2 at its brightest on January 17 which is near the limit of naked eye viewing in pristine dark skies. You can see Vesta using binoculars or a small telescope every night in January except January 10 through 15 when the Moon’s glare will be too close to the area in the sky where Vesta is.
This short video produced by NASA has the latest information about asteroid Vesta. The data was collected by the DAWN spacecraft which was orbiting Vesta during 2011 and most of 2012. It has since left Vesta and is currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres. It is the only spacecraft ever built that has orbited two new worlds. The main reason it can do this is through a new technology ion drive engine which is fueled with electrically ionized xenon gas. This hyper-efficient engine can operate for thousands of days compared to just a few minutes for the Delta II rocket that boosted it into space. Once it escaped Earth’s gravity well, one of three ion drive engines was activated to maneuver the DAWN spacecraft toward and into orbit around Vesta and then Ceres. The other two engines were added one to complete the mission and the other to act as a backup. NASA engineers have used each of the engines during the mission partly to test each one to make sure they all work as advertised. Why isn’t ion drive used in all vehicles by now? Well, you don’t get something for nothing. The extreme efficiency of ion drive comes at a cost of very low thrust per unit of time. For example, if one of these engines was mounted on your car, it’d take 4 days at maximum power to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph…so don’t look for ion drive in automobiles for the foreseeable future!
Wednesday (Jan. 18) Mercury at Greatest Elongation West
It takes only 88 days for Mercury to complete one orbit because it is almost 2/3 of the way closer to the Sun than Earth (36 million miles vs 93 million miles for Earth). Mercury moves so fast, that on December 18 it was above the SW horizon shortly after sunset. Today, it will be as high as it’s going to get before sunrise above the SE horizon. In the following days Mercury will begin its mad dash down from our perspective toward the Sun again.
Editor’s Note — Gary Zientara of Taos Pines Ranch near Angel Fire is a former teacher and lifelong amateur astronomer. See more viewing tips at mountsangreobservatory.com.