Lepus California Observatory Monthly Astronomical Report
It’s time to get those Christmas telescopes set up and ready to start observing for the first month of 2020. January will play host to some of the more prominent winter constellations and features one meteor shower and one lunar eclipse.
Quadrantids Meteor Shower
The month gets a running start with the annual Quadrantids meteor shower. This is shower peaks in the first week of January and normally produces around 40 meteors per hour. The shower will peak this year on the evening of the 3rd into the early morning of the 4th. Expect the best views to come after midnight when the first quarter moon sets. The radiant for this shower is in the constellation Bootes, but meteors will appear anywhere in the sky. Get bundled up and enjoy a mug of your favorite hot beverage while enjoying a night under the stars.
The first lunar eclipse of the year occurs on the 10th and will be visible from most of Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The moon will pass through part of the Earth’s outer shadow, called the penumbra, and will slightly darken during the eclipse. The effect is much less pronounced compared to a total or partial lunar eclipse. The full moon falls on the 10th and the moon will be new again on the 24th.
The most prominent planet for the month of January will be Venus, glowing brightly in the western sky after sunset. It will continue to increase in magnitude throughout the month. Through a telescope, Venus’ current phase looks like a waxing gibbous moon. Mercury will start to join the party in late January but will be challenging to view due to its proximity to the sun. The ice giants Uranus and Neptune are up in the sky for viewing but their prime-time moments won’t be until much later in the year. They will appear as tiny blue-green disks in a telescope.
Constellations and Deep Sky
Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini will be dominating the sky this month. The Pleiades (M45) is a well-known open cluster in Taurus, commonly referred to as the seven sisters. It is a grouping of spectral class-B stars surrounded by a beautiful refection nebula. The nebula is most noticeable in larger telescopes and long exposure photography but can still be seen in smaller scopes under ideal viewing conditions. Auriga is a treasure trove of open clusters, containing M36, M37 and M38 which are all easy to spot in binoculars and small scopes. Gemini contains the planetary nebula C39, also known as the Eskimo Nebula. This object began forming about 10,000 years ago when a dying star ejected its outer layers of gas, forming the ring like structure that resembles a person’s head wearing a parka hood. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is in the constellation of the same name and is the closest major galaxy to the Milky Way. The bright core of M31 is easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes. The full size of Andromeda is huge…if it were bright enough to be seen in its entirety it would span the width of about 6 full moons in the sky.
Deep sky object of the month
The Orion Nebula (M42) is located in the constellation of Orion, in the sword of the hunter. M42 is the brightest and closest nebula to Earth, and the easiest to observe with a telescope. It’s billowing clouds of nebulosity is apparent in even small telescopes, and the young cluster of stars called the Trapezium glows softly at its center. M42 is one of the finest deep sky objects in the northern hemisphere.