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The Night Sky Tonight: January 20 – January 28

By Mark Wagner

Friday, January 20
Delta Cephei is 988 light years from Earth, a double star at apparent magnitude 4.06. It is also a variable star, with a range of more than 1/2 magnitudes, a fact discovered by John Goodricke in 1784. Amazingly, this is one of the closest Cepheid variable type stars to our Sun. The primary component is orange, with a magnitude of 4.2. The companion star is 40 arc-seconds in separation, at magnitude 6.1. They sit in a nice star field featuring a distinctive arc of stars close by. The pair can be split even in binoculars.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion AstroView 90mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope, Orion StarSeeker IV 130mm GoTo Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Morning: Seeing the Ecliptic

Saturday, January 21
This morning it is easy to imagine the ecliptic?the main path of objects in our solar system. The green line shows the ecliptic, and the morning planets are nicely spread out along it, with the Moon straying slightly as it is wont to do. Notice how Spica is quite near the ecliptic. Farther west, the star Regulus is nearly on the ecliptic, so those two stars are likely candidates for occultation by members of our solar system.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion UltraView 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Evening: Constellation Taurus

Sunday, January 22
Taurus is one of the zodiacal constellations, lying along the line of the ecliptic (shown in green). Its alpha star (A) is Aldebaran, a red giant star 65 light years from us, with a magnitude varying slowly between 0.75 and 0.95, making it the 14th brightest star in our sky. Aldebaran is close enough to the ecliptic that the Moon can occult it, a great event to see in a telescope if you have the opportunity. Chicago, Illinois will see an occultation of Aldebaran on March 4, 2017. Fun fact about this famous star; the planetary probe Pioneer 10 is heading in its general direction and will make its closest pass in 2 million years.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart, Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree

Tomorrow Morning: Moon and Planets

Monday, January 23
This morning before sunup, the Moon, Saturn and Mercury will form a nice line in the southwestern sky. The Moon will be a waning crescent, 18% illuminated and next to the star Eta Ophiuchi. Saturn, at magnitude 0.53, will be next to the star Theta Ophiuchi, and Mercury will be grazing the horizon in the western reaches of Sagittarius, at magnitude 0.17. Because the ecliptic passes through Ophiuchus, it is sometimes referred to as the 13th zodiacal constellation. Look again tomorrow morning, as the Moon and Saturn will be only 4 degrees apart.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SpaceProbe 130 EQ Reflector Telescope, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Evening: Binocular Astronomy In Taurus

Tuesday, January 24
Two open clusters in Taurus make great binocular targets. M45 is known as the Pleiades, and Melotte 25 is the Hyades. Aldebaran is Alpha Tauri (A) and sits among the many stars of the Hyades, which is the closest open cluster to us at a distance of 153 light years, with an apparent diameter of 330 arc-minutes. For comparison, the Full Moon is about 30 arc-minutes. The Pleiades is sometimes mistaken as the Big Dipper, but this is a young star cluster easily visible to the naked eye at magnitude 1.2, with a diameter of 110 arc-minutes. The nebula in M45 is rarely visible visually. How many stars can you see in M45?

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion StarBlast 4.5 Equatorial Reflector Telescope, Orion Telescope Observer's Guide

Tomorrow Morning: The Moon and Mercury

Wednesday, January 25
It will take a keen eyed observer to see both Mercury and the Moon in the brightening twilight this morning. Look for Saturn and the thin 6% illuminated waning crescent Moon for a chance at picking out Mercury, just under 5 degrees south of the Moon. This is the oldest Moon you'll see during the current lunar cycle, as tomorrow it will be new. If you have difficulty seeing Mercury, try scanning below the Moon with binoculars.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion UltraView 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars, Orion Scenix 10x50 Wide-Angle Binoculars

Tomorrow Evening: New Moon Targets

Thursday, January 26
New Moon is the best time for deep sky challenges. Here are two. NGC 1647 is a large magnitude 6.4 open cluster near Aldebaran (A). It subtends 45 minutes of arc, and has been seen in instruments as small as 10x50 binoculars. It is dispersed and more obviously a cluster in smaller, low power instruments. M1 is the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant, 6 arc-minutes in size and shining at magnitude 8.4. It is quite difficult to observe from suburban skies, but can at times be teased out as a dim oval brightening. In dark skies with large instruments, tendrils can be seen in the expanding explosion. Let us know on our Facebook page if you view either of these objects, and what your impressions are.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, Orion SkyQuest XT10i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope

Tomorrow Morning: Bright Double Star in Hercules

Friday, January 27
Delta Herculis has a combined magnitude of 3.09, easily visible from most locations. Its given name is Sarin, 78 light years from us and a fine binary star with as many as five members. Here is a sketch of the pair, with magnitudes of 3.1 and 8.8, separated by 10 arc-seconds. Colors have been described as greenish-white and purple. What can you see? While you're at it, pop over to Alpha Herculis (A), another fine binary star visually. Take note too, of the Summer Triangle now on the rise, comprised of Vega, Deneb and Altair. Nice to think of summer already!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion AstroView 90mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Evening: Bonus Deep Sky Objects!

Saturday, January 28
Here are three great targets for a Saturday night. NGC 2169 in the arm of Orion is called the 37 Cluster. Can you see why? NGC 1746 is three open clusters in one. Two smaller clusters are embedded inside the larger one. Can you pick them out? Then we have everyone's favorite, even visible in binoculars, M42, the Great Orion Nebula. Try it with an Orion Ultrablock Filter, you'll be surprised at the difference it makes. Let us know which of these you view, with what, and your impressions of them. NGC 1746 is the challenge object of the three.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, 1.25" Orion UltraBlock NarrowBand Filter

Tomorrow Morning: Jupiter Fun at 4 a.m.

Charts from Starry Night Pro, available from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. Delta Cephei and Delta Herculis sketches by Math Heijen. M45 and Hyades images from Wikisky.org. NGC 2169 image courtesy ScotRak via Wikipedia. NGC 1746 from Wikisky.org. M42 sketch by Renato Tromo Figueras on Astronomy Sketch of the Day. Data from Starry Night Pro 6 and Wikipedia.

Mark Wagner is a life-long astronomy enthusiast and deep sky observer in the San Francisco bay area. Visit our Facebook Page if you'd like to post comments, questions, sketches or images you've taken to our Night Sky Tonight post.