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The Night Sky Tonight: January 12 – January 20

By Mark Wagner

Mark Wagner brings us highlights of what's happening in the sky each night this week. Click on each image to enlarge the view. Happy gazing!

Friday, January 12
Can you see it? In the bright dawn, the planets Saturn and Mercury will be paired side-by-side, 0.7 degrees apart over the southeastern horizon, while the last vestiges of the waning crescent Moon rides above Antares, accented by the widening pair up to its right of Mars and Jupiter. Keep watching this scene as it changes over the next three days, with Mars moving further from Jupiter, while Mercury ducks down away from Saturn along with a Moon diving for the horizon. What a sight over the weekend!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SpaceProbe 130 EQ Reflector Telescope, Orion SkyScanner 100mm TableTop Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: Views of M77

Saturday, January 13
M77 is an active "Seyfert" galaxy, very easy to locate, off a naked-eye visible star close to Alpha (A) Ceti. Active galaxies have gigantic black holes at their cores, and at times you may feel like you can sense the sort of inward whirlpool at the center of this monster. M77 is magnitude 10.5 and 8.9 arc-minutes in diameter, showing well as a face-on spiral. The inner "ring" is quite bright, and will show up well at highest magnifications. The outer portions of the disk appear much more tenuous. This is a fine sketch by Bob Holt of Chippingdale Observatory. I have never seen the arms he depicts, but I'm certainly going to try for them. See what you can see!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, Orion StarBlast II 4.5 Equatorial Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: Uranus Eastern Quadrature

Sunday, January 14
Uranus is at Eastern Quadrature tonight. Its position in the solar system is at a right angle to the Earth and Sun. Therefore, you will see it at culmination ? its highest point in the sky at sunset ? and it will set half-way through the night. Uranus is in the V of Pisces (Psc), above the alpha (A) star that forms the knot of the two stingers of fish. The inset shows four stars that can be used easily to locate Uranus. They range in magnitude between 3.59 (2) to two at 4.25 (3,4) and 4,81 (1). Uranus reflects the Sun's light at magnitude 5,8, 100% illumination of the planet from a distance of 19.88 A.U. See if you can spot its greenish glow in telescope or binoculars.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion Observer II 70mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope, Orion Scenix 7x50 Binoculars

Tomorrow Morning: Constellation Hercules

Monday, January 15
Step out into the still dark morning sky and find Hercules, the Hero. "Hercules is given twelve labors by Hera ? queen of the gods ? as revenge for Zeus' infidelity with a mortal, Alcmene, his mother. His first labor is to descend into Hades and bring back Cerberus, the fierce three headed dog that guards the gates and prevents the dead from returning to life." The constellation is bordered by Bootes (1), Draco (2), Lyra (3), Vulpecula (4), Sagitta (5), Aquila (6), Ophiuchus (7), Serpens Caput (8) and Corona Borealis (9). Its alpha (A) star is magnitude 2.75 Ragalgethi, both binary and variable.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion UltraView 8x42 Wide-Angle Binoculars, Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: New Moon Challenge

Tuesday, January 16
New Moon, so plenty of darkness to hunt down the Skull Nebula, NGC 246. This is a somewhat challenging planetary nebula, bright at magnitude 8.00, but its light is spread out over a large 3.7 arc-minutes making it seem much dimmer. Use an Orion Ultrablock to help with contrast. Easy to locate above beta (B) Ceti, and almost midway and slightly below the line between Eta (1) and Iota (2) Ceti, you'll find this nearly round glow embedded with dim stars, a dark annulus, and brighter edges. This sketch was done in a dark sky with a 12" Newtonian

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT12i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, 2" Orion UltraBlock Narrowband Eyepiece Filter

Tomorrow Morning: Eclipse of Io by Jupiter

Wednesday, January 17
If you get out early in the morning and aim your telescope at Jupiter, you can watch the bright moon Io go into eclipse in the giant planet's shadow. The image at left shows the moon well off the planet's disk at just past 5:15 A.M. Two other moons are visible as well: Europa the nearer to Io, and Callisto appearing further away and toward a pole. Watch for Io to dip into Jupiter's shadow at 5:18 A.M. This is our first peek at Jupiter this new year, with lots of fun ahead watching this incredibly active planet.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion StarMax 90mm TableTop Maksutov-Cassegrain Telescope, 6.0mm Orion Edge-On Planetary Eyepiece

Tomorrow Evening: Mira, "The Wonderful?

Thursday, January 18
There is a class of variable stars called Mira types and Omicron Ceti, named Mira, is the original discovery of its type. 421 light years away, this is a binary system comprised of a white dwarf and pulsating variable stars. Its magnitude varies over a 332 day period, from easy naked-eye 3.4 to below-eye threshold of 9.3. Discovered in 1596 by David Fabricius it ? along with Algol in Perseus ? was one of the first variables of its type discovered. Watch it over the next month or two, as its maxima is forecast for January 31. It takes about 100 days to get to maxima and over twice that in decline.

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree

Tomorrow Morning: Ganymede Fun on Jupiter

Friday, January 19
West coast observers, watch Ganymede cross onto the face of Jupiter before sunrise this morning. Note how polar the moon is today, as its position to us changes over the seasons. If you're in the Midwest or east coast, get up early to see Ganymede's shadow transit the disk of the planet, accompanied closely by the quick moon Io. Always something interesting on this dynamic planet!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion StarBlast II 4.5 Equatorial Reflector Telescope, Orion StarSeeker IV 114mm GoTo Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: The Silver Dollar Galaxy

Saturday, January 20
Visible in binoculars and telescopes, NGC 253, known as the Silver Dollar or Silver Coin Galaxy, is a great target below beta Ceti (B) in Cetus, in the constellation Sculptor (Scl.), about 11.5 million light years away. This fine sketch by Michael Vaslov in an 8" Newtonian at 77X gives a good idea of what you can expect to see. Huge, at 27.5'x6.8' and magnitude 8.0, you'll see mottling in its spiral arms. This galaxy has lots of star formation taking place. Discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783, while searching for comets from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8 PLUS Dobsonian Reflector Telescope, Orion StarBlast 6i IntelliScope Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow morning: Double Stars In Hercules

Charts from Starry Night Pro, available from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. M77 sketch Courtesy Bob Holt. NGC 246 courtesy Christian Rausch. NGC 253 courtesy Michael Vaslov.

Mark Wagner is a lifelong 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.