Welcome to January and congratulations for another arbitrary rotation around the Sun. For astronomy the nights are just starting to get, ever so, perceptively longer as we’re past the solstice but it’s still summer and nights are going to get hotter, the thermals are going to hang around longer and the atmosphere is not going to be that great – lucky we live in a maritime climate as there’s a good chance a nice southerly will blow through and cool the atmosphere a bit and stop the star twinkling so we can get our telescopes out and enjoy the delights of the January night sky.
A Bit of History
The name January (Ianuarie) is an ancient Indo-European/ Thracian God Yana, Ianus and my favourite of all gods. Names such as Diana (Iana), Ion (John, Jean, Johan), Ioana (Ana, Joanna, Johanna, Jeanne) have originated from Ianus.
Made famous by the Romans, Janus, the God with two faces was celebrated at the coldest time of the year, a couple of weeks after the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year (22nd or 23rd of December).
As heat stored in the ground gradually leaks out, the coldest weather in the Northern Hemisphere is in January and not in December, thus after the shortest day. The celebration of Janus is now superimposed on the Christian day of Saint John. Ianus was the god of passages, gates, transitions, beginnings and ends. Sharing the same particle and pronunciation, Io, the Maori Io-Matua-Te-Kore, also known as Io, is the supreme deity, the original life force of the Universe, the parentless of the beginning and the parent of Te Kore, the potentiality. In ancient Indo-European languages “Io” also means “I”. Ianus-Io is very easy to spot on the sky. Just look at the bright round ones, the Sun or the Moon.
The Māori Perspective
In Te Wa Raumati (summertime), voyaging waka of Maori were greeted upon their arrival to Aotearoa by the blooming of the Pohutukawa trees at day and the bright stars adorning the night sky. In Aotearoa New Zealand, January is the month when we can see the shining ones. Milky Way, the pride and joy of the Southern Hemisphere, is now almost hidden from our sight.
This time of the year, Tamanui Te Ra (the Sun) travels high in the sky with his summer wife, Hine Raumati. At dusk, his winter wife Hine Takurua (Sirius) rests lonely in the Eastern Sky. Shining as the brightest star, throughout the night Takurua-Sirius is slowly climbing into darkness longing for her husband. With her, standing higher than any of the shining ones, is radiant Atutahi (Canopus)
Canopus, luminous and distant is the second brightest star of the sky. Circumpolar star, he always ‘can see’ all the others, which make him a great chief of stars, Te Ariki I Tonga I Tarewa/ Ke Ali’i o Kona I Kalewa: The Chief Risen in the South. Left of Takurua-Sirius as the sky darkens is Tautoru: The Three Resting (Orion’s Belt) Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka, the latter one positioned exactly on the celestial equator. Mintaka is the star that always rises exactly due East and sets due West. Below Tautoru, Pūtārā-Betelgeuse the red giant, glimmers. Above Tautoru, Puanga-Rigel is glistening in blue. To Kiwis, Tautoru also makes the bottom of ‘The Pot’.
For Māori most of the stars that make Orion and Taurus are called the bird catcher. This covers the sky from Sirius-Takurua across Tautoru (Orion’s Belt) to Taumata Kūkū: The Wood Pigeon’s Mountain Peak (the Hyades star cluster). When this configuration of stars appears in the North Eastern horizon it was taken as the time when pigeons are good to eat. Tautoru (Orion’s Belt), Taumata Kūkū (Hyades) and Te Tāwhiti (Pleiades) are all in a line with Te Tāwhiti making the noose of the bird catcher.
Circumpolar from Wellington, the Clouds of Magellan, LMC – Tuuputuputu and SMC – Tiikatakata are high in the southern sky and easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away.
Observing The Night Sky
The brightest stars sparkle like diamonds in the sky here in New Zealand at this time of the year. This time of the year, in any clear night, one can see Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky, Canopus, the Cat Star, the second brightest star in the sky and Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky. Facing south, after nightfall from left to right, arched high across the sky are Canopus, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic cloud. More bright objects are in the morning sky or the late night.
The Milky Way is in the eastern sky, brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced towards the north but becomes faint below Orion. Binoculars show many star clusters and a few glowing gas clouds in the Milky Way, particularly in the Carina region. The Milky Way is faint left, or north, of Orion because we are looking toward its thin outer edge. 180 degrees, on the opposite side of Orion, the milky center of our galaxy now lays behind the Sun. the regions in Scorpius and Sagittarius,which hold the galactic bulge are hidden in the solar haze. This is the zenith of summertime.
As it does all year round, the Southern Cross is visible to the South, by January it is getting higher in the sky and is easily found by finding the Pointers, Hader (Beta Centauri) and Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri, our closest visible neighbour 4.3 light years, is the brightest star near the horizon to the South and a little to the left and higher is Hader. Together those stars make the Pointers, which “point” to the Southern Cross. More on how to find the Southern Cross can be found here. Just to right of Southern Cross is a dark patch in the Milk Way known as the Coal Sack, Māori call this the Patiki (or flounder).
Another interpretation of the night sky by some kids who visited a local observatory told one of the authors that they described this part of the sky as a fish in a frying pan. The Southern Cross being the fish and the frying pan being an asterism surrounding the bottom of it. So there’s two fish in this part of the sky for Kiwis, the Southern Cross in the pan and Patiki in the shadow of the Milky-Way.
Deep Sky Observing
Even with the most of the Milky Way hidden from the sight, if you are after deep sky targets there are plenty of those around. One of my personal favourites, the open star cluster NGC 2244, or the rosette nebula in Monoceros, this will be well placed for observation. It will reach its highest point in the sky in Wellington around midnight local time but will be visible all night. Look for the bright red giant Betelgeuse and then search to the right for the elusive Monoceros, the Unicorn. Unicorns are hard to see with the naked eye, and this one only has a few fourth magnitude stars. Inside it, Beta Monocerotis is an impressive triple star system, forming a triangle described by William Herschel who discovered it in 1781 and described it to be “one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens”.
A few great Messier targets are the spectacular M42 in the sword of Orion, a place where stars are born, M1, the Crab Nebula and Messier 35 at the foot of the divine twin, Pollux.
There are many fuzzy Messier-like objects in the southern sky but they were not named as such since Messier could not see them from France, being circumpolar to this part of the world. Another one of my personal favourites, 47 tucanae globular cluster is high in the sky, located in the birdy constellation of the Toucan. 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) or just 47 Tuc is about 16,700 light years away from Earth, and 120 light years across. It can be seen with the naked eye, with a visual apparent magnitude of 4.9 and under a very dark sky like we have here in New Zealand it can appear roughly the size of the full Moon in the sky. More about globular clusters here.
For those who like spiders, Tarantula nebula is another breathtaking sight but it takes patience to see it looking with your eye through a telescope. The trick in stargazing is to use your peripheral vision and let your eyes adjust to the dark. Tarantula is one of those objects where both of these are needed as well as a grand telescope but it pays off, but it works even better if you have a camera attached to the telescope.
Just like with December, the planets are broken into two groups, one in the evening and one in the late morning. The good news is if you don’t need sleep, the planets are going to be a little higher before the rising Sun destroys any views. So starting with the evening viewing of Neptune and Uranus, both planets will be setting a little earlier as the month goes by, meaning they will also be lower on the horizon between when the Sun sets and when the planets set so the viewing opportunities will not be as good as December. Uranus is in Pisces and sets at 1:40am at the start of the month and by the 31 Jan it is setting around 11:45pm, Neptune is in Aquarius and sets at about midnight on the 1st and at 10:10pm by the 31st. Uranus will offer the best views of the two evening planets throughout the month. You’ll need a reasonably good telescope to view them though as they are both a long way away at just over 30 AU for Neptune and about 20 AU for Uranus (an AU is an astronomical unit and is the equivalent of the distance from the Earth to the Sun, about 150,000,000 kms). In an 8″ reflector I have seen both and the green and blue colours of the planets, they are very easy to spot and you can make out the planetary disk.
If you’re keen, and get up nice and early – or don’t bother going to bed, then you can view the other planets (and Pluto) that are on offer in January: Jupiter, Mars and Mercury. Jupiter gets better and better to view through the month, rising at 2:40am on the 1st and at 12:55am by the 31st. It’s also getting closer to Earth so by the end of the month it will be at 5.53 AU, nearly 0.5 AU closer than at the start of the month. Both Jupiter and Mars are in Libra, though Mars is heading off towards Scorpius by the end of the month.
Viewing opportunities for Mars also improve through the month with Mars rising at about 2:30am on the 1st and on the 31st rising at about 1:25am, with the added bonus that it too also getting closer by about 0.3 AU (50,000,000 km) so will appear a little bit bigger. The best opportunity to view Mars will be for the morning astronomers just before the Sun starts making the sky too bright in the early morning as then the planet will have enough altitude to get above any horizon clutter you might have around.
The next three planets will require a really good South Eastern horizon if you want to see them, Saturn rises at 5:15am at the start of the month and by the end of the month will be in a bit of better position when it rises at 3:35am. Pluto, on the other hand, is going to require a very good horizon and good sized telescope and even then you’ll have to wait until the end of the month to have any reasonable chance of seeing it at it rises about 4:45am on the 31st – good luck.
Since you’re up at dawn on New Years Day, it will definitely be worth trying to spot Mercury just before the rising Sun in Ophiuchus. It rises at 4:25am on the 1st and by the end of the month at 5:20am so the early part of the month is going to be the best time to see the rocky planet that is very close to the sun. The good news is that it’s also the closest to Earth at the start of the month so the conditions should be pretty good to see it.