Upstate New York Stargazing – January, 2017

Upstate NY Stargazing in January: Quadrantid meteors and Winter's best early evenings

The Flame and Horsehead Nebulae in the constellation Orion the Hunter. The belt star Alnitak is the brightest star in the image, just above the Flame Nebula. Image by Mike Selby, Andrew Chatman (member of ASRAS-Rochester Astronomy Club) and Stefan Schmidt at SC Observatory, Samphran, Thailand.

Updated: Jan. 03, 2017, 3:30 p.m. Published: Jan. 03, 2017, 2:30 p.m.

By: Damian Allis

Once upon a time, amateur astrophotography was a real pain in the asterism. You had to deal with focus, stray light, random satellites, cloud cover, slow-moving planes, the random stiff breeze, and a host of other issues – all in the dark and for varyingly long exposure times – even before the ordeal of developing the film or plate. You still have the same problems today of composing your shot, hoping for clear skies, and weighing down your tripod to keep the camera from shaking, but we've one major advantage over days gone by – you only have to pay for the camera nowadays, and not the film and darkroom kits.

Modern astrophotography has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to the same improvements in technology that have miniaturized +20 megapixel cameras into the thinnest smartphones. When quality equipment combines with knowledgeable users, images like the absolutely captivating one above are ready to go head-to-head with any space gallery contenders you might find online. The long exposure shots used to generate such images capture all shades of subtle detail in faint galaxies and nebulae, all while making visible a dense starry backdrop our eyes simply never evolved to account for.

Images like the above represent more than just a visually stunning view of the famous Horsehead and Flame Nebulae in the constellation Orion – the above image shows us some of our nearest galactic neighbors in shining detail. While the times and sights seem to change ever more rapidly here on Earth, most of the stars you can see in this picture have been within its cropped borders for many millions of years as this neighborhood has traveled around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Many, many generations on, any future astrophotographers still stuck imaging from Earth will be able to capture the same piece of celestial real estate and overlay the images, giving astronomers information about the motions of stars in the frame, changes to the shape of the gas clouds, and a host of other subtler information.

Evening and nighttime guide

The view looking south at 8 p.m. on Jan. 15 (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of January). Click for a larger view.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

Southern Sights: The "Best of Winter" is in full effect after 9 p.m. this month, with the prominent constellations Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, Gemini, Auriga, and Canis Minor all visible to the south. What makes these constellations prominent are the number and brightness of some of their stars. Orion's body is an easy find to all observers, with the three stars of the belt likely jumping out first. Aldebaran serves as your anchor for Taurus, Sirius an anchor for Canis Major, Procyon is a bright star in a less-populated area to help mark Canis Minor, Capella marks Auriga, and Castor and Pollux help orient Gemini.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga.Click for a larger view.

Mars:

Mars continues its slow migration along the horizon from southwest to west this month, setting at around 9 p.m. each night in the process. Mars and Neptune rang in the New Year together on the evening of Jan. 1, although you needed magnification and good conditions to see Neptune in your field of view. The Moon joined this pair on Jan. 2 for a pleasant sight in low-power binoculars, but the bright Moon made finding Neptune even more difficult. Mars makes for a second planet/Moon pairing on Jan. 31 with Venus, which will make for a great sight at low-power.

On Jan. 1, Mars and Neptune were at their closest in an eyepiece for 2017. On Jan. 2, the Moon joined the line. On Jan. 31, Mars, Venus, and the Moon just fit within 10×50 binoculars. Click for a larger view.

Venus:

Venus remains unmissable this month after sunset to the south/southwest, second only in brightness to the Moon. We gain just under two additional minutes of Venus viewing each night this month, setting close to 8 p.m. on Jan. 1 and 8:45 p.m. on the 31st. You'll have plenty of time to work on training your eyes to see first sight of Venus in the sky, as it remains with us near sunset until well into March of 2017. Venus and Neptune will be very closely spaced on Jan. 12, and then Venus plays celestial catch-up with Mars for the rest of the month, culminating in an excellent sight on Jan. 31 – the crescent Moon, Mars, and Venus all within the field of view of 10×50 binoculars.

Early riser alert

Jupiter:

Jupiter rose brightly above the eastern horizon near 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 1 and by 11:45 p.m. at month's end – placing it high in the southern sky for those out before sunrise. Its four Galilean Moons – Callisto, Io, Europa, and Ganymede – are all visible in low-power binoculars when Jupiter rises, but are washed out early by sunlight even before sunrise approaches. Jupiter and a waning crescent moon will make a very nice pairing after 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 19.

Saturn: Saturn returns earlier and earlier this month, but still may be a tough catch during the first few weeks. Saturn is not impressively bright and rises close to sunrise, meaning it can get washed out by sunlight in short order. Intrepid observers should check to the southeast after 6:30 a.m. after 4:45 a.m. by month's end. Low-power binoculars will show you an oval star, while higher magnification should give you views of the planet and rings. The very waning crescent moon and Saturn will make a very nice pairing the morning of Jan. 24 after 5:30 a.m.

Mercury: Mercury replaces Saturn as our just-before-sunrise planet to catch in January. Your best chance of seeing it occurs on the morning of Jan. 15, when it rises just over the southeast horizon after 6:20 a.m. Mercury is a fair bit brighter than Saturn in the morning and is not close to bright stars, so should be a reasonable catch.

January observing opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has several evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are free and open to the public, often close to the New Moon when skies are darkest and the chance for seeing deep, distant objects is greatest. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgeable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent news and discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for January. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the website links or email the groups for directions and to find out about an event a day-or-so before the announced session. Also note that some groups will include weather-alternate dates for scheduled sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingJan. 66:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingJan. 206:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadySenior Science DayJan. 23:00 – 4:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureJan. 177:00 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingsJan. 197:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusWinter Skies With Bob PiekielJan. 206:30 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Green Lakes State ParkFayettevilleSolar Observing With Bob PiekielJan. 141:00 – 3:00 PM(315) 637-6111, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKoperniKids All In A winter's DayJan. 710:30 AM – 12:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalWinter StarsJan. 137:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKoperniKids A Visit To The MoonJan. 1410:30 AM – 12:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingJan. 287:30 PM – 11:00 PMemail, website

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

January ISS observers will need to sneak a second cup of coffee in the afternoon, as all visible ISS flyovers occur between 5 and 7 a.m. until the 27th. With luck and clear skies, early risers will have opportunity to see double flyovers on the 3rd, 5th, 16th, and 18th. Late-January flyovers occur soon after sunset, making them easy targets for early-sleepers as well.

Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
1/1moderately5:29 AMS5:33 AME/NE
1/2extremely6:13 AMW/SW6:18 AMNE
1/3very5:24 AME/NE5:26 AME/NE
1/3very6:57 AMW/NW7:02 AMNE
1/4extremely6:07 AMNW6:10 AMNE
1/5very6:50 AMW/NW6:54 AMNE
1/5somewhat5:17 AMNE5:18 AMNE
1/6very6:00 AMN6:02 AMNE
1/7moderately6:42 AMNW6:47 AMNE
1/8moderately5:52 AMN5:54 AMNE
1/9moderately6:35 AMNW6:39 AMNE
1/10moderately5:45 AMN5:47 AMNE
1/11very6:27 AMN/NW6:32 AME/NE
1/12moderately5:37 AMN/NE5:39 AME/NE
1/13very6:19 AMN/NW6:24 AME
1/14very5:29 AMN/NE5:32 AME/NE
1/15extremely6:12 AMNW6:17 AME/SE
1/16very6:54 AMW/NW7:00 AMS/SE
1/16very5:22 AME/NE5:24 AME
1/17extremely6:04 AMW6:08 AMSE
1/18very5:14 AME/SE5:16 AME/SE
1/18moderately6:47 AMW6:51 AMS/SW
1/19very5:57 AMSW6:00 AMS/SE
      
1/27very6:48 PMS/SW6:50 PMS/SE
1/28moderately5:57 PMS/SE6:00 PME/SE
1/28moderately7:31 PMW/SW7:33 PMW/SW
1/29extremely6:39 PMSW6:43 PME
1/30very5:47 PMS/SW5:53 PME/NE
1/30very7:23 PMW7:25 PMW/NW
1/31extremely6:30 PMW/SW6:35 PMNE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Dec. 29, 1:53 AMJan. 5, 2:47 PMJan. 12, 6:34 AMJan. 19, 5:14 PMJan. 27, 7:07 PM

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the moon is a wonderful binocular object.

Take note: Observers next month will be treated to a penumbral lunar eclipse on Feb. 11.

Meteor Showers: Quadrantids – Active Jan. 1-10, Peaking Jan. 3-4

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

Looking north and east at 2 a.m. on Jan 3. The easiest markers for the Quadrantid radiant are the handle of the Big Dipper above (red) and the bright star Arcturus in Bootes to the east. Click for a larger view.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. Technically, this meteor shower should have the moniker Bootids, as it originates within the constellation borders of Bootes the Herdsman. The Quadrantids instead owe their name to the defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which existed in the late-18th/early-19th centuries just long enough to have the meteor shower named for it.

The Quadrantid radiant is an easy find if you can spot the Big Dipper – just look slightly beyond the handle to orient yourself. Unlike most of the meteor showers, the Quadrantids are not produced by a comet – asteroid 2003 EH1, an unassuming object not discovered until 2003, has a 5.5 year orbit that places it near the path of Earth's orbit.

How to observe: The Quadrantids can be impressive but usually peak during a very narrow window, with up to 120 meteors per hour possible. Observers this year will benefit from the absent Moon, which sets before 11 p.m. during peak nights. Observers out after midnight are treated to Jupiter low on the eastern horizon and the wealth of bright constellations stretching from southeast to southwest.

To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed towards the Big Dipper and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 and 5 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see shooting stars associated with the Quadrantids throughout the first third of the month.

Learn A Constellation: Orion The Hunter

Orion the Hunter. Click for a larger view.

Orion the Hunter is old, bright, and has never, ever missed a trek out during even the worst New York winter night.

How old? In last month's article, we mentioned that Taurus the Bull was arguably identified as a bull in a cave painting as far back as 15,500 B.C. Orion takes his club and clobbers that date – prehistoric carvings associated with the stars in Orion date back to roughly 35,000 years ago. The seven prominent stars of Orion have been associated with some mythical celestial object for as long as any civilization has a record – it is safe to say that every one of our ancestors with decent enough vision to see any stars knew the stars of Orion as something significant to their folklore.

How bright? Statistically, very bright. Five of Orion's stars crack the Top 50 brightest-from-Earth list, and its seven most prominent stars – Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Alnilam, Alnitak, Saiph, and Mintaka – make up what is arguably the most easily identified grouping in the night sky. As a human form, the three belt stars – Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka – are unique for their brightness and near-perfect, straight line spacing. The red supergiant Betelgeuse is an odds-on favorite to go supernova in the next few million years – amateur astronomers have been crossing fingers to be around to witness this celestial lottery drawing for as long as we've known it was near the end of its lifespan. At the opposite corner, Rigel is the seventh-brightest star in the sky and is either a triplet or quadruple star system itself.

In our modern grouping, seven stars does not an Orion make! Once you've found the bright body, work your way around the upper torso to identify the stars of the head and arms. To some, the one arm is holding a club and the other arm a shield, while others might see Orion represented with a bow in one hand and an arrow pulled from a quiver in the other.

With the Orion Nebula in sight, search for the close group of four bright stars known as Trapezium within. Click for a larger view.

Orion is a busy constellation at all magnifications, with several sights for low-power binoculars and many targets for quality telescopes. The most famous of these regions is M42, the great Orion Nebula, which lies just below the belt. This wispiness is apparent even without magnification – there is clearly something more than just a star there to see. The Orion Nebula is a local stellar nursery, where gas clouds are slowly condensing into brand new stars. With good skies and higher magnification, you can see the Trapezium within M42, possibly the newest open star cluster in our sky. Very good binoculars and a steady tripod may even help you see De Mairan's Nebula, designated M43, nearby.

There is much more to Orion than the unaided eyes can see, including numerous nebulae and other deep sky objects.

The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae from the opening image lie next to the belt star Alnitak and are not easy to pull detail out of without quality scopes or good imaging equipment. These two objects are not alone in their need for more dedicated observing – even with the wealth of objects ready for binocular viewing, our eyes are simply not equipped to handle all of the subtle detail that surrounds Orion. An image from October 2010 that currently resides on Orion's Wikipedia page does begin to reveal all of this amazing detail.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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Upstate New York Stargazing – January, 2018

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Upstate NY Stargazing in January: Supermoon, Quadrantids by moonlight, Uranus by binoculars

Light pillars over New Berlin, NY on Dec. 14. Photo courtesy of Nihal Dhanoa.

Published: Jan. 02, 2018, 4:12 p.m.

By Special to nyup.com

Damian Allis, Contributing Writer

The interest within the space science community about Martian habitability may leave you with the question, "Just how inhospitable is Mars?" A small part of the answer comes from Canada this past week, reporting that parts of North America were colder than Mars that same day. On Dec. 28, Gale Crater on Mars peaked at -23 C, while Montreal never cleared -24 C. While the Martian night will slip much lower in temperature, it is remarkable to consider that, despite the differences in mass, atmosphere, and distance from the Sun, there are at least two places in our Solar System where a person could be easily kept warm enough to complain about the cold.

New York winters afford us opportunities for both crystal-clear astronomy and interesting physics. Light pillars, what at first blush might look like the northern lights, occur when light from the ground reflects off of ice crystals in the atmosphere. The stunning image of the phenomenon shown above is likely powered by the Chobani Plant in New Berlin. Given the positions of the most prominent stars and the knowledge that the photo is from Dec. 14, one can even pull out a star chart and deduce that the shot was taken at around 9 p.m. from a point just south of the plant.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for January. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. And bring one more layer of clothing than you think you are going to need!

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingJan. 57:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingJan. 197:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingJan. 187:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingJan. 57:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusFinest Winter SkiesJan. 197:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingJan. 37:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 57:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 127:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalWinter Skies TourJan. 197:00 – 11:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 267:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleMeetingJan. 107:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingJan. 207:30 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseLecture @ OCC & ObservingJan. 127:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Full MoonThird QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Jan. 1, 9:24 pmJan. 8, 5:25 pmJan. 16, 9:17 pmJan. 24, 5:20 pmJan. 31, 8:26 am

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

January begins and ends with a Full Moon. The first will likely ruin the Quadrantid meteor shower, but will also be the largest of the "supermoons" this year. The second Full Moon to occur in a given month is known as a "Blue Moon." The January Blue Moon will also qualify as a 2018 supermoon. While the descriptor "supermoon" meets with varying degrees of annoyance within the astronomical community, the closer-than-usual proximity of the Moon to the Earth on these occasions is interesting – and anyone with a camera and tripod can capture each Full Moon of the year and see these small differences in apparent size for themselves. You will also see reports of the first lunar eclipse of the year occurring on Jan. 31. For NY observers, this will begin near 6 a.m. Sadly, the eclipse for us ends too soon – Hawaii and much of Asia will see the total lunar eclipse, while those of us on the other side of the planet are instead treated to sunrise and a 7 a.m. moonset.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9 p.m. on Jan. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: It took until December, but the Summer Triangle is finally no more in our pre-midnight sky. Early morning observers now see Vega and Deneb rising after 3 a.m. this month. The Winter Triangle – Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion – shares an edge with the much larger Winter Hexagon – Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion.

With Orion and its cohort all above the horizon before midnight, learning eight constellations at once is as easy as following some lines within Orion's bowtie asterism.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga. Click for a larger view.

Morning Skies: There are no massive asterisms on the scale of the Winter Hexagon in the morning skies right now, but prominent and familiar shapes do abound. Moving from the Little Dipper to the Big Dipper, continue nearly the same distance to reach the hind end of Leo the Lion – look to the west for the backwards question mark that is its mane. In the same neck of the woods as the two Dippers is the Keystone asterism, marking the torso of the constellation Hercules.

The sky at 5 a.m. on Jan. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury: Mercury was easiest to see on Dec. 28th and is now rising a few minutes later each morning. Your best chances to see it are close to 6:30 a.m., very low on the southeast horizon, during the first two weeks of January. It will next be visible after sunset in early March, when it makes for an excellent pairing with Venus.

Venus: Venus is not easily, nor safely, observable until February, when it returns as an observing target soon after sunset.

Mars and Jupiter: Mars and Jupiter come as an unmissable pair in the early morning skies this month. Mars rises before Jupiter in Libra the Scales from the 1st to the 6th around 3:30 a.m., after which it slides past Jupiter and becomes the later arrival. Mars will move swiftly through Libra this month, just grazing the Libra/Scorpius border on Jan. 31. Jupiter and Mars will make for an excellent close pairing on the 6th and 7th, followed by a close grouping with the Moon on the 11th.

Mars and Jupiter this month, with the Moon position shown on the 11th.

Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see the four bright satellites of Jupiter – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, the NASA Juno mission (tw,fb) continues to impress with hard science and beautiful images.

Saturn: Saturn rises earlier each morning this month, making for an excellent observing target for morning observers with Mars and Jupiter after 6 a.m. after the 20th. Saturn will continue to rise earlier each morning and be visible at some point in the nighttime sky until October.

ISS And Other Bright Satellites

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and six current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS is up in the morning before many of us until the 17th, when it disappears for a week before becoming an evening target on the 24th through the end of the month. There are six chances to see the ISS twice before starting your day, although you will have to start extra early all six times to catch these morning pairings.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
1/1somewhat4:59 AME/NE5:00 AME/NE
1/1very6:32 AMW/NW6:36 AMNE
1/2very5:42 AMN/NE5:44 AMNE
1/3very6:24 AMNW6:28 AMNE
1/4moderately5:34 AMN/NE5:35 AMNE
1/5moderately6:16 AMN/NW6:19 AMNE
1/6moderately5:26 AMN/NE5:27 AMNE
1/6very6:59 AMNW7:04 AME/NE
1/7moderately6:08 AMNNW6:11 AMNE
1/8moderately5:18 AMN/NE5:19 AMNE
1/8very6:51 AMNW6:57 AME
1/9very6:00 AMN6:04 AME/NE
1/10moderately5:10 AMNE5:11 AME/NE
1/10exceptionally6:42 AMNW6:48 AME/SE
1/11very5:52 AMN5:56 AME
1/12moderately5:02 AME/NE5:03 AME/NE
1/12exceptionally6:34 AMW/NW6:40 AMSE
1/13exceptionally5:44 AMN5:47 AME/SE
1/14somewhat4:54 AME4:55 AME
1/14very6:26 AMW6:31 AMS/SE
1/15exceptionally5:36 AMS5:39 AMSE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov.

Meteor Showers: Quadrantids, From Dec. 28 to Jan. 12, Peaking Jan. 3

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their orbits, they leave tiny bits behind, usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through these debris fields – this yearly periodicity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The Quadrantids radiant near the Big and Little Dippers, with the location of Quadrans Muralis marked out as well. Click for a larger view.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. The Quadrantids are one of the few meteor showers named after a constellation that is no longer recognized by the professional astronomical community. Quadrans Muralis, the quadrant, was an addition to the nighttime sky by French astronomer Jerome Lalande back in 1795. While the quadrant, a wall-mounted instrument for measuring the angles of celestial objects, was a vital tool to astronomers of the day, the constellation never made it past the final vote at the 1922 Convention of the International Astronomical Union. For those who have never explored the history and politics of the constellations, let the quadrantids serve as a yearly reminder.

How to observe: Sadly, the Quadrantid peak this year will be washed out by the near-full Moon, making this otherwise reasonably active meteor shower a difficult one to enjoy. If you insist on braving the cold, lie as flat as possible with your feet pointed towards the radiant and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you.

Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Pisces

Pisces, with the Great Square of Pegasus marked to its side, and Uranus within a binocular field of view.

Those keeping track of the planetary descriptions in this series will note that, with the very rarest of exceptions, the planets you can see without any equipment are always within one of the twelve Zodiacal Constellations. This is not a coincidence!

If the Solar System were a dinner plate on a table, the eight planets would all be variously-sized morsels – peas, olives, meatballs – orbiting around a massive grapefruit at the center. As we moved once around the plate and scan the rest of the dining room, we might see a chair directly opposite the grapefruit, then a picture hanging on the wall, then an archway into the kitchen, then another chair, then other prominent objects in the distance until we'd made one complete revolution around the grapefruit – after which we'd see the same objects in the same positions during our second and future trips around the plate. Because we're all on the same plate, all of the other planetary morsels will appear between ourselves and the prominent objects we identified in our trip around the grapefruit, changing which prominent object they appear to be in front of based on how fast they – and we – are moving around the plate.

In keeping with the festive season and the foodie theme, we begin a survey of the Zodiacal Constellations at the western horizon this month with one of several Zodiac signs easily paired with wine. The prominent stars of Pisces the Fishes have been parts of constellations since Babylonian days, but were not solidly recorded in the Western astronomy tradition as fish until about 1,000 B.C.E. Its shape is roughly that of two fish tied together by a rope. Piscis Boreus, the Northern Fish, is the triangle close to the nearby Aries. Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, is a pentagon of stars that share a border with Aquarius. Depending on your light pollution, neither shape may be very prominent in your sky – the Great Square of Pegasus, close to the horizon in the early evening this month, may serve as a brighter guide.

We start with Pisces this month for a very good reason. If Pisces were a clam instead of a fish, binocular observers with steady hands and good optics are treated to a greenish-blue pearl close to the hinge of the clamshell. The distant planet Uranus, the fourth largest, seventh farthest from the Sun, and bitterly cold gas giant planet, was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel. This discovery is important for two reasons. First, Uranus can only been seen without binoculars or telescope under the absolute best of observing conditions – and some amateur astronomers would even say "that's nuts." For all of human history, only Mercury-to-Saturn were known as planets to astronomers, astrologers, and anyone else until Herschel's discovery. Second, Herschel knew where to limit his observations thanks to Isaac Newton, whose revolutionary physics of the time explained why the Solar System is a flat disc of planets – and why one would only reasonably expect to find planets in the same region of the sky as the known planets – that region defined by the stars of the Zodiac.

Uranus may serve to be a difficult catch even under good conditions, but seeing this planet with your own eyes is a great way to start your observing for 2018.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any NY astronomy clubs or events to promote, please contact the author.

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