What's Up In the Sky - January 11-17

What’s Up in the Sky

At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column will take a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

January 11th–17th

What to observe:

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

Although amazing celestial treasures fill our skies every night, it is a particularly special treat to have the chance to observe a bright comet mingling among the masses of stars. Over the next couple of weeks, Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be putting on quite a show as it zips through the Taurus, Aries and Triangulum constellations on its journey toward perihelion on January 30th. Currently at 4th magnitude, this brilliant icy beauty can be easily seen with binoculars or small telescopes and may be visible to the naked eye for those with extremely dark skies. Although it made its closest approach to Earth on January 7th, the comet is becoming even easier to see as it moves away partly because the waning Moon, which will reach its new phase on January 20th, is delivering darker viewing conditions. Discovered by established comet hunter Terry Lovejoy on August 17th, 2014, while he was observing in Australia, this comet has a very long orbital period and is not expected back in our celestial neighborhood for another 8,000 years. Although it has been in southern skies for months, the comet is now gracing Northern Hemisphere viewers with its brightest display. It is best viewed in the early evening (around 8 p.m. local time). For detailed information on locating Comet Lovejoy, visit www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/spot-comet-lovejoy-tonight-122920141/ or www.cometchasing.skyhound.com

Taurus Constellation

Since the brilliant comet is currently streaking through the Taurus constellation, it seems like an ideal time to also check out what the bold “bull” has to offer. Currently, Taurus is perfectly positioned for easy observation as it faces off with Orion in the northern hemisphere’s winter sky. One of the Zodiac constellations, Taurus occupies an area of 797 square degrees and is home to a number of stunning celestial treasures. The brightest star in the constellation is Aldebaran, which is an orange giant star often characterized as the bull’s glaring bloodshot eye. Also known as Alpha Tauri, this star is the 13th brightest in the sky and can be used to easily locate two of the constellation’s other famous features - the Pleiades and Hyades open star clusters. Known as the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades is defined by its brilliant blue stars and has a rich lore that goes back thousands of years. The Hyades is the nearest open star cluster to the Sun and includes the four red giant stars that form the asterism representing the bull’s head. In addition to its famous stars and star clusters, the Taurus constellation is also home to some beautiful deep sky objects such as the Crab Nebula, which earned the distinct honor of being the first object to be entered into the Messier catalogue. The Crab Nebula is an expanding remnant of a supernova that was documented by astronomers in several cultures in 1054.

What to remember:

January 12 – 10th Anniversary of Deep Impact Launch

On January 12, 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact space probe embarked on a unique mission to study Comet Tempel 1. Other spacecrafts had flown by comets, but Deep Impact was destined to do what these others had not - impact a comet’s surface. To achieve this goal, the probe had two distinct sections. The primary was a structure designed to flyby and image the comet. As Deep Impact neared Comet Tempel 1 in July 2005, it released its secondary section - a “smart” impactor that positioned itself on a collision course with the approaching comet. This component of the probe relayed images of the comet’s nucleus back to the flyby module until mere seconds before it impacted the comet’s surface. The material ejected from the comet by the impact was observed by the primary section of the probe, Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft which was in a good observation position, large orbiting scopes like the Hubble telescope and countless Earth-bound telescopes used by professional and amateur astronomers. Following this successful mission, which allowed the first close inspection of a comet’s interior, the surviving portion of the probe went on to fly by Comet Hartley 2 in 2010 and even captured images of Comet ISON before being declared lost in August 2013 due to a software issue.

January 1610 - Jupiter’s Galilean Moons Discovered

In early January 1610, the famous physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei made a series of discoveries that would reverberate throughout the science community of his time and challenge the period’s standing theory that everything orbits around Earth. After making significant improvements to the telescope, Galileo observed a series of bodies near Jupiter that he at first thought were fixed stars. After several nights of observation, he noticed their positions changed and, at one point, one of them even disappeared. Based on these facts, he determined these bodies were not fixed but were indeed orbiting Jupiter itself. Now known as the Galilean moons, the four celestial objects that Galileo discovered were Jupiter’s largest moons - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The significance of Galileo’s discovery was not just that it presented a formidable challenge to the geocentric model. It also proved the value of the telescope itself by demonstrating the limitations of the unaided eye when searching the heavens and revealing there are so many stunning sights to behold through the eyepiece of a telescope. 


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