Southeast gives best January view

The sky guy

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005


  Graphic provided by Andy Veh

Graphic provided by Andy Veh

The best view is toward the southeast around 9 p.m. throughout January.

The dominating constellation is Orion the hunter. It is many people's favorite because of its brilliance. Four stars arranged in a rectangle (with red Betelgeuse in the upper left, blue Rigel in the lower right, Bellatrix and Saiph) outline the body, while three stars make up the belt with the Orion nebula as the sword beneath it.

Above Orion you find Taurus, part of it in the shape of an arrowhead, including red Aldebaran. And above that are the Pleiades star cluster (just outside the diagram), also called the Seven Sisters, a must for binoculars with which you can see 30 to 50 of its total of 500 stars. To Taurus' left is the pentagon Auriga with yellow Capella (also just outside the diagram).

Beneath Capella appear Castor and Pollux, the twins in Gemini, accompanied by Saturn this winter. And then we close this circle toward the horizon, with Procyon and Sirius, the brightest star in the entire sky, just rising in the diagram. Jupiter will rise as late as 2 a.m. It and Mars also are visible in the morning sky while Venus and Mercury make a nice double low on the eastern throughout the first two weeks of January.

Also in the diagram is a dashed line depicting Comet Machholz. It is moving almost tail-first through Taurus during the first two weeks, then through Perseus. When a comet enters the inner solar system, our sun's solar wind is strong enough to evaporate gas and dust from the comet producing the tail. That tail is pointing away from our sun and it is thus not an indicator of the comet's direction

The comet is as bright (or faint) as the fainter stars in those constellations and shows as a fuzz ball in binoculars, though its tail shows up on one-minute photos. In very darks areas, for example for skiers staying in a remote cabin on the Kenai Peninsula, it can be viewed with the naked eye, almost as bright as the Andromeda galaxy.

Among the stars of winter is the intruder Saturn looking forward to being in the news this month. Its most interesting moon is Titan, large and cold enough minus 290 F to make it the only moon in the solar system that retains an atmosphere. That atmosphere consists primarily of Nitrogen and Methane (CH4), and furthermore beneath its thick cloud cover, lakes and perhaps oceans of Methane may exist, and it might constantly rain this liquefied gas.

This scenario on Titan may provide the best conditions in our solar system for something precious: life. Albeit, of course, any such hopeful discovery would mean microorganisms that may be quite different from what we're used to, having adapted to those frigid temperatures.

By now the space probe Huygens has separated from its mother ship Cassini , which will continue orbiting Saturn. On Jan. 14 it will plunge through Titan's atmosphere and perhaps float in its methane ocean, sending data from the moon's surface.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column appears on the first Sunday of each month. He can be reached at

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