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SKY REPORTER: Rising Stars

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View of the Chang'e 3 lander (large arrow) and rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration in the northeastern part of Mare Imbrium. Image width is 576 meters; north is up, via NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


On New Year’s Eve folks chilling along Broadway were counting down final minutes of 2013 as the brilliant star Sirius made its annual midnight crossing of the celestial meridian, the line dividing rising and setting zones of the sky. Above Sirius the even more vivid blaze of Jupiter shines during January nights in the constellation Gemini. Jupiter’s own midnight meridian passage this year is January 5-6, when that great world rises around sunset and remains above the horizon until dawn. That night also marks Earth’s closest approach to Jupiter when that planet is seen at its brightest for 2014. Ever changing juxtapositions of Jupiter’s largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are therefore especially visible this month.

Last October the Juno spacecraft made use of Earth’s gravity to slingshot itself outward toward Jupiter, placing the mission on schedule for a July 2016 polar orbit insertion around the big planet. It will be the first visit to the Jovian neighborhood by a craft from Earth since a slingshot flyby of Jupiter propelled the New Horizons craft onward seven years ago. That enhancement boosted New Horizons toward rendezvous with Pluto in 2015, to be followed by a decade long perusal of the Kuiper Belt.

We also note last month’s lunar landing of China’s Chang'e 3 mission and activation of its Yutu /Jade Rabbit lunar rover, first vehicle to move along the moon’s surface in 41 years.  The lander and rover are near the crater La Place F at the northeastern part of Mare Imbrium which forms the left eye we see on the moon’s imagined face. The Sun rises for the first time on Jade Rabbit in situ the evening of January 10th when the terminator between bright and dark portions of the waxing gibbous moon reaches the lander at lunar coordinates 44.1214°N, 340.4884°E.

The Chinese space program continues to make methodic progress. Unlike current productive cooperation between Russia, the European Union, the United States, and additional nations, the Chinese are learning from others while intrepidly developing their own spacefaring capabilities. Many believe humans would not have walked on the Moon if it hadn’t been for surprising early Soviet space successes and President Kennedy’s political and competitive inclinations. Those who see the Moon as a steppingstone to human exploration of Mars may now have an opportunity to gauge effects of new competition in space exploration, or the absence thereof.

Perihelion

Saturday January 4th at 7 am ET Earth reaches the point of its orbit when our planet is closest to the Sun—a separation of about 91,406,000 miles.

The Moon

January’s Full Moon is Wednesday January 15th with traditional names including Full Wolf Moon and Full Cold Moon. On that date the moon is also at apogee, its furthest distance from Earth at about 252,607 miles. Therefore that night we may see the antithesis of a so-called “Super Moon.”

Lunar Phases, January 2014
New Moon January 1
First Quarter January 7
Full Moon January 15
Last Quarter January 24
New Moon January 30

 

Planets

Mercury increases its separation from the Sun and becomes better placed in our evening twilight sky as the month progresses. Venus is at inferior conjunction approximately in the same direction as the Sun, but about ten solar diameters north of the Sun’s disk on January 11th. Venus becomes more easily seen before dawn toward the end of the month. Mars rises shortly before midnight in the constellation Virgo. It is becoming increasingly bright as its distance from us decreases leading up to that planet’s opposition in April. Jupiter is at opposition on Sunday January 5th, and it dominates night skies of January. Saturn is in Libra, rising during early morning hours.

Planets for January 15th
Mercury Sets 5:41 p.m. Capricorn
Venus Rises 6:29 a.m. Sagittarius
Mars Rises 11:37 p.m. Virgo
Jupiter Sets 6:46 a.m. Gemini
Saturn Rises 2:30 a.m. Libra
Uranus Sets 11:00 p.m. Pisces
Neptune Sets 8:02 p.m. Aquarius

 
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