Star Trak: January 2014

Jan. 2, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- January will begin with Jupiter rising and Venus setting as darkness falls.

Jupiter will reach opposition on Jan. 5, rising in the east-northeast at sunset among the stars of the constellation Gemini the Twins and passing nearly overhead around midnight local time for observers at mid-northern latitudes. There will be a number of bright stars in Jupiter’s part of the sky this month, and the giant planet will be brighter than any of them. Only Venus will outshine it.

Mars appeared above the eastern horizon about 10 minutes after midnight Jan. 1 and will appear nearly two hours earlier by month’s end. The best telescopic views of the Red Planet will come in the two hours before the start of morning twilight, when it will be at least 40 degrees above the southern horizon.

The hour before morning twilight begins will also be the best time to view Saturn in the southeastern sky. Its rings will be tilted 22 degrees to our line of sight, offering a fine view in a telescope.

A half hour after sunset on Jan. 1, Venus shined brilliantly 10 degrees above the western horizon. It will appear lower each day, passing north of the sun Jan. 11 on its way to the morning sky. By Jan. 17 it will rise in the east-southeast an hour before the sun.

Mercury will have one of its best appearances of the year in January, though it won’t come into view until midmonth. It will reach greatest elongation on Jan. 31, when it will be 18 degrees east of the sun. It will be 11 degrees high in the west-southwest a half hour after sunset, and anyone with binoculars and a clear view of the horizon will be able to see it.

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking during the hours before dawn Jan. 3. The moon will be just two days past new, so moonlight will not interfere with the display. In a clear dark sky, observers may see up to 100 meteors per hour during the brief peak.

The Quadrantids will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker.

Try facing northeast toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle's three stars, it forms an "arc to Arcturus." Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be. More information about viewing meteor showers, including the Quadrantids, is available from the American Meteor Society.


Earth will be closest to the sun in its orbit, the position called perihelion, at 7 a.m. EST (noon Universal Time) Jan. 4. A common misconception is that our seasons are caused by Earth's changing distance from the sun. The actual cause is the tilt of Earth's axis.

In the Northern Hemisphere, winter happens when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, so sunlight must pass through a greater amount of Earth's atmosphere to reach the surface. We actually experience the coldest time of year when we are closest to the sun.

Moon phases

The moon was new on Jan. 1 and will be at first quarter on Jan. 8, full on Jan. 16, at third quarter on Jan. 24 and new again on Jan 30.