14 Dec 2018
The best of astronomy this month:
By Dhara Patel, Astronomy Education Officer
(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK).
Top 3 things to see this month:
- 3-4 Jan - Try to spot a few metoers from the Quadrantids meteor shower.
- 21 Jan - Catch the Total Lunar Eclipse
- 22 Jan - Spot Venus and Jupiter in conjunction.
Look Up! Podcast
As well as taking you through what to see in the night sky each month, Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers pick their favourite astro news story. For January they're chatting about the ongoing hunt for Dark Matter and how looking at some of the faintest light in the sky might help us understand it and also the achievements of the New Horizons probe which passed the trans-Neptunian object Ultima Thule - the now most distant object visited in our solar System. Have a listen below then vote for your favourite news story on our Twitter poll.
Our podcast is available on iTunes too - search Look Up! and rate us if you enjoyed listening.
After the festivities of Christmas and New Year, some of you may be thinking about what to look forward to next. Well, January hosts a whole range of spectacular astronomical events to keep you entertained during these winter nights. On the night 3rd January and early morning of 4th January – the Quadrantids meteor shower will reach its peak. This is one of the best annual meteor showers along with the Geminids in December and the Perseids in August which have a high meteor rate. Although the maximum rate for the Quadrantids is 50-100 meteors per hour you’re likely to see far fewer unless you have ideal conditions like dark skies and the radiant high in the sky. Unlike the Perseids and Geminids whose peak activity can last up to a day, the Quadrantids have a very narrow peak – just a few hours. So the best time to look is around 2:00am on 4th January when the radiant will be in the north-east and because the Moon will be in its thin waning crescent phase there won’t be any moonlight to interfere. Scan the skies in all directions using your eyes and remember to wrap up warm.
The Moon reaches new moon on the 6th January and Venus also reaches its greatest western elongation on this day too. At greatest elongation, Venus is at its furthest from the Sun from our perspective making it the best time to look for this planet. You can spot Venus over the south-eastern horizon before the sun rises – it will be easily visible with just your eyes appearing as a bright point-like star. Hence, Venus is often called the morning star.
We hope for clear skies on the 21st as the Moon takes to the stage in its full moon phase. This will occur in the early hours but the Moon will still appear full the night before, on the 20th. Due to the Moon’s elliptical orbit, sometimes it is at its closest (perigee) and other times at its furthest (apogee) position from the Earth in its monthly orbit. When the Moon is within 90% of its closest approach and this coincides with a full moon – we call it a supermoon. January’s full moon is the first of 3 supermoons in 2019 and it will appear to be slightly brighter and bigger due to this. Sometimes the moon also appears bigger when close to the horizon – an effect known as moon illusion. Our brains judge things near the horizon to be further away compared to when they are above us in the sky. So to accommodate this false extra distance our brains make things look bigger when in reality they aren’t.
But it’s not just the supermoon we have to feast our eyes on; the 21st is also the date of a total lunar eclipse. This is when the Sun, Earth and Moon are perfectly aligned with the Moon in the Earth’s shadow. In this position the Moon should appear dark and not be visible but the Earth’s atmosphere scatters the Sun’s light; blue light is scattered away in all directions but red light isn’t scattered as much meaning it essentially bends around the Earth and onto the Moon – causing a lunar eclipse moon to appear red. The partial lunar eclipse begins around 3:30am when the Moon will appear in the south-west. However, the total lunar eclipse will start around 4:45am and last about an hour with the maximum point of the eclipse occurring at 5:12am with the Moon now further to the west. An amazing sight not to be missed, but you’ll have to be awake in the small hours of the 21st January to see it!
Just a day later in the early hours of 22nd January look for the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the south-eastern sky before the sun rises. A conjunction is when two astronomical objects meet in the same part of the sky. Venus and Jupiter will lie along the same ecliptic longitude (or share the same right ascension) with Venus sitting slightly higher above Jupiter. At this time you’ll be able to see both planets together using just your eyes and using a pair of binoculars they’ll be in the same field of view. However they won’t be close enough to fit in the same field of view through a telescope. It’s definitely worth a look – they’re the two brightest naked eye planets making them an easy pair to spot but they’ll be quite close to the horizon so make sure you’re away from any tall buildings or trees that may obstruct your view.
The Moon's phases this month
- 6 Jan - new moon (1:28am)
- 14 Jan - first quarter moon (6:45am)
- 21 Jan - full moon (5:16am)
- 27 Jan - last quarter moon (9:10pm)
- When looking at faint objects such as stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies it is important to allow your eyes to adapt to the dark - so that you can achieve better night vision.
- Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to become sensitive in the dark and remember not to look at your mobile phone or any other bright device when stargazing.
- If you're using a star app on your phone then switch on the red night vision mode.
- Need a stargazing telescope or binoculars? Check out our range of high quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory astronomers:
Share your astronomy pictures
Congratulations to Peter Goodhew for his beautiful image of the night sky. He shared his image on our astrophotography Facebook page and we chose it for January's banner image.
If you want to be in with a chance to showcase your astrophotography skills on the banner of next month's night sky blog, share your photos via our Royal Observatory Astrophotography Facebook group
You can also connect with is on Twitter: @ROGAstronomers
Hubble Vision - gallery exhibition
Come and see some of the most spectacular images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in our free exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The exhibition is open daily until 12 May 2019.
See more of the night sky
Come on an amazing tour of this month's night sky in our Sky Tonight planetarium show delivered live by a Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer.
Central image: © Peter Goodhew
Resources for teachers and students
The Royal Observatory learning team have also created:
- Free animated videos that answer the biggest questions in astronomy and free resources to go alongside them.
- A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK Universities.