Each winter the North Pole of Mars develops a new outer layer about one meter thick composed of carbon dioxide frozen out of the thin Martian atmosphere. This fresh layer is deposited on a water-ice layer that exists year round. Strong winds blow down from above the cap's center and swirl due to the spin of the red planet, contributing to Planum Boreum's spiral structure. Above, a perspective mosaic generated from numerous images taken by ESA's Mars Express and elevations extracted from the laser altimeter aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor mission. Image courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin; NASA MGS MOLA Science Team.
Bright Stars, Planets and Lunar Eclipse Visible in January
BY JONATHAN TRUAX, ASTRONOMER, MUSKEGON COMMUNITY COLLEGE'S CARR-FLES PLANETARIUM
January skies offer sky watchers chances to enjoy some of the brightest stars of the year, and to observe some very interesting planetary sights for those willing to brave the cold.
January sky watching opens with a bang as the Quadrantid meteor shower reaches its peak on the mornings of January 3 and 4. This shower, one of the best of the year, is rarely observed due to the cold and cloudy skies of winter. But if conditions are good, sky watchers can expect to see 40 meteors per hour radiating from a point near the handle of the Big Dipper. This year the count will probably be cut in half due to bright moon light of the waning gibbous moon.
During January mornings, four planets are visible in the southeast just before sunrise. The brightest of the three is Jupiter, being much brighter than a typical star. As January begins, Mars and Jupiter are very near to one another with the closest approach of Mars to Jupiter occurring on the morning of the 6th. Locate the pair of planets high in the southeast about an hour before sunrise. The waning crescent moon is very near the two planets on the mornings of January 10 and the 11.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “Faster than Light! The Dream of Interstellar Flight” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., January 16 through March 1 and March 13 through 29. The impulse to strike out into the unknown, to see what’s over the horizon is as old as humanity. Scientists now believe that our galaxy is filled with solar systems, including up to 9 billion Sun-like stars with planets similar to Earth. Astronomers are racing to find habitable worlds, but if we find one, how will we ever get there? Narrated by Sean Bean, “Faster Than Light! The Dream of Interstellar Flight” will dazzle audiences with virtual rides aboard spacecraft of the future. The program will be followed by a brief tour of the current night sky, using the planetarium.
Locate Saturn and Mercury as a fairly bright pair of yellow “stars” in the southeast about 30 minutes before sunrise. The two planets are very close to each other on the morning of January 13th. Mercury is the brighter of the two. The waning crescent moon will be very close to the two planets on the morning of January 14.
As darkness falls after sunset during January, the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle; Vega, Deneb, and Altair are low in the west. Looking low on the northeast, locate the “Big Dipper” formed by the stars of Ursa Major. High in the north, locate the “W” formed by the stars of Cassiopeia. High overhead, locate the bright yellow star Capella of Auriga, the charioteer. The winter constellation of Taurus can be seen high in the east, marked by the orange star Aldebaran. Look for the Pleiades star cluster, seen as a tiny “dipper” of stars, higher in the east. The waxing gibbous moon is very near the cluster the nights of January 25 and 26.
Sky watchers can locate Orion rising low in the east at sunset. Look for three stars in a row, the famous “belt” of Orion. A couple hours after sunset use the “belt” stars pointing downward toward the southeast, to locate the bright blue-white star Sirius the brightest star in the Heavens. Northeast of Orion is Gemini the twins, marked by the bright stars Castor and Pollux. The Full moon is close to the pair of stars the nights of the 30th and 31st.
The moon will undergo a total lunar eclipse the morning of January 31. As seen from West Michigan, only the partial phases of the eclipse are visible before the moon sets in the northwest. Begin looking around 6:30 a.m. local time and watch until the moon sets.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “Faster than Light! The Dream of Interstellar Flight” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., January 16 through March 1 and March 13 through 29. Visit the MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium website for upcoming events and call (231) 777-0289 for sky show information. Carr-Fles Planetarium is located on the Muskegon Community College campus in Room 135. Thanks to the generosity of the Reach for the Stars campaign donors, you can now experience the all-new Carr-Fles Planetarium, featuring state-of-the-art digital projection, sound and lighting systems; all-new library of shows; and modern theater seating and domed ceiling.