Backyard Stargazer: A grand star party in January

By Francis Parnell

Francis Parnell, the Backyard Stargazer of Darlington

Happy New Year! (Almost.)

January has a number of interesting things to see, including a total lunar eclipse on a three-day holiday weekend.

Just before dawn on the 1st, the waning crescent moon is 5 degrees upper right of dazzling Venus; the next morning the moon is 7 degrees lower left.

Earth is at perihelion on the 3rd, closest to the sun all year, at 91,404,554 miles.

The slim crescent is 4 degrees to the left of yellow Jupiter on the 3rd, and 3 degrees above a low Mercury a mere half-hour before sunrise on the 4th. Before dawn on the 6th, look southeast to spot sparkling Venus at Greatest Elongation, 47 degrees east of the sun.

On the 12th, spot red Mars 5 degrees upper right of the thick crescent moon. On the 17th, Aldebaran, the bright “eye” of Taurus, the Bull, is 2 degrees south of the gibbous moon. Aldebaran is a giant star, 44 times the solar diameter, 160 times the luminosity and 67 light-years away.

On the night of the 20th/21st, Mother Nature is having a grand star party and inviting all of us to watch the total lunar eclipse!

The partial phase begins at 10:34 p.m., totality starts at 11:41 p.m., mid-eclipse is at 12:12 a.m., and totality ends at 12:43 a.m.

No special equipment is needed to observe a lunar eclipse; our naked eyes have worked fine for thousands of years.
But, if you have binoculars or a telescope, you can use them to get a close-up view of the event!

As it slowly glides into Earth’s shadow, we can actually see the moon moving along its orbit.

So gather the kids, dress warmly and get ready to experience one of nature’s greatest spectacles. The next total lunar eclipse is May 2021.

Less than 24 hours after being eclipsed, the moon is at perigee, only 222,000 miles away.

How large will it appear as it rises behind distant houses and trees? 45 minutes before sunrise on the 26th, look south-southeast to find a horizontal line-up of two planets and a red super-giant star.

Brilliant Venus is 5 degrees left of yellow Jupiter; Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius, the Scorpion, is 8 degrees to the right of Jupiter.

45 minutes before sunrise on the 30th, the waning crescent moon is 6 degrees upper right of Jupiter, and 2 degrees right of Venus on the morning of the 31st.

FAST FACT: After a star 4 to 8 times the mass of the sun ends its life in a supernova explosion, the core collapses to become a neutron star, 12.4 miles in diameter, with a spin rate that can be as high as 716 times per second.

It’s so extremely dense that a teaspoonful weighs 2 trillion pounds.

The gravity is 2 billion times that of Earth.

A 180-pound person would weigh 360 billion pounds on the surface of a neutron star.

The stars belong to everyone, so — “Keep looking up!”

Author: Rachel Howell

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