Happy New Year! January is an exciting month to look to the heavens. Below is a stargazer’s guide to January 2020’s celestial events. Take note that we sometimes will use angular degrees to define the separation between two objects, such as (for example) the Moon and a bright planet. Keep in mind that the width of your clenched fist, held at arm’s length, measures roughly 10°.
All times Eastern.
January 2 – First Quarter Moon at 11:43 p.m. In this phase, the Moon looks like a half-Moon in the sky. One-half of the Moon is illuminated by direct sunlight while the illuminated part is increasing (waxing), on its way to full.
January 4 – If you like “shooting stars” you’ll have an excellent chance to see more than a few early this morning. The Quadrantid meteor shower is predicted to reach its peak during the predawn hours. The unusual name for these meteors is derived from a long-defunct constellation, Quadrans Muralis, the “Wall Quadrant,” now just a scattering of faint stars divided between the constellations Boötes, Draco, and Hercules.
This is a very short-lived display, lasting only several hours, but this year viewing circumstances favor North America, especially those living in the Eastern U.S. and Eastern Canada where maximum activity is forecast to occur within an hour of 4 a.m. The meteors will appear to dart from out of the northeast part of the sky. They are described as “usually blue” with “fine, long spreading silver trains.” Under a dark, clear sky, you might see as many as 60 to 120 “Quads” during an hour’s watch.
Keep in mind, however, that if you’re watching from a brightly-lit town or city, or have obstructions like buildings or tall trees blocking off large parts of the sky, your meteor count will be considerably lower. And be sure to bundle up! January morning can be very cold, if not downright frigid.
January 5 – Earth will be at perihelion—its closest point to the Sun for the year—at 2:48 a.m.; a distance of 91,398,199 miles. We are 3.28 percent closer to the Sun than we will be when the Earth is at aphelion (our farthest point from the Sun) next July 4th.
January 5 – Latest sunrise of 2020.
January 10 – The “Wolf” Moon turns 100% full at 2:21 p.m. Also, the planet Mercury is at superior conjunction today; unobservable since it’s positioned on the opposite side of the Sun as seen from here on Earth. By the 24th this planet sets ¾ hour after the Sun and should be easily seen appearing as a bright yellowish-orange star low in the west-southwest sky. And by the 31st, it will be setting a full hour after the Sun.
January 13 – Saturn arrives at conjunction behind the Sun today and hence is invisible for this entire month. Call it a “Saturn sabbatical.”
January 13 – The Moon will be at perigee at 3:30 p.m., its closest point to Earth this month.
January 17 – Last Quarter Moon at 7:58 a.m. In this phase, the Moon appears as a half Moon in the sky. One-half of the Moon is illuminated by direct sunlight while the illuminated part is decreasing (waning), heading toward the “new” phase.
January 18 – The brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion is named Antares – Greek for “Rival of Mars.” The name is quite fitting, for Antares shines with a distinct reddish color. And early this morning, a couple of hours before sunrise, low in the east-southeast, Mars will be passing less than 5° to the upper left of its “rival.” The star will appear nearly twice as bright as the red planet. Mars is 189 million miles from Earth and still looks tiny in telescopes. But just wait—this year is going to be a great year for Mars, with the planet’s disk looming nearly five times wider by early October and appearing 40 times brighter than it does now.
January 20 – This morning, Mars and Antares form an eye-catching triangle with a lovely waning crescent Moon.
January 22 – It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to view Jupiter. It was last seen in the evening sky in early December, just before it dropped out of sight into the glare of the Sun. Now Jupiter is emerging back into view, low in the morning twilight sky. About 40 minutes before sunrise look very low toward the southeast horizon for an exceedingly thin waning crescent Moon; binoculars will certainly help. Once sighted, sweep about 8° to its lower left and you should find Jupiter, evident through the bright twilight sky by virtue of its great brightness.
January 24 – New Moon at 4:42 p.m. In this phase, the Moon is not illuminated by direct sunlight and is completely invisible to the naked eye.
January 25 – This evening, about a half-hour after sunset, use binoculars to scan low above the west-southwest horizon for the extremely thin arc of light that is a waxing crescent Moon, only one day past new. And a couple of degrees to its immediate right will be Mercury.
January 28 – More than one-third up from the west-southwest horizon right after sundown will be the two brightest objects in our night sky: a slender crescent Moon and situated well to its right, the dazzling planet Venus. At the start of this month, Venus doesn’t set until about 2½ hours after the Sun, but by the end of January that will increase to 3 hours.
January 29 – The Moon will be at apogee at 4:33 p.m., its farthest point to Earth in its orbit this month.
This astronomy calendar is adapted from “Skylog,” a regular feature, appearing in Natural History Magazine, written by Joe Rao since 1995.