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A Guide to the Night Sky: January 2017

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A Guide to the Night Sky
January 2017 

By Tre Gibbs, LAAS

Happy New Year!

The night sky promises to be full of cosmic distractions as we put the holidays behind us and begin our long, impatient wait for Spring. So here’s some good news; the days are slowly getting longer. They have been since the Winter Solstice last month on December 21st. 

Although not noticeable at the beginning of the month, it should become apparent at month’s end.

Another interesting happening is that the planet Venus – the third brightest object in the sky, after the Sun and Moon – will be inching eastward closer to Mars until January 12th, then Venus will slowly begin to head in the opposite direction, westward, away from Mars until she disappears into the glare of the sun by the end of March. Speaking of Venus, here are a couple “fun facts” about Earth’s sister planet. First, some basic info about Earth. As you probably know, Earth takes about 24 hours to make one rotation on it’s axis, which is our day. It also takes roughly 365 of those days to complete one full orbit around our nearest star, The Sun – which is our year. Now, Venus rotates slowly on it’s axis – VERY slowly. So slowly, that it actually completes one orbit around the sun BEFORE it completes one rotation on its axis, which means, Venus’ day is longer than its year. Mind blown. Oh, Venus also rotates in the opposite direction that Earth rotates, so on Venus the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

On the last day of the month, January 31st, look to the west southwest just after sunset for a very thin crescent moon. As the sky begins to darken, you will see what’s called a conjunction, which is when two or more objects appear together in the sky. The moon, the planet Mars (above the moon and to the right) and the brilliantly shining planet Venus.

Earlier in the month, on the 12th, we will be treated to January’s full moon, The Full Wolf Moon. The folklore behind this particular name is that tribal and colonial people would often hear wolves howl at the mid-winter’s full moon in hunger outside their villages…yikes!

Jupiter is beginning to make it’s way into our evening skies as well. Early in January, Jupiter rises low in the east around 1:30am, but late in the month, it rises almost two hours earlier, around 11:30pm. This will continue until Jupiter appears in our early evening, eastern skies by late March, just about the same time Venus is saying her westward farewell, heading into our eastern, pre-dawn skies once again.

Have a great start to 2017 and keep looking up!