University of Minnesota
December 21, 2011
The Catseye Nebula, in the northern constellation Draco, the dragon, is certainly one of the most beautiful celestial objects known.
Image: Goddard Space Flight Center and Space Telescope Science Institute
By Deane Morrison
As the new year arrives, the sky is a black, moonless backdrop for the most brilliant star and its companions.
Sirius, outshining every other star from Canis Major, the big dog, will be almost due south and about as high as it gets at the moment 2012 arrives. Above it are Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, the little dog, plus the stars of Orion, Gemini, Auriga and Taurus—winter's usual gang of suspects.
Mars, too, is up to greet 2012, glowing softly in the eastern sky below the hindquarters of Leo. By dawn Mars will be high in the southwest. The Red Planet is brightening as Earth closes in on it and is rising earlier every night, from about 10 p.m. on the 1st to about 8:30 p.m. by month's end. Viewers with telescopes can now start to see features on its disk.
Also visible at dawn is Saturn, shining high in the south just east of the bright star Spica, in Virgo. Like Mars, it is brightening as Earth catches up to it in the orbital race.
Evenings belong to Venus, a beacon in the southwest after sunset. High in the south between the Great Square of Pegasus to the west and the Pleiades to the east, Jupiter is fading but still the brightest thing in its neighborhood. Watch as these two planets close the gap between them from 75 to 41 degrees during January.
January's full moon was known to many Algonquin tribes as the wolf moon, for the hungry howling of wolves outside their villages as winter tightened its grip. This year it shines below the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor on the night of the 8th-9th.
The Quadrantid meteor shower, peaking on the 4th, should be good, but we'll have to wait until moonset. That happens about four hours before sunrise that morning. Quadrantids are medium-speed meteors that radiate from northern Bootes, the herdsman, which will be climbing in the east during the predawn hours.
Also on the 4th, Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the sun in its orbit. On that day we come to about 91.4 million miles of our parent star.
The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see:
Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet
Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics (during fall and spring semesters): www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight
12/21/11 Contact: Deane Morrison, University Relations, (612) 624-2346, firstname.lastname@example.org
Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at http://www.astro.umn.edu.