Friday, January 8
• Venus-Saturn conjunction: In early dawn Saturday morning, spot brilliant Venus, the "Morning Star," in the southeast. Right next to it will be Saturn, only 1/60 as bright. When seen from the Americas, they'll be 1/2° or less apart. That's about the width of a chopstick at arm's length. Binoculars give a fine view, and both planets will fit into a telescope's low- or medium-power eyepiece.
They'll be at their very closest, a mere 0.1° apart, around 4h Universal Time: excellent timing for Europe.
Saturday, January 9
• In this very coldest time of the year, the dim Little Dipper hangs straight down from Polaris after dinnertime, as if (per Leslie Peltier) from a nail on the cold north wall of the sky.
The Big Dipper, meanwhile, is creeping up low in the north-northeast. Its handle is very low and its bowl is to the upper right.
• New Moon (exact at 8:31 p.m. EST).
Sunday, January 10
• If you don't know Kemble's Cascade, maybe you should. It's a lovely binocular asterism in Camelopardalis north of Perseus high overhead. This straight stream of mostly faint stars is 2° long, running northwest to southeast. You can use the finder chart in Gary Seronik's Binocular Highlight on page 43 of the January Sky & Telescope. Most of the Kemble's Cascade stars are too faint (7th or 8th magnitude) to show on that chart, but the black circle there is centered on its 5th-magnitude middle star.
Monday, January 11
• Bright Capella high overhead, and bright Rigel in Orion's foot, are at almost the same right ascension — so they cross your sky’s meridian at almost the same time (around 10 p.m. now, depending on how far east or west you live in your time zone). This means that whenever Capella passes its very highest, Rigel marks true south over your landscape.
Tuesday, January 12
• In late twilight, look lower left of the crescent Moon, by about two fists at arm's length, for twinkly Fomalhaut getting low.
Three fists upper left from Fomalhaut you'll run into Diphda, Beta Ceti. Can you see its orange color?
Wednesday, January 13
• Sirius twinkles brightly after dinnertime below Orion in the southeast. Sometime around 9 p.m., depending on your location, Sirius shines precisely below fiery Betelgeuse in Orion's shoulder. How accurately can you time this event for your location, perhaps using a plumb bob or the vertical edge of a building? Sirius leads early in the evening, Betelgeuse leads later. Welcome to pre-telescopic astronomy.
Thursday, January 14
• Although Orion is the brightest constellation, his main pattern is surprisingly small compared to some of his dimmer neighbors. The biggest of these is Eridanus the River, enormous but hard to trace. Dimmer Fornax, the Furnace to Eridanus's lower right, is almost as big as Orion! Even the main pattern of Lepus, the Hare cowering under Orion's feet, isn't much smaller than he is.
Friday, January 15
• After dinnertime at this time of the year, the Great Square of Pegasus balances on one corner high in the west. Tonight the Moon (nearly first-quarter) shines to its left, as shown here.
The vast Andromeda-Pegasus constellation complex runs all the way from near the zenith (Andromeda's foot) down through the Great Square (Pegasus's body) to somewhat low in the west (Pegasus's nose).
Saturday, January 16
• First-quarter Moon (exact at 6:26 p.m. EST). The Moon shines in dim Pisces upper left of the Great Square of Pegasus, as shown here.
Want to become a better astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
This is an outdoor nature hobby. For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential guide to astronomy.
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you'll need a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The basic standard is the Pocket Sky Atlas (in either the original or new Jumbo Edition), which shows stars to magnitude 7.6.
Next up is the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0, plotting stars to magnitude 8.5, nearly three times as many. Next up, once you know your way around, is the even larger Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use sky charts with a telescope.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders collection (which includes its own charts), Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the bigger Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically (meaning heavy and expensive). As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury is out of sight, passing through inferior conjunction. At its next inferior conjunction, on May 9th, it will cross the face of the Sun for the first transit of Mercury since 2006. At least part of the transit will be visible from all of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and much of Asia.
Saturn and brilliant Venus are low in the southeast in early dawn. They start the week in a close conjunction, less than ½° apart, on the morning of January 9th. Thereafter Saturn moves higher and Venus lower. By the 16th the gap between them widens to 8°, with Saturn upper right of Venus. Venus is magnitude –4.0; Saturn is sixty times fainter, at magnitude +0.5.
Mars (magnitude +1.2, in eastern Virgo), glows high in the south in early dawn, 10° to 13° left of similarly-bright Spica.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.2, between Leo and Virgo) rises in the east around 10 p.m. now and moves over to dominate the southwestern sky before dawn. It shines highest in the south around 4 a.m.
Uranus (magnitude +5.8, in Pisces) is still in fine view high in the south-southwest just after dark. Finder chart.
Neptune (magnitude +7.9, in Aquarius) is getting low in the southwest after dark.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America.
Eastern Standard Time (EST) is Universal Time (UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.
"Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."
— Henri Poincaré (1854–1912)