STAR TRAK for January 2011

January 4, 2011
Jupiter. Photo courtesy of NASA

As the new year begins, Jupiter will be the only planet visible after sunset, about halfway up the sky in the south-southwest. It will dominate the evening sky as the brightest object in view. January will be the last month to take advantage of Jupiter's position by observing the giant planet with a telescope. It will start sinking closer to the horizon in February, so its light will have to pass through more of Earth's turbulent atmosphere. It will set around 11 p.m. EST at the beginning of January and before 9:30 p.m. by month's end.

Jupiter will serve as a marker for the planet Uranus this month, for both will appear in the same field of view in binoculars. For the first few days of the month, Uranus will be less than 1 degree north of . Not until 2038 will these two planets again be so close.

Saturn will rise around 12:30 a.m. EST as January begins and about two hours earlier by month's end. The planet will be at its highest in the south by the start of morning twilight, the best time to view it with a telescope. Its rings will be tilted 10 degrees to our line of sight, the widest they have appeared since 2007. Saturn's biggest moon, Titan, will be due south of the planet on Jan. 12 and Jan. 28 and due north on Jan. 4 and Jan. 20.

Venus will rise more than three hours before the sun in January, becoming a brilliant object high in the southeast well before the start of morning twilight. It will reach its greatest separation from the sun on Jan. 8.

Mercury will arrive at its own greatest elongation from the sun the next day. Though much fainter than Venus, Mercury will still be brighter than any star visible. Look for it low in the southeast about an hour before sunrise.

Mars will be out of sight in the solar glare during January.

Meteor shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, with a sharp peak during the hours before dawn on Jan. 4. The moon was new that same morning, providing ideal viewing conditions under a clear sky. The rate of this shower varies considerably and unpredictably from year to year, but observers may see up to 100 meteors per hour during the brief peak.

The Quadrantids will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker.

Try facing northeast toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle's three stars, it forms an "arc to Arcturus." Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be. More information about viewing meteor showers, including the Quadrantids, is available from the American Meteor Society at .


Earth reached the closest point to the sun in its orbit, the position called perihelion, on Jan. 3 at 2 p.m. EST (19:00 Universal Time). A common misconception is that our seasons are caused by Earth's changing distance from the sun. The actual cause is the tilt of Earth's axis. Winter in the Northern Hemisphere happens when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, so that sunlight must pass through a greater amount of Earth's atmosphere to reach the surface. We experience the coldest time of year when we are closest to the sun.

Moon phases

The moon will be new on Jan. 4, at first quarter on Jan. 12, full on Jan. 19 and at third quarter on Jan. 26.

Explore further: STAR TRAK for January

Related Stories

STAR TRAK for January

January 5, 2010

( -- Once every 26 months or so, Mars comes closest to Earth in its orbit around the sun. That time has come again. Mars will reach opposition on Jan. 29, meaning it will be opposite the sun in our sky -- rising ...

Saturn dominates the night sky in January

January 4, 2007

The highlight of January will be the planet Saturn, which will rise in the east around 8 p.m. local time at the start of the month and two hours earlier by month's end. The planet with the famous rings will be almost at its ...

STAR TRAK for November: Jupiter and Leonid meteor shower

November 5, 2010

Jupiter will be easy to see in the south as night falls in November. The best time to observe this bright planet with a telescope will be from dusk to midnight as it travels high across the sky from southeast to southwest. ...

STAR TRAK for December

December 3, 2010

The moon will pass through Earth's shadow on the night of Dec. 20-21, producing the first total lunar eclipse in nearly three years. Weather permitting, people across North America and the Pacific Ocean will be able to see ...

STAR TRAK for November: Mars is prominent again

November 2, 2009

( -- Pumpkin-colored Mars will return to prominence during November, rising shortly before midnight at the beginning of the month and more than two hours earlier by month's end. The orange planet will brighten ...

July: Planets to create a celestial chorus line in the west

July 5, 2010

( -- The western sky will be crowded after sunset in July. Forming a long slanting line from highest to lowest above the horizon will be the planets Saturn, Mars and Venus, with the bright star Regulus included ...

Recommended for you

Juno probes the depths of Jupiter's great red spot

December 12, 2017

Data collected by NASA's Juno spacecraft during its first pass over Jupiter's Great Red Spot in July 2017 indicate that this iconic feature penetrates well below the clouds. Other revelations from the mission include that ...

Telescopes team up to study giant galaxy

December 12, 2017

Astronomers have used two Australian radio telescopes and several optical telescopes to study complex mechanisms that are fuelling jets of material blasting away from a black hole 55 million times more massive than the Sun.

Unravelling the mysteries of extragalactic jets

December 11, 2017

University of Leeds researchers have mathematically examined plasma jets from supermassive black holes to determine why certain types of jets disintegrate into huge plumes.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.