Nature is very unpredictable; and we were reminded of this especially well in regard to comets. Despite the months-long major buildup about Comet ISON being the spectacular naked-eye “Comet of the Century”, nature provided a quite different outcome.
Comet ISON was a “sun-grazing” comet. Its orbital path took it within 700,000 miles of the Sun. Though this sounds like a lot of miles, most comets pass millions of miles from the Sun. The Sun up close is frightfully hot and horribly deadly with harmful gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light. Ninety percent of Comet ISON was destroyed by this onslaught and though it had reached an apparent magnitude of -2.0 just before Thanksgiving, when it emerged from behind the Sun a few days later, there was not much left.
It was disappointing when the expected spectacular naked-eye comet did not materialize. But people connected with this comet as never before due to modern social media recording millions of hits from curious people; potential skywatchers. I was glad to see the interest it generated as I too, received numerous calls and questions leading up to Comet ISON’s swing around the Sun, and again afterwards, as people wondered what had happened.
The answer remains: Comets are probably the most unpredictable of celestial objects especially in regard to brightness. But one thing is sure. Comets are regular members of the Solar System and frequent visitors to the inner Solar System. Others will come and some may be bright and spectacular.
Meantime, the month of January features lots of action among the planets, with Jupiter reaching its closest approach to Earth in the last 13 months on January 5th, Venus visible low in the southwest at magnitude -4.4 until mid-January, and a fine appearance of Mercury in the West sky after sunset.
Venus will be unmistakable low in the southwest evening sky until about January 14th as its smaller orbit takes it close to the Sun, and then brings it into the Sun’s glare until late January,when it emerges into the eastern pre-dawn sky. It will be visible only for 30 to 40 minutes after sunset in early January in the southwest sky, but for 1 to 2 hours before sunrise in the East in late January and into February.
As twilight deepens Jupiter will rise among the stars of Gemini in the East reaching opposition January 5th. This means it is opposite the Sun in the sky as seen from Earth. Jupiter rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west and it is visible all night at magnitude -2.7! It will be hard to miss. On January 15th look for the Full Moon just a few degrees below Jupiter in the eastern evening sky.
Mercury gets to its greatest elongation (angle) from the Sun on January 31st. It will be seen in the southwest just left of where the Sun sets and about 10 to 12 degrees above that horizon, 45 to 60 minutes after the Sun goes down. A very thin crescent Moon will also be seen in the January 31st west sky just to Mercury’s lower right. Into February’s first days, the Moon will appear above and left of Mercury.
January’s Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the night of January 3rd/4th. Look east-northeast from 4 to 6 am (I know, it is early and cold, but dark). You may see up to 60 meteors per hour.
January Moon Phases: 1st quarter Jan.7th; Full Jan. 15th; Last Quarter Jan.24.