January night sky

The conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter is already a thing of the past, with many disappointed would-be observers unable to see the event due to evening cloud, or the planets being too low in the sky at dusk. I was very fortunate to have a clear view from home for most of the few weeks including the actual conjunction. but even so the sight was not a spectacular ‘fireworks in the sky’ observation. The only time I recall seeing a naked eye object that was truly awesome was Comet McNaught that appeared unexpectedly in the southern skies in January 2007. For two weeks my kitchen window was the frame for this rare visual treat, not to be seen again before 2090, so no need to mark the calendar then.

With my favourite two planets dipping below the horizon until they join Venus at sunrise in February, I will have to look out for galaxies on dark nights – this needs at least an 8-in Dobsonian, but my dream is a 20-inch, about as far away from my reach as the moon! Without the moons of Jupiter to track over the month, an interesting pastime will also have to be put aside for this month. When the four brightest moons, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, were discovered by Galileo in 1610, he noted that their movement was predictable and suggested that they be used as clocks for finding longitude when there was no other source of time available. This worked well on land and was used for surveying and mapping, but was impractical when observed from a moving ship! (Source: 2021 Sky Guide Africa South; Astronomical Handbook for Southern Africa. Auke Slotegraaf and Ian Glass, Struik Nature.) For someone like me, with a poor grasp of mathematics and figures, it is mind-boggling how they worked this all out!

No special events out there this month, but any dark night will provide an opportunity to grab binoculars, sit in a recliner outside and search the skies for your favourite constellations, or simply scan for pretty patterns among the stars. Satellites and the International Space Station can be tracked by looking on Heavens-above.com or by installing Stellarium.

Happy stargazing!

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