Stargazing: Clear, starry nights good news for astronomers

The winter solstice has passed and the days are getting longer while the nights are getting shorter, so take the opportunity to get out to view the night sky whenever it is clear. The year 2009 was not bad in the skies with quite a few clear nights and several clear mornings – if you could drag yourself out of bed!

The main events of the past year, for me, have been the ease in finding the planet Neptune, using Jupiter as a guide. And as it was the International Year of Astronomy it was good to see the Shetland Astro­nomical Society organising talks with some of Britain’s professional astronomers. Look out for more over the coming year.

The New Year started with the earth at perihelion, its closest point to the sun, on the 4th. The earth was tilted on its axis and the northern hemisphere leant away from the sun. So we may have been less than 92 million miles from our star, but up here it was winter!

New moon is on the 15th and full moon is on the 30th.

If you want to catch a fly-by of the International Space Station then the early evening between the 12th and 22nd are the times to hope for a clear sky. Go to the Heavens Above website for accurate timings for Shetland.

Sunset to 10pm

The moon is out of the way from the 3rd to the 18th.

As the month progresses Jupiter and Neptune will be getting closer to the horizon in the south-west. Jupiter still acts as a guidepost to Neptune but now you have to go to the right from the planet to find Neptune.

Uranus is due south at about 4pm so if you have a good map you should be able to find it after Jupiter and Neptune are too low down to see easily.

On the 17th Neptune is about one binocular field to the right of Jupiter but if you go another half binocular field further to the right then you will find a very thin crescent moon. Could be one for the astro­photographers.

10pm to 2am

The moon is out of the way from the 7th to 22nd.

Mars is due south by 2am. We are heading to an opposition of Mars on the 29th – the planet will be opposite the sun in our sky: it’s like a full moon for a planet. So on the 29th Mars will be about as bright as it is going to be this year, only 62 million miles away – that is closer than the sun. Binoculars will show it as a very small disk but a small telescope will show a little detail and the detail on Mars is subtle so make sure you are dark-adapted.

2am to sunrise

The moon is out of the way from the 10th to 25th Saturn is due south by 5am. This ringed planet has its rings tilted at such a small angle to the earth that you may not see them in a small tele­scope. NASA’s Cassini mission con­tin­ues with some amazing images. If you can get access to a computer then point at For the latter half of the month Mercury can be found low down in the south-east in the hour prior to sunrise. Remember if you are using binoculars do be aware of the rising sun – you do not want to start the New Year being blinded!

Unfortunately Venus is close to the sun during January so no chance of doing a planet marathon of seeing all eight in one night.

The Geminid meteor shower in December peaked on a cloudy night with the night either side being clear! Such is visual astronomy. I managed to see a few of the Gem­inids as well as a few sporadic meteors on those clear nights.

January’s meteor shower is the Quadrantids and should best be seen on the night of the 3rd to 4th of the month. There are lots of predictions as to when maximum will occur, from around 7pm on the 3rd with the possibility of an earlier peak sometime between midday and 4pm. The moon though is just past full so observing will be difficult with the moonshine drowning out all but the brightest meteors – I still have to see a good Quadrantids showing.

Last year at this time I was ex­hort­ing individuals and our council to do something about light pollution.

I wondered if we if we could do what Galloway had done in setting up a dark sky park. You may well be aware that this has now been recognised by the International Dark Sky Association and is only one of six in the world.

So if you have yet to come up with a New Year’s resolution that you think you can keep then how about: reducing your carbon foot­print by reducing your light pollution.

Here’s wishing for clear skies in 2010. Happy New Year.

Chris Brown


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