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January Skies

Saturday - 1/1/2011, 1:12pm  ET

Greg Redfern,

Catch Mercury if You Can

Happy 2011 everybody. We start the new year with planets aplenty visible in the morning and evening skies. But first, be sure to join me and other astronomers at George Mason University (GMU) Observatory this year during our public observing sessions. The schedule is being established and GMU will have a new 32-inch telescope to "wow" you in the near future. I'll post the link as soon as it is available.

Skywatching Highlights

The Earth reaches its closest approach to the Sun, or perihelion, for the year on Jan. 3. We will be 91,407,000 miles from the Sun or 1.7 percent less than average.

Mercury provides an excellent opportunity to be easily seen, relatively speaking for Mercury, during the first two weeks of January. Mercury rises in the eastern sky almost two hours before dawn, making it well up an hour before dawn. To see Mercury, find a clear southeastern horizon and look for a golden-yellow "star"about a fist-width above the horizon starting at 6:30 a.m. On Jan. 2, the thin crescent Moon will be just below Mercury.

Brilliant Venus continues to grace the dark morning sky in the southeast rising almost four hours before dawn as the month begins. On the 29th and 30th the Moon passes to the lower left of Venus. As the month progresses Venus will be getting lower to the horizon.

Mars cannot be seen.

Bright Jupiter is well up in the south at sunset and remains visible until about 11 p.m. as the month begins but sets by 9:30 p.m. by month's end. The Moon passes to the right of Jupiter on the 9th and 10th. If you have binoculars or a telescope you can watch the four main moons of Jupiter change their position night after night.

Saturn rises in the eastern sky at 12:30 a.m. on New Year's Day and at 10:30 p.m. by month's end. The Moon passes below Saturn on the 25th. If you have a telescope be sure to check out the ringed planet as a large storm half the size of our entire planet is taking place high in Saturn's clouds and should be visible in amateur telescopes.

The New Moon is on Jan 4. The First Quarter Moon is on the 12th and this month's Full Moon occurs on the 19th. This month's Full Moon is called the "Full Wolf Moon" in recognition of the packs of wolves that hunt during the winter months. Last Quarter Moon is on the 26th.

Here are our down to Earth events for this month.

  • Open House at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory, will be at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5 and Jan. 20.

  • The National Capital Astronomers (NCA) have its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8 at the University of Maryland, College Park Campus Observatory. The speaker is Ruben Kier, author of "Best Targets for Winter Astrophotography."

  • The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) will meet at 7 p.m. Jan. 9 at George Mason University. The speaker is Gary Hand, and he will be speaking on the topic of consumer optics.

  • The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) has Monday night tours but space is limited.

  • The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has several space related activities this month.

  • The TriState Astronomers General Meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Jan. 19 at the William Brish Planetarium on Commonwealth Avenue in Hagerstown, Md.

Got a Topic That Interests You? I literally have a whole universe of topics to select from for my column. But I'm interested in hearing from WTOP readers about what interests them. Feel free to contact me at with your suggestions and comments. I have also started a daily blog that you can follow here.

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