The Night Sky This Month: January 2022

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

The biggest news story of 2021 is undoubtedly the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope- almost 25 years after it was first proposed.

Although the image above was taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft in several infrared light frequencies, the James Webb telescope will also operate in infrared frequencies, which reveals fine details that are rendered invisible to optical light frequencies by dust and gas clouds. In this image, the infrared camera aboard Juno captured a complex series of small storms twirling around a massive storm over Jupiter’s North Pole, and while the existence of such storms was suspected, this image showed the first actual evidence of what was happening deep in the cloud tops of Jupiter.

Similarly, when the James Webb telescope becomes operational in the next six to seven months, astronomers are hoping to see the Universe in the same kind of new light they did when the Hubble Space Telescope first became operational.

Sadly, the James Webb Space Telescope has a planned lifetime of only ten years, so barring disasters, accidents, and equipment failures, astronomers are hoping to gather enough new data during those ten years to keep them occupied until the next generation of space telescopes becomes available- which will likely be in the next 10 to 15 years.

The Moon Phases in January 2022

New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Third Quarter
January 2nd January 9th January 17th January 25th

The Planets in January 2022

Planetary viewing remains poor as 2022 starts, but here are some details of what to expect during the coming month for observers that are up for the challenge of looking for planets that are low on the horizon or close to the Sun-

Mercury starts the month low on the southwestern horizon shining at about magnitude -0.72 just below Saturn. Note though that the little planet will become lost in the Sun’s glare at about the middle of January, but by month’s end, it will reappear in the sky just before sunrise. Since the planet will be very low on the horizon, binoculars may be required to find it, so keep the rising Sun in mind at all times while using binoculars. Look out for Mercury just after sunset on the 13th, when it will be located just below and to the right of Saturn, with less than one degree separating the two planets.  Mercury will on this occasion, be the brighter of the two planets.

Venus will pass behind the Sun on the 5th of January, but it will reappear as a pre-dawn object around the 16th when it will shine at about magnitude -4.4 despite it being a thin crescent that will barely measure 1 minute of arc wide. In addition, being within about 10 degrees of the horizon, binoculars may be required to spot the planet.

Mars is now a pre-dawn object and continues to gain altitude as it moves away from the Sun. However and even though the Red Planet is relatively bright at magnitude +1.53, it will not rise higher than about 10 degrees or so above the southeastern horizon. As result, binoculars may be required to spot the planet.

Jupiter starts the month shining at magnitude -2.13 low on the southwestern horizon just after sunset. Moreover, as the month progresses, its brightness will reduce slightly to magnitude-2.05, and its angular diameter will shrink to about 33.65 seconds of arc. Note that, as with all the other (theoretically) visible planets, Jupiter will remain within about 15 degrees above the horizon, making it very difficult to obtain clear views of the King of the Planets.

Saturn starts the month shining at magnitude +0.71 in the southwest just to the right and below Jupiter as darkness falls. However, Saturn is now approaching the Sun, and by month’s end, it will become lost in the Sun’s glare. Moreover, Saturn will also remain within about 15 or so degrees above the horizon throughout January, making it exceedingly difficult to obtain clear views of the planet’s ring system, which still spans across 36 seconds of arc.

Meteor Showers in January 2022

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower is expected to peak on the night of the 3rd/4th of January. This shower is generally regarded as prolific, and this year, observers can expect to see around 40 or so bright meteors per hour during the peak.

Happily, the thin crescent Moon will be setting early in the evening, and provided conditions are clear, the skies will be relatively dark during the pre-dawn hours, which is when the peak is expected to occur. Note that while the shower’s radiant is in the constellation Bootes, meteors can appear to come from almost any point in the sky.

Deep Sky Objects to Look for in January 2022

Major constellations that are prominent in the south at this time of the year include Orion, Gemini, Taurus, Ursa Major, and Auriga, whose brightest star, Capella, will be almost at the zenith. Also conspicuous is the constellation Canis Major, which does not only contain Sirius, the brightest star in the entire night sky, but also some spectacular objects that are easy to find with modest amateur observing equipment. Below are some details of a few such deep-sky objects in the Big Dog

 Tau Canis Majoris Cluster (NGC 2362, Caldwell 64)

Tau Canis Majoris Cluster
Image credit: SEO

This view shows the eclipsing spectroscopic binary star Tau CMa, surrounded by some members of the open cluster that surrounds it.

Located about 3,200 light-years away, the Tau Canis Majoris Cluster consists of stars that were all formed at around the same time, from a single cloud of dust and gas. However, the members of the cluster all have different masses, meaning that they have different magnitudes and colors, both of which are functions of their mass. Thus, even though the stars in this cluster are all largely similar in their chemical compositions, their widely different masses mean that they will all age and evolve in different ways.

Messier 41 (M41, NGC 2287)

Messier 41 (M41, NGC 2287)
Image credit: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

Located about 2,300 light-years away, this pretty, magnitude 4.5 open cluster contains about 100 confirmed members and stretches across about 26 light-years. The brightest star in the cluster is a K3-type giant near the center of the cluster, with several red giant stars spread out around it. Look for the cluster about 4 degrees to the southward of the bright star Sirius.

Thor’s Helmet (NGC 2359)

Thor’s Helmet (NGC 2359)
Image credit: ESO/B. Bailleul

Located about 15,000 light-years away, this emission nebula is 30 light-years wide and somewhat resembles a war helmet, hence its common name- Thor’s Helmet.

The nebula derives its shape from the violent solar wind emanating from the massive and very hot Wolf-Rayet star, which can be seen here as the bright dot in the center of the blue part of the bubble. This particular Wolf-Rayet star will likely die in a violent supernova explosion in the next few million years, which when it happens, will almost certainly clear away most of the dense gas and dust cloud (shown here in reddish-brown) that semi-encircles the star and its immediate environs.

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