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January skies of the Gulf Coast

moon and mars
Dr. David John Kreiger
Photo from December 7 when the Full Moon just missed Mars in our area. Note how tiny Mars appears compared to the Moon; in reality, it is twice as large.

The waxing gibbous moon passes below Mars on January 3. At month’s end, it will not miss, but occult Mars for 41 minutes for viewers in NorthWest Florida. The full moon is January 6. The last quarter moon is January 14. The new moon is January 21. The waxing crescent lies just to the upper left of the fine pairing of brilliant Venus just above much fainter Saturn in the twilight on January 23. The waxing crescent moon lies just below Jupiter on the evening of January 25. It is first quarter on January 28.

The fun begins in the at 11:32 p.m. on January 30, when the dark side of the waxing gibbous moon suddenly blots out bright red Mars as it passes in front of it for the next 43 minutes, as seen from Pensacola. These events will vary in other locales. The occultation will end when Mars re-emerges along the moon’s north west limb near the craters Atlas and Hercules at 12:13 a.m. This will be a spectacular photo opportunity for folks with large telescopes. It will take a minute for the planet to completely disappear behind the moon, so this will make a very dramatic video with your smart phones through large telescopes. Catch it!

Mercury appears briefly at midmonth in the dawn sky. Venus returns back to the evening sky for most of 2023. Moving away from the Sun, she overtakes slow moving Saturn, passing only .3 degrees south of the ringed world on January 22. If it is clear enough, you may see the very thin crescent moon on the horizon beneath them then. Look about 40 minutes after sunset. By month’s end, Saturn is lost in Sun’s glare, but Venus stillhigher and brighter in west.

As noted, Mars is in Taurus, well up in eastern sky at sunset, and the Moon’s target for the occultation of January 30-31. Now is the best time to observe it, since it just passed opposition last month, and is well up in the sky for northern hemisphere observers now.

Visit skymaps.com for a list of best objects for the naked eyes, binoculars, and scopes on the back of the map.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the northwest. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the northeast corner star of Pegasus’ Square, and goes with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the W of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye. M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant.

Overhead is Andromeda’s hero, Perseus, rises. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.

Look at Perseus’ feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleaides, but about half their distance. The blue color of the Pleaides is enhanced even more by the beautiful reflection nebula, where the dust accompanying this cluster, “so young it is still running around in its diapers”, makes a spectacular ten hour time exposure by Mobile Astronomical Society member Clint LeMasters.

Pleiades cluster
Clint LeMasters
The Pleiades cluster

Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer (think Ben Hur). Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini. UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. It is part of a huge spiral arm gas cloud, with active star birth all over the place. You should be able to glimpse this stellar birthplace as a faint blur with just your naked eyes, and the larger your binoculars or telescope, the better the view becomes.

While M-42 is a emission nebulae, shining reddish from the ionization of its hydrogen gas by hot young stars forming inside it, at Orion’s right foot is brilliant Rigel, one of the most luminous blue super giants ion the Galaxy, about 50,000X more luminous than our Sun.

Last but certainly not least, in the east rise the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the southeast sky by 7 p.m. and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle with shafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers this means the image is blurry. At eight light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida. Below Sirius in binoculars is another fine open cluster, M-41, a fitting dessert for New Year’s sky feast.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: January 14 and 21, February 11 and 25, and March 11 and 25. Be sure to check in at the gate before sunset.

We are also working with the Santa Rosa Island Authority for our Pensacola Beach Pavilion schedule in the Spring. For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit eaaa.net. If you want free solar filters for sunspot viewing and the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses, drop a line to Dr Wayne Wooten on our fB page with your address, or call him at 281-9334, or email him at johnwaynewooten@gmail.com.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.