A silvery moon this week points sky-watchers to some of the brightest constellations of the season, offering glimpses of gemlike stars, lunar moments, and the possible last gasps of a faded comet.
Moon and winter gems. Late evening on Monday, January 13, look for a ring of winter’s brightest stars to surround the waxing gibbous moon.
The bright yellow star above the moon is Capella (in the constellation Auriga), Aldebaran is in Taurus to its upper right, orange Betelgeuse is in Orion to the lower right, and Canis Minor’s Procyon hangs far below the moon. Rounding out these stellar gems, Jupiter and then Pollux (in the constellation, Gemini) lay to luna‘s immediate left.
Jupiter and moon. By the next evening, Tuesday, January 14, the moon will have glided even closer to brilliant Jupiter in the southeast skies. The cosmic pair will be quite eye-catching—separated by less than five degrees, about the same width as your three middle fingers held together at arm’s length. The Jovian planet is currently at its brightest and its closest distance to Earth for the year, and it appears as an “extra” star in the constellation Gemini.
Full apogee moon. On Wednesday, January 15, the moon reaches apogee, the farthest point it reaches in its orbit around Earth, some 252,607 miles (406,532 kilometers) away. This apogee will make it appear to be the smallest full moon of 2014—about four percent smaller than average—as it rises today in the east after sunset. The last time we had such a “micro-moon” was back in November 2012.
Second-chance ISON shower. When comet ISON was approaching late last year, it passed within two million miles of Earth’s orbit. Now on January 15, the Earth orbits through the same spot where the comet passed, which may mean we might see some meteor activity from the former comet’s debris stream—if there is any left.
The predicted radiant, the point in the sky from which ISON’s particles might appear to fly out from, happens to lie within the constellation Leo, the Lion, which rises during the early evening hours in the northeast. Leo reaches its highest point in the southern sky near 2 a.m. local time. For where to look in the sky for possible meteors, check out these handy sky charts from the American Meteor Society.
Moon joins the Lion’s heart. On Saturday, January 18, look for the 78-light-years-distant Regulus, the lead star in the constellation Leo to brush past the moon. The two celestial objects will appear to pass within five degrees of each other. When looking up at Regulus tonight, it’s amazing to think that its starlight left on its journey in 1935, when radar was invented, the Moscow subway opened, and Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable won an Oscar for Best Picture.