From exploding stars, barnstorming asteroids, and a buzzing beehive, the starry skies this week are filled with cosmic wonders to behold.
Supernova Update: A surprise star exploded in a spiral galaxy 12 million light years from Earth and appears to be slowly brightening in the evening skies. The Cigar Galaxy or Messier 82 is host to the supernova and can be located just off the Big Dipper in the northeast.
The latest predictions have the supernova under performing, brightening much slower than originally thought and peaking at only magnitude 10.5 early next week. But even with this potential lackluster performance for most sky-watchers, Supernova 2014J is still a relatively easy visual and photographic target for small backyard telescopes across the entire Northern Hemisphere.
For all the details on the supernova and finder’s star charts check out my previous story.
Asteroid Iris: As night falls on Monday, January 27, the fourth brightest asteroid visible from Earth, 7 Iris, will appear to slowly glide below the Great Square of Pegasus, east of the Circlet star pattern in the constellation Pisces in the southwest sky.
Shining at 10th magnitude, 120-mile (200-kilometer) wide Iris is an easy target for small backyard telescopes. Look for a faint star about 3 degrees lower left or southwest of (ω) Omega Piscium—a little less than the width of your three middle fingers at arm’s length.
Astronomy.com offers a detailed finder’s chart and has a tip to help you confirm you have bagged Iris: sketch the positions of a handful of stars around what you suspect is the asteroid through the telescope. Look again in the same field of stars a night or two later. The one star that has moved is the space rock.
Moon and Venus: At dawn Tuesday morning the 28th, scan the very low southeast sky for the thin waning crescent moon beside the goddess of love (which by the way looks like a mini-crescent too through small backyard telescopes).
Venus appears to go through moon-like phases as it moves between us and the sun as it orbits.
By Wednesday morning, the moon hangs precariously below brilliant Venus.
Mars and Spica: Early bird sky-watchers on Wednesday, January 29 can check out the red planet making a close flyby of Spica, the 15th brightest star in the sky. The cosmic pair will appear to pass within 5 degrees of each other high in the southwestern sky.
Mars sits about 163 million kilometers from Earth while the lead star in the Virgo constellation lies 263 light-years distant.
Sirius and the Little Beehive: A New Moon on Thursday, January 30 leaves behind a dark sky perfect for tracing down Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and nearby Little Beehive Cluster, also known as Messier 41.
The stars of nearby Orion make for a great guidepost to find the 8.6 light-year distant Sirius of Canis Major constellation. Using the Great Hunter’s belt of three stars, extend an imaginary line to the lower left and you will come across his canine companion heeling at his feet.
Hanging about 4 degrees below Sirius—less than the width of your three fingers at arm’s length—is the large open star cluster M41. Shining at 4.5 magnitude you can spot it with the naked eye from a dark location, while binocualrs will show it off as a hazy patch.
A collection of some 80 or so stars, the Little Beehive stretches 25 light years across and sits a whopping 2300 light years from Earth.
Moon and Mercury: Soon after sunset on Friday, January 31 look for planet Mercury at its best evening appearance of the year. On that night it will be at its maximum elevation above the southwest horizon, making the closest world to the sun bright enough to spot with the naked-eye or binoculars. At high magnification through a telescope Mercury will appear like a miniature quarter moon.
Making it easier to spot Mercury will be a thin waxing crescent moon to its lower right.
By Saturday, February 1 the moon will rise higher in the southwest sky shining just above faint Mercury.