The sky this week from January 28 to February 4
monday january 31
Main-belt asteroid 44 Nysa is currently traversing the 45′ wide open star cluster NGC 1647 in Taurus.
You’ll find this stunning sight just 3.5° northeast of Aldebaran, the 1st magnitude bright red eye of Taurus. Tonight, Nysa is at the center of NGC 1647, about halfway through its multi-day journey through this more distant cluster of stars. Focus on the cluster with binoculars or a telescope and draw the points of light you see. Then come back within about three hours and compare what you see now to your chart. One of those dots has moved – it’s Nysa of magnitude 10.
Taurus is full of other visual delights to savor while waiting for Nysa to make her mark. On the southwest side of Aldebaran is the young Hyades cluster, which forms a V in the sky, often referred to as the bull’s nose. And about 14° northwest of Aldebaran is the sparkling cluster of the Pleiades (M45), a young, more compact star cluster in which some observers see a teaspoon or a ladle (although one should not not to confuse it with Ursa Minor’s Little Dipper!).
Additionally, descend 4.5° south of the Pleiades and you will fall directly on the magnitude 8 1 dwarf planet Ceres, located less than 1° east of 13 and 14 Tauri, a close pair of stars at nearly equal in brightness.
Sunset: 5:18 p.m.
Moon setting: 4:39 p.m.
Moon phase: Descending Ascending (0.5%)
tuesday february 1
The New Moon occurs at 12:46 a.m. EST, rendering our satellite effectively invisible and giving us dark skies. This makes it the perfect night to spot ice giant Uranus, which tonight stands just 25 feet from 6th magnitude Arietis 29 in Aries Aries.
An hour after sunset, this region is still at 64° altitude. It will not set up until just after local midnight. Uranus is currently in a dark region of southern Aries. You can roughly find its location by locating Hamal (the brightest star in Aries) and Menkar southeast of Cetus the Whale. These two stars are about 23.5° apart, and Uranus sits about halfway on a line drawn between them. The planet is magnitude 5.8 – just bright enough to spot with the naked eye if you’re in a bright, dark location. It will be easy to find with binoculars or a telescope; once you do, compare it to 29 Arietis and see if you can discern the slight difference in brightness (0.2 magnitude) between them.
Sunset: 5:20 p.m.
Moon setting: 5:55 p.m.
Moon phase: Wax Crescent (1%)
Wednesday February 2
The Moon passes 4° south of Jupiter at 4 p.m. EST, signaling one of the last and best views of this giant planet before it becomes difficult to spot by next week. Look west as soon as the sun sets and the sky begins to darken to find the pair in Aquarius. You’ll want to be quick – an hour after sunset it’s less than 10° high.
Jupiter shines bright with magnitude -2, hard to miss in the twilight. The Moon, which appears to Jupiter’s lower left in the sky, is only 4% illuminated, with only its eastern limb exposed. Zoom in on the planet with a telescope and you’ll see its four Galilean moons exposed. Ganymede sits alone to the east of Jupiter, while (from nearest to farthest) Io, Europa, and Callisto lie to the west. If your vision (atmospheric stability) is good enough, you may also be able to make out the alternating light and dark bands of Jupiter’s cloud belts across the planet’s 34-inch-wide disk. Your chances will be better earlier in the evening, before this target sinks too low in the thicker atmosphere near the horizon.
Sunset: 5:21 p.m.
Moon setting: 7:09 p.m.
Moon phase: Wax Crescent (3%)
Thursday February 3
The gently waxing Moon passes 4° south of Neptune at 4:00 PM EST. Look west as soon as the sky is dark to spot the farthest planet in our solar system, where it is still roughly in the same configuration with our satellite. Neptune shines at a faint magnitude of 7.9, so you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to spot it in eastern Aquarius. You can use the magnitude 6 star Phi (ϕ) Aquarii to guide you once you get close – tonight this star lies 1.5° south of the planet. When you find Neptune, expect to see a “flat, dim” star. Look closely and you may be able to determine that it is not a star at all, which would appear as a point source. Instead, the planet shows a small disk just 2 inches wide.
Mercury is stationary at 5:00 PM EST in Sagittarius. After today it will begin to move rapidly eastward against a backdrop of stars.
Sunset: 5:22 p.m.
Moon setting: 8:20 p.m.
Moon phase: Wax Crescent (8%)