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Astro Bob: Night-sky sights not to miss in January

A calendar of astronomical highlights for the first month of the new year.

Comet ZTF E3
Comet ZTF (Zwicky Transient Facility) E3, seen here Dec. 22, 2022, with two tails, should be easily visible in binoculars in the evening sky during the latter half of January. The short tail is composed of dust; the long, narrow one is made of fluorescing carbon monoxide gas and other charged molecules.
Contributed / Michael Jaeger
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While it may be the coldest time of year, there are lots of reasons to poke your head out for a look at the night sky as 2023 opens. Venus shines low in the southwest at dusk but gains altitude and gets easier to see as the month rolls along. On Jan. 22, it will be in close conjunction with Saturn, a sight best visible in binoculars. Bonus: a paper-thin crescent moon joins the scene at the same time.

Mars slowly fades from magnitude -1.2 (a little fainter than Sirius, the brightest star) to -0.3, similar to Vega, as the faster Earth leaves it behind, and the distance between the two planets increases. Before Mars dims too much, it has a very close conjunction with the moon on Jan. 30 . Jupiter’s still a beacon in the southwestern sky at nightfall, but Saturn's sinking fast and disappears in the twilight glow by month’s end.

Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3) , named for the Zwicky Transient Facility , the automated telescopic sky survey that first found it, brightens to binocular and possibly naked-eye visibility during the latter part of January. Passing through the Little Dipper it will be in view all night.

Events

Jan. 3: Waxing gibbous moon shines near Mars tonight.

Quadrantids
The annual Quadrantid meteor shower peaks before dawn Jan. 4, 2023. Moonlight will greatly reduce the number of meteors visible.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Jan. 4 before dawn: Maximum of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. Under ideal conditions, the “Quads” can produce around 100 meteors per hour, but the peak is just six hours long, and this year the nearly full moon will mask all but the brightest, reducing their number to about a dozen per hour. Best viewing time will be during the two hours before dawn from about 4-6 a.m. local time. Face southeast or north. Shower members stream from beneath the Big Dipper’s handle from the now obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant), named for an instrument once used to measure star positions.

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Jan. 6: Full Wolf Moon. For your local moonrise time, go to www.timeanddate.com/moon.

Jan. 14: Last-quarter moon.

Jan. 18 early dawn: Crescent moon shines 2° to the left of Antares, brightest star in Scorpius.

Jan. 21: New moon.

Venus Saturn conjunction
Venus and Saturn slowly come together during January 2023, climaxing in a splendid, close conjunction Jan. 22.
Contributed / Stellarium

Jan. 21-23: Venus and Saturn conjunction. Look low in the southwestern sky 45 minutes to an hour after sunset to spot Venus. On Jan. 21, Saturn will shine 1° above it. Venus should be easy to spot, but you might need binoculars to pick out the ringed planet. One night later, on Jan. 22, they’ll be closest at less than 1/2° apart. If you have an unobstructed horizon look for the super-thin crescent moon directly below the duo. On Jan. 23, the view will be almost as pretty, with a fingernail moon to the upper left of the pair.

Jan. 25: Crescent moon and Jupiter in conjunction. Look southwest during the early evening hours.

Jan. 28: First-quarter moon.

Jan. 25-31: Comet ZTF will cross the Little Dipper during the final week of the month. It’s expected to get bright enough to see in binoculars even from outer suburban areas. I’ll post details including finder maps in upcoming Astro Bob blogs. Just Google "Astro Bob."

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Mars occultation
On Dec. 7, 2022, the full moon occulted (hid) Mars for much of the U.S. This photo shows the pink planet close to the moon shortly before the occultation as viewed from Duluth, Minn. On Jan. 30, observers in some southern states will see the moon occult Mars again, while the rest of us will witness a close conjunction.
Contributed / Bob King

Jan. 30: Waxing gibbous moon passes very close to Mars! From the Midwest they’ll be about one-third of a moon-diameter apart when closest around 11:30 p.m. Central Standard Time. From parts of the southern U.S. (including much of Florida and sections of Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and California), the moon will cover up the planet. I’ll have additional information in upcoming blog posts.

Read more from Astro Bob
Although a full moon will interfere, Comet ZTF will pass right next to one of the sky's brightest stars Sunday night.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
What To Read Next
For observers in the southern U.S. the moon will cover Mars on Monday night, Jan. 30. Elsewhere we'll see a very close conjunction.
Cold weather and clear skies means it's time to see the comet!
There's a lot happening with asteroids this week including an eye-catching Jupiter-moon conjunction.
On Sunday, Jan. 22, at dusk, Venus and Saturn pair up in a close conjunction in the company of a slender moon.