BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – A total eclipse of the moon will be visible in its entirety the night of Jan. 20-21 for skywatchers in the Western Hemisphere. Totality will begin before midnight, and the beautiful spectacle will be unusually high in the sky. No equipment will be needed to observe it.
Before the eclipse begins, the full moon’s light will wash out all but the brightest stars. But during totality, many other stars will appear. The Beehive Cluster of stars, nearly impossible to spot before the eclipse, should be visible with the unaided eye 7 degrees east of the moon during totality. The eclipsed moon will have an orange glow that comes from all of Earth’s sunrises and sunsets as our atmosphere bends this light into the shadow.
Mars will be the only bright planet visible in the evening sky as the new year begins. It will appear halfway up the southwestern sky a few hours after sunset, setting shortly after 11 p.m. EST Jan. 1 and 20 minutes earlier Jan. 31.
Venus will rise around 3:30 a.m. at the start of the month, more than four hours after Mars sets. For observers around latitude 40 degrees north, Venus appeared on New Year’s Day three hours before sunrise. The dazzling white planet will be a striking sight all month.
Jupiter will rise more than an hour after Venus at the start of January, but the two planets will move closer as the month passes. On Jan. 22, they will be just 2 degrees apart above the southeastern horizon, with brilliant Venus far outshining its much larger companion. On Jan. 26, the two planets will form a straight line with the bright orange star Antares to Jupiter’s right (south).
Mercury will be visible 5 degrees above the southeastern horizon just a half hour before sunrise the first few days of the new year. After that it will be too low to be seen in the bright glow of twilight. Mercury will pass behind the sun at the end of the month.
Saturn will be in conjunction with the sun on Jan. 2. It will become visible in morning twilight low in the southeast during the third week of the month.
The Quadrantid meteor shower will be active for the first week of January, peaking during the hours before dawn Jan. 4. The moon will be nearly new, so moonlight will not interfere with the display. Observers with a clear dark sky may see up to 120 bright meteors per hour shortly before the start of morning twilight.
The Quadrantids will appear to come from a point called the radiant near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper, which will rise in the northeast. The radiant is in the constellation Bootes, which contains the bright orange star Arcturus as a conspicuous marker.
Try facing toward the Big Dipper. If you extend the curve formed by the handle’s three stars, it forms an “arc to Arcturus.” Meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky, but the higher Arcturus is above the eastern horizon, the more meteors there will be.
Earth will be closest to the sun in its orbit, the position called perihelion, at midnight EST (5 a.m. Universal Time) Jan. 2. A common misconception is that our seasons are caused by Earth’s changing distance from the sun, but the actual cause is the tilt of Earth’s axis.
In the Northern Hemisphere, winter happens when the North Pole is tilted away from the sun, so sunlight must pass through more of Earth’s atmosphere to reach the surface. We experience the coldest time of year when we are closest to the sun.
The moon will be new on Jan. 5, at first quarter on Jan. 14, full on Jan. 21 and at third quarter on Jan. 27.