If you have not had a chance to see comet Lovejoy you still have a few more weeks before it it gets too dim. Check out the latest photos and finder charts on the Sky and Telescope web site or at the Space Weather site. Use the Pleiades as a jumping off point and with binoculars you will find Lovejoy not too far away.
Jupiter is very bright in the early evening – it will be close to the full Moon on the 3rd and 4th. Its at opposition on the 6th and will be visible from dusk to dawn.
Check out Venus in the west at sunset and if you are lucky with a good view of the western horizon you may be able to see Mercury in the haze after the 9th. Reddish Mars is about half a hand’s width above and to the left of Venus. At the end of the month the two will be in conjunction and within 4 degrees of each other.
Orion the Hunter dominates the winter skies. The two bright stars of the hunter’s head are Betelgeuse (left) and Bellatrix (right) and in his ‘feet’ you will find Saliph (left) and Rigel (right). The fuzzy spot in his sword is of course the famous Orion Nebula – an active star forming region where clouds of gas and dust are being ‘recycled’ from stars that have died hundreds of millions of years ago into new baby stars.
On a clear night this month just after dusk you may be able to see the zodiacal light. Look to the west about 80 minutes after sunset for a long pyramid of dim light just above Venus and Mars. You might mistake it for light pollution from nearby Sylva, but its actually the light reflected from clouds of comet dust that follows the Earth in its orbit around the Sun.
The Moon is new on the 18th so the nights before and after will be the darkest for deep sky viewing.
Thats all for this month. Remember to turn off your outside lights and go out and enjoy the night skies of Balsam Mountain Preserve.
Jim Stratigos – Resident Astronomer