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The New Year is off to a fine start for astronomers with comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) now bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. When it was discovered on August 17, 2014 the comet was predicted to reach about magnitude +8 and hence within binocular range but too faint to be seen with the naked eye. However, Lovejoy has exceeded expectations and is now bright enough to seen without optical aid from a reasonably dark site.
On January 7th, Lovejoy reached closest approach to Earth at 0.469 AU (70.2 million km or 43.6 million miles). On this day it shone at magnitude +4.5 in the constellation of Eridanus just west of magnificent Orion. Since it was two days after full Moon, spotting the comet with the naked eye was difficult but easy with binoculars, appearing as obviously non-stellar hazy patch of light. Photographically, Lovejoy appeared green in colour with a long thin tail. Prospects for the remainder of the month are even better, the Moon has now past full and although the comet is now receding from Earth, it should remain within naked eye visibility for a few weeks to come.
NGC 2362 is a small compact young open cluster in Canis Major that surrounds bright star Tau Canis Majoris (τ CMa - mag. +4.37). This attractive grouping of 60 stars is packed into an area spanning just 6 arc minutes of apparent sky. The apparent magnitude of the cluster is given as +4.1, however the value is misleading as its skewed significantly because of the brilliance of τ CMa. The remaining members of NGC 2362 are much fainter, the brightest being of 7th magnitude.
Finding NGC 2362 is not difficult. It's located 2.75 degrees northeast of Wezen (δ CMa - mag. +1.83) the third brightest star in Canis Major. Sirius (α CMa) the brightest star in the night sky (mag. -1.46) is positioned 11 degrees to the northwest. Tau CMa a spectroscopic multiple system that shines with a combined light of tens of thousands times that of the Sun is the stand out cluster member and bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. For comparison, the Sun at the same distance would shine at a feeble magnitude +15.
NGC 2362 was discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna sometime before 1654 and then re-discovered by William Herschel on March 4, 1783. It's best seen from southern latitudes during the months of December, January and February.
NGC 2261 is a curious variable reflection nebula in Monoceros that's known as Hubble's Variable Nebula. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1783 and is illuminated by variable star R Monocerotis (R Mon). The nebula is unusual in that it changes shape over just a period of days and can vary by up to 2 magnitudes in brightness. The variations are believed to be due to periodic changes in the amount of dust surrounding R Mon, thus affecting the amount of light that reaches us. With an apparent magnitude of +9.0, it can be spotted with binoculars under dark skies.
The variability of R Mon (between magnitudes +10 and +12) was discovered at the Athens Observatory in 1861 but it wasn't until 1916 that Edwin Hubble realised that the nebula also changes in brightness. The variations are such that even on images taken days apart structural changes can be observed.
NGC 2261 was chosen as the "first light" photograph on January 26, 1949 for the 200-inch (5.1 m) Hale reflecting telescope under the direction of American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble. At the time, the newly constructed Hale telescope was the largest telescope in the World and remained so until 1976.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation east on January 14th (19 degrees @ mag. -0.7). From northern temperate and equatorial locations the closest planet to the Sun can be glimpsed low down above the southwestern horizon for about the first 3 weeks of the month, with the visibility period about a week less for those located further south.
This is not a particular good elongation of Mercury; even on the day of greatest elongation it appears only 5 degrees above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset. From about January 9th to 12th, much more brilliant Venus is close by and aids in finding its more illusive neighbour.
Mercury's magnitude fades from -0.8 to 0.0 between January 1st and 20th. The planet reaches perihelion on January 21st when it's located 0.308 AU (approx. 46.1 million kilometres or 28.6 million miles) from the Sun. On January 30th, Mercury passes inferior conjunction.
During January, Venus becomes a brilliant evening object for observers located at northern latitudes. At the beginning of the month the planet is visible for about 45 minutes above the southwestern horizon but by months end the visibility increases noticeably with the planet setting over 2 hours after the Sun. At magnitude -3.9, Venus is unmistakable, a dazzling beacon of light that's so bright it's often reported as a hovering UFO! Venus is also visible from southern temperate latitudes this month but always appears low down above the western horizon. It sets just over 1 hour after the Sun.
The Quadrantids meteor shower peaks on night of January 3/4, 2015. At maximum around 120 meteors per hour can be seen, which is comparable to the other great annual meteor showers the Perseids and the Geminids. However, the Quadrantids has a narrow peak activity window lasting only a few hours and consequently is not as well observed. Prospects for this year's event are not so good as the almost full Moon in northern Orion will significantly interfere. Therefore, if you can glimpse even just a few of these illusive meteors it will be a fine start to the new astronomical year!
Meteor showers are named after the constellation (or nearby star) where the radiant is located, but you may have difficulty figuring out the associated region for the Quadrantids; the reason is that the constellation no longer exists.
Today, the Quadrantids radiant is located in the northern constellation of Boötes, not far from the tail of Ursa Major. When the shower was discovered by Adolphe Quetelet of the Brussels Observatory in the 1830s, the radiant was located in the now obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis, hence the name "The Quadrantids".
As we head into the New Year, comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) remains superbly placed for observation as it continues to brighten into January. The comet that was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy has so far exceeded expectations and has been well seen from southern and tropical latitudes. For most of December, although Lovejoy was just beyond naked eye visibility it was an easy binocular and small telescope target, moving northwesterly through the southern constellations of Puppis, Columba and Lepus. By Christmas Day, Lovejoy had brightened to magnitude +5.4 and therefore within naked eye visibility. It's expected to peak at about magnitude +4.5 during the middle of January.
Northern Hemisphere based observers haven't had much of a look at Lovejoy but that's going to change. During the last days of December it can be spotted low down above the southern horizon with visibility continually improving as it climbs higher each subsequent evening. From southern latitudes, Lovejoy remains observable in excellent condition until late January.
Lynx is home to the fascinating globular cluster NGC 2419. Although visually faint and small what makes NGC 2419 special is its distance; at 275,000 light-years it's one of the furthest known Milky Way globulars. In fact, twentieth century American astronomer Harlow Shapley nicknamed it "The Intergalactic Tramp" believing it to have possibly broken away from the Milky Way and headed off into deep inter galactic space. However, recent observations indicate Shapley hypothesis was incorrect and NGC 2419 is still gravitationally bound to the Milky Way just moving in a highly eccentric orbit.
NGC 2419 or Caldwell 25 was discovered by William Herschel on December 31, 1788. It's located 275,000 light-years from the Solar System and about 300,000 light-years from the galactic centre, almost twice as far away as the Large Magellanic Cloud. At such a distance it's estimated it will take about 3 billion years to complete a single orbit around the centre of the galaxy.
NGC 2419 is positioned 7 degrees north and slightly east of Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) the second brightest star in Gemini. About 4 arc minutes west of NGC 2419 is a mag. +7.2 star with a double star of mag. +7.9 a few more arc minutes further west. Even Herschel with his super telescopes of the time couldn't resolve NGC 2419 into stars. William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, using his 72-inch (1.83 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland - the largest optical telescope in the world at the time - was first the first to do so in 1850.
The major meteor event in December is the Geminids but there's another shower later in the month that's doesn't make quite as many headlines but on occasions can be quite good - the Ursids.
With the radiant located close to the North Pole Star, the Ursids are a Northern Hemisphere shower. They are much less dramatic than the Geminids with only about 10 meteors per hour visible but on several previous occasions they have shown significant bursts of activity and a re-occurrence may happen anytime.
This year's Ursid peak occurs on the night of December 22nd/23rd and the good news the Moon is new and therefore won't interfere.
The comet that sources and therefore responsible for the Ursid meteor shower is 8P/Tuttle (also known as Tuttle's Comet or Comet Tuttle). It has a period of 13.6 years and during the last perihelion on January 27, 2008 it was visible telescopically. The comet passed Earth at a distance of 0.25282 AU (37,821,000 km or 23,501,000 miles) on January 1, 2008 and anticipation was high that the 2007 and 2008 showers may produce much increased activity, but this was not to be. In the end only a small increase was noted.
NGC 752 is a large spawling open cluster in the constellation of Andromeda. With an apparent magnitude of +5.7, it's visible to the naked eye from a dark site appearing as a large unresolved fuzzy patch of light. The cluster is one of the finest large open clusters in the sky and contains over 70 stars spread across a huge 1.25 degrees of apparent sky. Due to its size, NGC 752 is best observed with binoculars or through wide field telescopes at low powers.
NGC 752 is located 5 degrees south and slightly west of outstanding double star Almach (γ And - mag. +2.1) the third brightest star in the constellation. It was discovered by Caroline Herschel on September 29, 1783 although it was probably observed sometime before 1654 by Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Hodierna. Caroline's brother William Herschel subsequently added it to his catalogue a couple of years later. It's best seen from northern latitudes during the months of October, November and December.