Night Sky Highlights for January-March 2017
Penumbral eclipse of the Moon
For the eastern United States, a penumbral eclipse of the Moon will take place in the evening hours, peaking around 7:45 pm. This will not be an obvious change, but with the naked eye it should be possible to see a very subtle shading or darkening on the northern part of the Moon. It might be visible for an hour or so around the peak time.
Fast-moving Mercury will be visible in the eastern sky before dawn during the first half of January. Then, in the last week or two of March, it makes a fairly good appearance in the western sky after sunset.
Venus will be an impressively bright object in the evening sky throughout the winter months. Notice where it is located right after sunset, and then on the next clear afternoon, try to spot it before the Sun sets. It is not that hard to see Venus in the daylight if you know where to look for it.
Bright red Mars will be easy to see in the southwestern sky through the first three months of the year, but it is relatively far from Earth, and telescopic views will show only a small disk. It will be very difficult to see any surface detail. As noted below, it will be very close to Neptune during the first few days of January.
Always a great target for any telescope, Jupiter will slowly work its way into the evening sky as the winter progresses. In January, it will rise around midnight, but by March it will be rising around 7 or 8 pm, so then it will be well placed for observing later in the evening.
Saturn spends most of 2017 in Ophiuchus (despite what astrologers might say), which means that it will be visible in the eastern sky before dawn throughout the winter. Those who like to do their observing in the evening will have to wait until the spring to see Saturn.
Uranus is in Pisces, and it will be conveniently placed for observation during January and February, before it gets too close to the Sun. On February 26, Uranus will be 0.6 degrees south of Mars. At other times, you will need a map to find Uranus, and this article from the Sky & Telescope website includes finder charts for both Uranus and Neptune:
A very close conjunction between Neptune and Mars will occur on New Year’s Eve, 2016. Both will be visible in the same telescopic field, so if you have never seen Neptune through a telescope, this is a great time to look for it. In the first few days of January, Mars will be drifting east at about 1/2 degree per day, but it will still serve as a useful guidepost for Neptune: Starting from Mars, slowly move your scope the the southwest and look for a tiny blue-green disk. Then, on the January 12, Neptune will be 0.4 degrees south of Venus!
Deep Sky Objects
Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy
Spiral galaxy in Ursa Major
This is a face-on spiral, and at about magnitude 8 it should be visible through even small telescopes. However, its light is spread out over a large area. When searching for it, it is helpful to use a low-power eyepiece.
NGC 3115, the Spindle Galaxy
Spiral galaxy in Sextans
Here is another spiral galaxy, but we view this one edge-on. It is fairly bright and its very elongated shape is obvious through the eyepiece.
NGC 2392, the Eskimo Nebula
Planetary Nebula in Gemini
Through a telescope, this planetary nebula does look a bit like a person’s head inside the hood of a parka. It is a bright target, and well worth a careful look.
NGC 3242, the Ghost of Jupiter Nebula
Planetary nebula in Hydra
This is another planetary nebula that actually matches its name. It is quite round and looks like a faint version of Jupiter. It has a dim blue or green color. There is an 11th magnitude star in its center.
Red carbon star in Hydra
This is a good candidate for one of the reddest stars in the night sky. Presumably, carbon in the star’s outer atmosphere gives it such a distinctive color.
Asterism in Auriga
Phil Harrington noted this star group in his handbook on binocular viewing. It is an elongated stretch of stars in the center of Auriga that resembles a staircase. It is a nice target for binoculars or a wide-field telescope.
Diffuse nebula in Monoceros
This is a very large nebula, round, dim and diffuse. It covers about a degree of sky, and that can make it difficult to find through a telescope. On a dark night, try searching for it with binoculars, and use averted vision.
Open cluster in Monoceros
This is a very easy target for any telescope, or even binoculars. It is a rich and beautiful open cluster, with stars seeming to form a spiral pattern.
Open cluster in Puppis
At about magnitude 6, this is also an easy open cluster to observe. See if you can discern what look like 5 arms—strands of stars radiating from its center.