This Week’s Night Sky: New Year’s Comet and a Meteor Shower

Try out a new telescope or binoculars with these celestial sights.

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Comet Catalina continues its journey through the inner solar system this week and offers pretty views for skywatchers using binoculars.

Lion’s Heart and Luna.  In the morning twilight of Tuesday, December 29, look toward the western sky for the bright waning gibbous moon hanging below the constellation Leo, the celestial lion.  

To the upper left of the moon is Leo’s heart, marked by the bright blue-white star Regulus, only 5 degrees away, a distance about equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. Their proximity, while beautiful to see, is a mere coincidence as the moon is a only 1.3 light-seconds away and Regulus is 70 light-years distant.  

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The gibbous moon appears parked within the constellation Leo, next to the bright star Regulus, before dawn on Tuesday.

Moon Joins Jupiter.  By dawn on Thursday, December 31, the moon will have glided over the eastern sky and snuggled up to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. The pair will be separated by only 3 degrees, making this quite a stunning view to wake up to. As an added challenge, see how long after sunrise you can continue to identify Jupiter in the daytime sky. Binoculars will help to spot the gas giant.

Comet Visits Arcturus. If you received a nice new set of binoculars or a telescope this holiday season, test out your equipment on Friday morning, New Year’s Day, by checking out a comet passing a super-bright star.

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On New Year’s Day at least an hour before dawn, use binoculars to catch Comet Catalina posing next to the bright orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.

Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10), which is headed out of the solar system, currently shines at 6th magnitude, meaning skywatchers will need an optical aid to spot it. However, the hunt is made much easier on January 1 because on that morning the comet will pass within 0.5 degrees of the bright orange Arcturus, the fourth-brightest star in the entire sky. The cosmic duo will rise in the east after local midnight and ride high in the southeast by local dawn. Every morning thereafter, Catalina will appear to travel about 2 degrees farther north of Arcturus.  

Martian Triangle. At dawn on Sunday, January 3, face the southeast sky and look for the waning crescent moon perched above ruddy Mars and forming a triangle pattern with the bright blue star Spica to its right. The trio will offer a great photo opportunity, appearing to be separated from each other by only 5 degrees.

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On Sunday morning, look for a stunning celestial triangle in the southeast, a pattern created by the moon, Mars, and the bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo, the maiden.

Catch Some Falling Stars. In the pre-dawn hours of Monday, January 4, the first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantids, reaches its maximum. Peak rates this morning will range anywhere from 60 to 120 shooting stars per hour from a dark location. The meteors will appear to radiate from the northeast sky, just off the handle of the Big Dipper. This is the site of Quadrans Muralis, a constellation no longer recognized by astronomers but which gave the Quadrantids their name.

Clear skies!

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