Venus, Vesta and meteors star in January’s night sky

Meteors, Venus high in the sky over Port Angeles, and the best of Vesta dominate January sky

What’s up for January 2017? Meteors from a demoted constellation, Venus high in the sky over Port Angeles, and the best of Vesta.

Most meteor showers radiate from recognizable constellations like Leo’s Leonids, Gemini’s Geminids and Orion’s Orionids. But where do you look for the January Quadrantid meteor shower? Well, its radiant is in the demoted constellation Quadrans Muralis.

What’s a “demoted” constellation? At one time, observers in different parts of the world used different names for the same grouping of stars.

In fact, individual stars didn’t always have standardized names.  So, in the early 1900s, the International Astronomical Union divided the sky into official constellations; 88 constellations remained, but more than 30 historical constellations, including Quadrans Muralis ,didn’t make the cut. The Quadrans Muralis area of the sky is now part of the official constellation Boötes.

The Quadrantids often present as many as 120 bright meteors per hour, and can vary from 60 to 200, but for only a few hours. This year the peak is Jan. 3 at 6 a.m. here on the West Coast, favouring the Northern Hemisphere observers.

While you don’t have to look in a particular direction to watch a meteor shower, to view the Quadrantids astronomers suggest lying down on the ground and looking at the sky above you, generally toward the north.

Meteor showers are usually the residue that collects in the orbits of comets. Unlike most meteor showers’ parent bodies, the Quadrantids are associated with an asteroid — 2003 EH1, the extinct remains of a comet first observed in 1490, and now orbiting within the meteorid stream. This is an asteroid taking just 5.5 years to orbit around the sun.

The new year starts with a beautiful view of the moon, Venus and Mars on Jan. 1 to 3. The moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the sun so its face will be will be fully illuminated. This phase occurs at 3:34 a.m. PST.

This full moon was known by early Salish (and our local Lkwungen clan) as the Full Wolf Moon. This is the time of year when hungry wolf packs howled outside their villages every night. You can expect to hear our own Oak Bay wolf, Staqeya, howling from Discovery Island off Oak Bay. Drive to the Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park to listen for the wolf on any crisp, clear evening of the new year around 5 p.m.

But do not worry about her. “She’s eating well. There are seals and a lot of different waterfowl there, and plenty of clams and crabs,” says Butch Dick, Songhees education liaison. The band has given the wolf the name Staqeya, which means wolf in Lkwungen. “The wolf is a symbol of the Coast Salish people,” Dick says.

This moon has also been known as the Old Moon and the Moon After Yule.

Venus shines at its highest and brightest in many years. Throughout January, its altitude increases from 30 to 40 degrees above the southwest horizon over Port Angeles. Through a telescope you’ll see the disk 56 per cent lit on Jan. 1, decreasing to half lit Jan. 14 and 40 per cent by month’s end.

Two other notable objects – Comet 45P and Vesta, the brightest of all the asteroids – are visible this month through telescopes and binoculars. 45P is visible just after sunset at the beginning of the month, low in the southwestern sky over Metchosin, and will be visible just before sunrise by month’s end. In February it will be high overhead. Vesta is visible all month, reaching opposition and its peak of brightness Jan. 17. Use Gemini’s twin stars Castor and Pollux to find Vesta.

Catch up on all of NASA’s missions at www.nasa.gov. The RASCals of Cattle Point meet at Fairfield Community Centre Mondays at 7:30 p.m. Learn more at www.facebook.com/groups/VictoriaRASCals/

Dark Skies to all friends of Cattle Point Star Park.

By Bill Smith and the RASCals of Cattle Point, volunteers at Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park, from the transcript of What’s Up in January 2017 by NASA astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point and the Oak Bay News.