Heavenly history set to unfold this month

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023

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I don’t own a telescope, but I love to gaze into the night sky and observe all those twinkling lights.

Often I wonder if somewhere out there in the grand universe there is someone doing the same thing….seeing our planet among those tens of thousands of tiny lights.

Here lately…will since January 1….I’ve been intrigued by a number of “bright stars” in the night sky. According to www.earthsky.org, Jupiter is currently the easiest to spot during the month of January. It’s brighter than all the stars. It’s in the southwest sky after sunset, which I’ve noticed the last two weekends. It sets after 11 p.m. local time in early January and is gone after 9:30 p.m. at month’s end.

Mars is high in the evening sky and is visible until a few hours before dawn. It’s very red now and brighter than most stars. Mars reached opposition on December 8, 2022 at which time Earth flew between Mars and the sun.

Saturn is low in the southwestern sky after sunset. It’s golden in color and shines steadily, and the best time for observing is right after darkness falls. It sets by around 8 p.m. local time at the beginning of January and around 6 p.m. at the end of the month.

Venus, the brightest planet and next planet inward from Earth in orbit around the sun, is climbing higher each night out of the sunset twilight. By the end of January, it sets about two hours after sunset.

According to NASA Ambassador Tony Rice, look low in the southwestern sky on January 22 for Venus and Jupiter beginning around 6:15 p.m. Much brighter Venus will be on the left separated by less than 1/3º from Saturn. The pair will disappear below the horizon by 7 p.m. Also look for just a tiny sliver of the Moon near the horizon….not what we’re seeing right now as the moon went full on Friday night of this week.

Mars will be separated in our skies by about 4 minutes or arc or 0.0667º on January 30 overnight into January 31. Best viewing will be around midnight when they are at their closest. On March 1, look for the two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, to be separated by about 0.5.º

January into early February 2023 will also bring about heavenly history. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will pass to within 28 million miles of Earth. The last time that happened was 50,000 years ago.

The folks at www.space.com predict that C/2022 E3 (ZTF) may end up ranking as exceptionally bright as far as most common comets go, since for a short while it may hover right at the cusp of naked-eye visibility (for those fortunate enough to be blessed with dark, non-light polluted night skies).

The comet will mark its closest approach (perihelion) to our sun on Jan. 12. Most comets, however, continue to remain quite active for a few weeks after passing the sun and this will be good so far as the comet’s visibility for us is concerned.

In fact, space.com says that during the few weeks following perihelion, the orbital geometry between the comet and the Earth will rapidly shrink. That distance will decrease by nearly 40 million miles between Jan. 12 and Feb. 1. As a result, the anticipated increase in the comet’s brightness during that timeframe is expected to correspondingly increase, perhaps more than five-fold.

Its closest approach to Earth (perigee) will come at 1:11 p.m. EST on Feb. 1 at a distance of 28,390,710 miles.

For those locally wishing to observe this once in 50,000 years slice of astronomical history, the comet can be best seen in the northeast sky in the last few hours leading up the sunrise between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. Binoculars or a small telescope should suffice, but if the comet holds its brightness as expected and if you are located in a dark, rural area, it may be possible to see the comet with the naked eye.

On the nights of Jan. 26 and Jan. 27, it can be conveniently found passing several degrees to the east of the bowl of the Little Dipper. On the evening of Jan. 27, it will be 3.5° to the upper right of orange Kochab, the brightest of the two outer stars in the bowl.

And there’s even more heavenly sightings as 2023 progresses.

As astronomical summer arrives on June 21 with the solstice, the Moon, Mars and Venus will also form a triangle in the night sky.

The first of four supermoons arrives on July 3. The next rises on August 1, followed September 30’s moon, technically a blue supermoon. 2023’s supermoons close out on October 29.

A supermoon is not a rarity. One occurs when the Moon’s orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth at the same time the Moon is full.

The astronomical event of the year is the annular solar eclipse on October 14. Annular solar eclipses are those which occur when the Moon passes directly between the Earth and Sun, but at a point in the Moon’s orbit when it is further away from Earth, preventing it from completely covering the Sun, leaving an annulus or “ring of fire”, visible along a path stretching from Oregon through Texas.

Here in North Carolina, Tony Rice says we’ll see a partial eclipse beginning at 11:56 a.m. The lower right third of the Sun will be blocked by the Moon at 1:20 p.m. and the show will be over by 2:46 p.m.

With all this information to digest, I wish you “happy hunting” in the sky during 2023. Please do not blame me if you get a crick in your neck.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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