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Astronomy: January for Stargazers

1-6-12 VenusAndMoon  WhittSome leftover sparkles appear to be hanging in the sky from the New Year’s fireworks. Venus is now so bright in the southwest after sunset that it gets mistaken for an airplane. Jupiter is high in the south, outshining all the stars in its vicinity. Through a telescope you can watch the phase of Venus slowly shrink over the coming weeks and track Jupiter’s moons as they orbit the giant planet.

The most difficult planet to see in the solar system is Neptune (at least since Pluto got demoted), but for one night this month it will be a bit easier. At magnitude 8.0, you’ll need some optical aid to spot it, but because it lies next to Venus, it will be easy to pick out from the myriad of background stars.

On January 13, Venus will pass approximately one degree to the left of Neptune. Aim a telescope toward the easy target of Venus. Look for the “star” that is just to Venus’s right (although most telescopes give an inverted view, therefore Neptune will be to Venus’s left). Once you’ve spotted it through a telescope, you can see how difficult it would be to pinpoint it in a field of stars without any bright guide to lead the way.

If you don’t have a telescope, give it a try in binoculars. The hardest part with binoculars is holding them still so the dim point of light doesn’t jump around. Try reclining in a lounge chair so that you can set your elbows on the armrests. Neptune should have a bit of a bluish color to it.

For more observing information for January through March 2012, see the SkyGuide at AstronomyToday.com.

Photo credit: Kelly Whitt. Picture of Venus and the Moon was taken in February 2009. 

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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