Science: All I want for Christmas is a telescope

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The Independent Culture
Given clear nights, January will provide an impressive planetary line-up, the glorious constellation Orion, and a shower of meteors.

If Santa has delivered a small telescope in your stocking, take it out soon after sunset and check out these worlds. Seeing out the old year and bringing in the new is the glorious "Evening Star": the brilliant planet Venus that hangs like a tiny lantern in the southwestern sky after sunset. It's at the lower end of a planetary line-up. To Venus's upper left is the second-brightest planet, Jupiter. Between them you may spot Mars, currently 100 times fainter than Venus. To the left of Jupiter is dull, yellowish Saturn, the only planet up late enough to show on our star charts, which are timed for 10pm.

Under magnification, Venus shows as a thin sliver of light, like a narrow crescent moon. Mars is so far away at present that you'll see nothing but an ochre-coloured "star". Jupiter is a much better target, with bands of clouds and four moons, changing position from night to night. And the telescope should reveal the beautiful rings that girdle Saturn.

Over to the east, the bright "winter constellations" are now rising. Chief of them is Orion, the mighty hunter, shaped like a human figure with brilliant stars marking his shoulder (Betelgeuse) and knee (Rigel). To his upper right is Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus (the bull), and farther up in the same direction the sparkling little cluster of stars known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters - another delight to view through a small telescope or binoculars.

To Orion's lower left is Sirius, the brightest of all the stars. As the leading light of Canis Major (the great dog). It's sometimes called the Dog Star. Above Sirius is a second "dog star", Procyon in the constellation of Canis Minor (the little dog). And above Procyon, look out for Gemini's "twin" stars, Castor and Pollux.

While these stars will remain much the same throughout the month, there's more action happening nearer home. On the night of 3 January, the earth runs through a swarm of celestial debris, which burns up in our atmosphere as a shower of meteors or shooting stars. They seem to spread out from a point near the tail of the Great Bear (Ursa Major), where astronomers once grouped some faint stars into a constellation known as Quadrans. This star-pattern is no longer used, but the meteor shower is still known as the Quadrantids.

In the evening sky, faint Mars is zooming rapidly to the left, and passes by Jupiter on 21 January. Even more dramatically, Venus is plunging down towards the Sun. It disappears from the evening sky by the end of the first week of January. Swinging between the Sun and Earth ("inferior conjunction"), Venus reappears by the end of the month as the Morning Star, rising before the Sun in the south east. For the rest of 1998 it will be visible only in the morning sky.

Diary for January (all times GMT 24-hour clock)

3 maximum Quadrantid meteor shower

4 earth at perihelion (closest to sun)

5 1419 moon at first quarter

6 Mercury at greatest western elongation

12 1724 full moon

16 Venus at inferior conjunction

20 1941 moon at last quarter

28 0601 new Moon

New Year, new location

This is the last Science page of 1997. It will return in 1998 - bigger, more colourful and as informative as ever - but in the broadsheet section of the paper from Monday 5 January. We hope you'll seek us out. Meanwhile, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers.