Science: Stars and Planets: January

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The Independent Culture
THE NEW year starts in cracking style, with Jupiter and Saturn high in the south-west and a total eclipse of the moon thrown in for good measure.

First, the planets. You cannot miss Jupiter, shining more brilliantly than any of the stars. Use binoculars to catch sight of its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, in that order, going outwards from the planet. With a telescope you will see bands of cloud in Jupiter's atmosphere and the planet's Great Red Spot - a hurricane three times the size of planet Earth.

Saturn is to the upper left of Jupiter, and about 20 times fainter. A telescope will reveal its famous rings, currently looking magnificent as they are tilted towards us, and the planet's largest moon, Titan, which has orange clouds and a thick atmosphere.

Early in the evening, look for Mars over the west. It sets at about 8pm. In the hours before dawn, check for Venus in the east, rising about three hours before the Sun. The queen of the planets is brighter than anything in the sky, after the Sun and Moon.

In the first few days of January, watch for meteors streaming from the northern part of the sky. These shooting stars are known as the Quadrantid meteor shower, after a now-obsolete constellation between Bootes (the Herdsman) and Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

Finally, a spectacular eclipse of the Moon is due on the night of 20- 21 January - do dress up warmly to observe it! The Moon begins to move into Earth's shadow at 3.01am and will be totally eclipsed by 4.05. It will start re-emerging at 5.22, and will be clear of the shadow at 6.25. During totality, you will probably see the Moon shining a dull copper colour, as the Earth's atmosphere bends sunlight into our planet's shadow.