New Year, New Sky: A January Skywatching Guide

iStock
iStock

The New Year brings a great meteor shower, a rarely visible planet, a "blue moon," and a total lunar eclipse. Here are a few things skywatchers should be on the lookout for as they begin 2018.

JANUARY 1: VISIBLE MERCURY & WOLF SUPERMOON

Just before sunrise on New Year's Day, Mercury will be visible in the sky. Because of its proximity to the Sun, you can only see the planet on a handful of days every year—when Mercury reaches “greatest elongation”—and even then, you only have a narrow window of opportunity to see it. (For reference: In New York State, the magic hours are between roughly 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Mercury will peak in the southeast a mere 10 degrees over the horizon. The times and maximum height over the horizon will vary based on your location. Check for your location here.) If you're pulling a New Year all-nighter anyway, be sure to make the effort.

Finding the southeast is easy. (Worst-case scenario, use the compass app in your phone.) But how do you calculate 10 degrees over the horizon? The easiest way is to hold your thumb out sideways at arm's length. The thickness of your thumb is about two degrees. A clenched fist, upright, is about 10 degrees. Hold the bottom of your fist at the horizon; the top of it will reveal an approximation of where Mercury should be.

That's not the only sky event on January 1. We'll also see the first full moon of 2018. It will be a “supermoon”—that is, it will be full while closest to Earth in its elliptical orbit. (Unless you are a devoted Moon watcher, you are unlikely to notice whether or not the Moon is a few percentage points larger than normal, so don't get too caught up in that.) According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Native Americans called this first full moon in January the Wolf Moon, because winter has been in full swing for a while now, and wolves are hungry. There's a little extra longing in those customary howls.

JANUARY 3–4: QUADRANTIDS METEOR SHOWER

On January 3 at around 11:00 p.m., you can celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien's birthday (and mine) by finding an area of little light pollution, laying out a blanket, turning off your phone, opening a bottle of wine, and letting your eyes adjust to the darkness. Just before midnight, your eyes should be good and ready to enjoy the first major meteor shower of 2018: the Quadrantids. On a good year, you'll be able to catch around 70 meteors per hour. This, however, will not be a good year, because of an almost fully illuminated moon which will wash out the night sky. All is not lost, however: If the sky is clear and you've found a nice remote area, you're sure to see something through the predawn hours of January 4.

The Quadrantids are particularly interesting for two reasons: 1. They are named for Quadrans Muralis, a constellation “drawn” by an 18th-century French astronomer, but which fell out of favor in the late 1800s and does not formally exist today, according to the International Astronomical Union; and 2. The meteor shower is produced by 2003 EH1, a near-Earth asteroid that is believed to be an extinct comet. (With no volatiles left to sublimate and give it that distinct comet tail, or coma, the comet essentially becomes a hunk of space rock. We still love it, but it's no Halley.)

JANUARY 31: BLUE SUPERMOON ECLIPSE

Every month begins or ends with a full moon, more or less. The lunar phases are where we get the word "month" in the first place. Every so often, the lunar cycle so aligns as to give us two full moons in one month. This second full moon is called a "blue moon" (as in: "once in a … "). There's no cosmic magic about it, though it is a lovely way to acknowledge the beauty of celestial mechanics. The blue moon on January 31 will be a particularly good showing, as it is a supermoon, and in the western United States, across the Pacific, and into eastern Asia, there will be a total lunar eclipse! At moonset, the Moon will cross through the darkest part of the Earth's shadow and turn a reddish color. No telescopes or special protective glasses will be needed to enjoy this. (The eastern United States will experience a partial lunar eclipse, whereupon a part of the moon will darken. It's better than nothing!)

If your January skywatching is ruined with rain and alarm clocks that didn't go off, don't lose hope. Next month promises a minor meteor shower, a "black moon," and the always-romantic Valentine's Day star.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated.

LEGO Is Launching an Official International Space Station Set

LEGO
LEGO

Not everyone can live out their childhood dreams of floating around in space aboard the International Space Station, but now you can at least construct a toy version of it for your own house.

Next month, LEGO is releasing an impressive model of the International Space Station as part of its Ideas program, which produces designs that were suggested by fans. This one was submitted three years ago by Christoph Ruge.

LEGO ISS
LEGO

According to TechCrunch, the kit includes the ISS, a dockable space shuttle, two astronaut figurines, and a satellite that you can “deploy” with the robotic Canadarm2 (which is used to capture and repair satellites on the ISS). It also comes with a display stand, so you can make it the eye-catching centerpiece of your coffee table if it happens to match your living room decor.

The ISS might not look as formidable as the life-size model of astronaut Buzz Aldrin that LEGO builders created last year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not difficult to construct—the 864-piece set is labeled for kids ages 16 and older.

LEGO ISS
LEGO

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that younger kids can’t help out with the assembly, or at least play with it once it’s complete. At about 7 inches high, 12 inches long, and 19 inches wide, the station could inspire the next generation of space explorers.

The $70 kit will be available on February 1 in LEGO stores or the LEGO website.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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A Snow Moon Will Light Up February Skies

makasana, iStock via Getty Images
makasana, iStock via Getty Images

February is the snowiest month of the year in many parts of the U.S., but on February 9, consider braving the weather outside to look up at the sky. That Sunday morning, the only full snow moon of the year will be visible. Here's what you need to know about the celestial event.

What is a snow moon?

If you keep track of the phases of the moon, you may already know that the full moon of each month has its own special name. Following January's wolf moon lunar eclipse is a snow moon in February. The name snow moon is said to have originated with Native American tribes, and it refers to the heavy snowfall that hits many parts of North America in February.

According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, different tribes had different names for February's full moon. The Wishram people named it the shoulder to shoulder around the fire moon and the Cherokee people called it the bone moon because animal bones were sometimes their only source of nutrition in the dead of winter. Snow moon is the name that's most commonly used by almanacs today.

When to See the Snow Moon

The moon will enter its next full phase the morning of Sunday, February 9. The snow moon will be at its fullest at 2:34 a.m. EST, but if you're not willing to stay up that late, it's still worth looking up. The previous evening—Saturday, February 8—the moon will be 99 percent illuminated on the East Coast. Check your local weather forecast and find a spot with clear skies to get the best view of the wintertime spectacle.

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