Night Sights: Meteor shower reaches its peak this week

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The new year opens with a celestial bang as a nice meteor shower and two converging planets grace the skies this January.

As darkness falls, it's hard to miss brilliant Venus hanging high in the southwestern sky. Venus has been steadily ascending over the last month and has reached an altitude for easy observing shortly after sunset. Our closest neighbor reaches its furthest distance from the setting sun this month as it rounds the curve of its orbit. Next month Venus sinks toward sunset as it begins the descending leg of its orbit as viewed from our earthly vantage point.

Those watching Venus nightly will notice it creeping closer to a bright reddish star higher in the south. In fact, it is not a star, but is the planet Mars. Our red neighbor continues to stubbornly reside in the southwestern sky. Planets typically migrate against the background stars, eventually finding their way to the setting sun.

A combination of both Mars' and Earth's orbit have Mars stuck in the same region of the sky throughout fall and winter. Finally in spring, Mars succumbs to orbital dynamics and gets lost in the sun's glare.

The contrasting colors of Venus and Mars adds to their splendor during crisp winter nights. On the evenings of Jan. 2 and 31, the crescent moon joins the two creating a stunning trio.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the Quadrantid meteor shower peaks. While not the year's best shower, the Quadrantids are better than average. What's more, the moon sets around midnight, right before the best observing time, leaving observers with a dark sky. To view the shower, find a dark location and look east between midnight and dawn.