by Kim Malville

January 3-4: Quadrantid Meteors—the shower will occur all night but the best burst of meteors may be at 1am.

January 5: The earth reaches perihelion when it comes closest to the sun. This is one of the great ironies of living in the northern hemisphere. The days are coldest when we are closest to the great body that warms us.  The difference between near and far is only 3%, so the difference is not large. In the southern hemisphere, however, as a result, summers are slightly hotter and winters are slightly cooler than in the northern hemisphere.

January 6-8: The moon passes through Taurus, coming closest to Aldebaran on January 7.  (see the diagram)

January 10: Full Moon. A modest eclipse of the moon will be visible across most of Europe, Africa, and Asia. We will have to wait until the night of July 4-5 for our next eclipse season and an eclipse of the moon. Another eclipse will be visible from Crestone on November 29-30.

January 24: New Moon.

January 26-28: The two-day-old crescent moon will be visible about 30 minutes after sunset. Look below it and to the right for the planet Mercury. The next two nights the moon will pass close to Venus. (see the diagram)


The meteor shower of January

It has a funny name, and it occurs during frigid January, but this shower puts on a good show if you catch the right moment. These Quadrantids (call them “Quads”) meteors radiate outward from an obsolete and extinct constellation named after a device for measuring the positions of stars in the 18th century called a Mural Quadrant.  The constellation was supposed to mark a collection of stars in an empty area of the sky north of the constellation of Bootes. The constellation was not generally accepted, largely because of its insignificance.  But what did remain of it was the name of the first major meteor shower of the new year. It is a powerful but short shower lasting at its peak only some 6 hours.  But at that peak, it can produce as many as 120 meteors per hour. They can be pretty impressive—one or two each minute with a few brilliant fire-balls thrown in. Actually this is one of the very best years for observing the shower.  The first quarter moon sets around midnight so that the sky will be blissfully Crestone-like dark. The peak of the shower is predicted to occur on January 4 around 1am local (Crestone) standard time. Bundle up with a good chair and enjoy the sky.  The shower meteors will be coming out of the northeast near the Big and Little Dippers, Draco, and Bootes. Watch for earth-grazing meteors that rise up from the northeastern sky and are visible for many seconds as they skim across the top of the atmosphere.

Most meteor showers are produced by the dust that dribble off the nucleus of comet as the ice that glues that together sublimates and evaporates. In the case of these Quads, the whole nucleus apparently disintegrated. The result is a very concentrated stream of particles.

The constellation of the month

Taurus, the bull, is one of the great and easily identifiable constellations of the zodiac. It has a blood-shot eye, two horns and a brilliant star cluster.  It is one of the oldest constellations and its importance to the agricultural calendar may have influenced many of the mythologies of the Near East. It is a rich host to important astronomical objects.  It contains two open star clusters, the Pleiades and the Hyades. The Pleiades in Greek myology is known as the Seven Sisters, which ride on the back of the bull and the Hyades are nymphs that bring rain. It is a fascinating coincidence (?) that both the Pleiades and the Hyades are associated with the weather in two vastly separated cultures (see below). The brightest star, the red giant Aldebaran, is known in India as the Daughter of the Dawn. The northernmost of its two horns is the star, El Nath, “the butting one”. The other horn is tipped by a star (zeta) known by the Chinese as Tien Quan, the “gate of heaven”; close to it is the Crab Nebula, the remnant of the 1054 CE supernova. Is it another coincidence?  They actually may be connected because the Chinese carefully recorded the brilliant exploding star for months.  A pictograph marking the supernova may be on the cliff wall of Chaco Canyon.

The Pleiades & El Niño

Toward the end of every June, farmers in the altiplano of Peru look to the Pleiades to forecast the weather six months in the future. In their dark skies they see more than seven stars, closer to eleven, in fact. If these eleven stars appear bright and clear in the pre-dawn sky, they anticipate early, abundant rains and a bountiful potato crop. If the stars appear dim, however, they expect a smaller harvest and delay planting in order to reduce the adverse impact of late and meager precipitation. Not only does the technique work reasonably well, it turns out that the farmers have in effect been forecasting El Niño since the days of the Inca.

The primary characteristics of the Pleiades that the farmers observe—brightness, size, the date of first appearance and the position of the brightest star in the cluster—depend on the clarity of the atmosphere, which is in turn determined by its moisture content.

Within the past few years atmospheric physicists have found a connection between the brewing El Niño and the increased incidence of high, thin clouds over the Andes that dim the farmers’ view of the stars. Four to eight months later, the El Niño results in a hot, dry growing season that reduces the potato yield. A big, bright Pleiades equals big rain equals big potato harvest, whereas a small, dim Pleiades equals small rain equals small potato harvest. It is an utterly fascinating case of ancient but valuable weather forecasting.