We start 2003 with an interesting phenomenon: on Jan 4-5, Saturn passes directly across the Crab Nebula (M1).
Now, the Crab is pretty dim - ask any new telescope owner who carted a new Christmas telescope out in the backyard, armed with a star chart, to start observing the Messier list from the beginning! And Saturn is pretty bright. Will the light from the ringed planet overwhelm the poor supernova remnant? Your guess is as good as mine, but I'm looking forward to finding out!
If you can't see the Crab nebula, then you'll just have to content yourself with looking at the loveliest planet in our solar system, with its rings spread before us, about as high in the sky as it ever gets (which means less atmosphere between us and the planet, and steadier views in the eyepiece). I think I can live with that!
The day before the M1 transit, the earth hits perihelion - that's the point of its orbit closest to the sun. So go outside and warm yourself in all that close-by sunlight! Oh, wait, it's cold now, even though the sun is close to us? That's because we in the northern hemisphere are tilted away from the sun right now, so we're only getting glancing sunlight. Even though the sun is 5 million kilometers (or about 3 million miles) closer now than it is in summer, we're essentially in twilight all day ... it just never warms up.
A few hours behind Saturn comes Jupiter, the king of planets. People are debating on the various planetary observing lists whether the "great red spot" is darker, or paler, than in previous years. I've seen both opinions - nobody agrees. My advice is, go out and take a look, and decide for yourself! Be sure to watch the moons and their shadows while you're at it.
In the mornings, early risers get a new view of a conjunction between Venus (showing roughly half phase) and Mars (rather far away, so too small to show much surface detail). Their actual conjunction was at the end of December, but they remain fairly close all month, gradually separating as they enter Scorpius (and Mars draws closer to its rival, Antares). Near the end of the month Venus passes Pluto, hanging out in Ophiuchus where it's hiding among all the Milky Way stars.
Uranus and Neptune are in the morning sky, but too close to the sun to be easily found this month. Mercury is observable in the evening sky during the first week of January, then races in front of the sun to reach inferior conjunction on the 11th.
Comet C/2001 RX14 LINEAR reaches perihelion this month, but so far the comet does not seem to be brightening as expected, so it may be a disappointment. Still, it might be fun to look for it as it passes through the bowl of the Big Dipper - will it outshine the many faint galaxies there?
One other thing: I talk now and then about sketching as a good way to record things you see on planets, to improve your observational skills, and just to have fun. This month's Astronomy magazine has an article on how to get started with planet sketching. Check it out - it might inspire you to try it, and you might find it's a lot more fun than you expected.
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