January is named after the Roman god Janus, who faces forward and backward at the same time. There are several interesting highlights that will be well worth seeing during this first month of the new year.

We will be treated to an excellent meteor shower, potentially the best one of the whole year; two comets, one of which was not expected to survive its perilous dive through the devilishly hot solar corona; and two bright planets in the evening sky at dusk.

The Quadrantid meteor shower will peak around 3 a.m. Jan. 4. The moon will have just set by then, leaving the sky nice and dark until dawn around 6 a.m. We could easily see more than 100 meteors per hour that morning from a site away from any town or city lights.

But most people have never seen even a single meteor from this potentially prolific shower. That is because this shower lasts a few hours instead of several weeks, like the Perseid meteors in August. This is also nearly the coldest time of the year and the weather is not usually as clear as it is during the August and autumn showers.

Along with the Geminids during the middle of December, the Quadrantids are the only meteor shower not directly caused by a comet. They are caused by Asteroid 2003 EH1, which may be a long-extinct comet nucleus.

To complete your adventure, if it is clear, try to get some photographs of one of these tiny grains of rare asteroid dust streaking through our upper atmosphere at 40 miles per second, or more than twice as fast as we are constantly revolving around the sun.

Comet Garradd, discovered Aug. 13, 2009, is still getting brighter. It will be in Hercules all month long. Hercules rises in the northeastern sky around 2 a.m. You will need at least a good pair of binoculars to see it. I’ve seen it only once so far, back in early September when it passed right through the beautiful stellar asterism called “the Coathanger,” near Cygnus.

The unexpected bonus comet is named Lovejoy. It was discovered at the end of November. This one is a member of the Kreutz Family of sun-grazing comets. There are many thousands of these comets, all fragments of the Great Comet of 1106. One of these fragments falls into the sun every few days, and more than 2,000 of them have not survived their ordeal.

However, Comet Lovejoy was different. It performed its death-defying plunge into the sun Dec. 15. Cruising through the 2 million-degree heat of the solar corona at nearly 1 million mph, it came within 85,000 miles of the surface of the sun.

The solar surface is only 10,000 degrees. The corona is less dense but much hotter because the sun’s magnetic fields trap the escaping plasma and re-energize it as all this energy races off into space at 1 million mph.

The comet quickly reformed a tail after its traumatic sojourn, but it did lose about 90 percent of its mass. Some great pictures of Comet Lovejoy already have been taken from the Southern Hemisphere.

Venus continues to rise higher in our western evening sky as it gets a little brighter and closer to Earth. Through a telescope you can see that it is about 80 percent illuminated by the sun. Jupiter is already high in our southern sky when it gets dark. It will cross back into Aries by the middle of this month.

Watch carefully as these two brilliant planets slowly get closer together. They’ll start the month 75 degrees apart, but they’ll be just 41 degrees apart by the end of the month. They cross paths during the middle of March.

Mars starts the year out by rising around 10 p.m., but it will rise by 8:30 by the end of the month. The red planet will get noticeably closer and brighter throughout the month, on its way to its March 3 opposition. Mars starts its retrograde motion Jan. 24.

Saturn turns from a morning planet into an evening planet this month since it will rise just before midnight by the end of January, still close to Spica in the constellation of Virgo.

January highlights

Jan. 1: On this day in 1801, Giuseppe Verdi discovered the largest asteroid, Ceres, which is 600 miles in diameter.

Jan. 2: Jupiter will be directly below the waxing gibbous moon this evening in Aries.

Jan. 3: Two of Jupiter’s largest moons, Europa and Ganymede, will cast their shadows on the planet simultaneously between 9:30 and 10:30 pm EST.

Jan. 4: Earth is at perihelion, or closest to the sun, for the year today. It will be just under 4 percent closer today than it is July 4, when it reaches aphelion. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks before sunrise.

Jan. 5: The waxing crescent moon is between the Pleiades and Hyades star this evening.

Jan. 7: On this day in 1610, Galileo discovered Callisto, Europa and Io, moons of Jupiter.

Jan. 8: Stephen Hawking was born on this day in 1942.

Jan. 9: Full moon is at 2:30 a.m. This is also called the “Moon After Yule” or the “Old Moon.”

Jan. 13: On this day in 1610, Galileo discovered Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system.

Jan. 16: Last quarter moon is at 4:08 a.m. EST.

Jan. 22: New moon is at 2:39 a.m.

Jan. 25: Brilliant Venus is just to the upper left of the waxing crescent moon this evening.

Jan. 30: First quarter moon is at 11:10 p.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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