The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who is the protector of gates and doorways. He is depicted with two faces, one looking into the past and the other one looking toward the future.

So the name of the first month of each year has the potential of positive new beginnings built right into it.

Even though winter got here early last month, this month will probably still be quite cold except for a possible thaw that we usually get at some point. Each month of each year always has interesting highlights that are well worth braving any elements nature may throw at us, but this first month of the new year has more than its share.

We start the year off with a celestial bang – the full super moon on the first day of the year occurs just four hours after perigee and just over a day before perihelion, which is our closest approach to the sun for the whole year. That will lead to some exceptionally high tides. Then there will be two very close planetary pairings in the morning sky. The first dramatic pair involves Jupiter and Mars, and the second pair will consist of Saturn and Mercury. The Quadrantid meteor shower will peak on the fourth, Regulus will be occulted by the moon, the first and largest asteroid, Ceres, will reach opposition within the same hour that a total lunar eclipse will occur on the last day of the month, which will also be a blue moon.

The earth will reach its closest point to the sun for the year just after midnight on the morning of Jan. 3. That is called perihelion and this year that will happen just over a day after a lunar perigee and a close super moon. That will lead to extra high tides, called a proxigean tide, especially if there is also a winter storm on that day. For every inch that the barometric pressure is lower, the ocean will be lifted up a foot.

Tides are an incredibly fascinating phenomenon that are simple in theory but very complex in actual practice because of all the various forms of land masses on the earth and the friction that creates with all the oceans as the earth spins at about 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. Basically there are two spring tides every month near the full and new moons that creates more extreme high and low tides since the earth, sun, and moon are in alignment. Then the neap tides, from the Anglo-Saxon nep, meaning lacking, occur near the first and last quarter moons when the sun and the moon are at right angles to each other and working against each other, creating the least difference in the tides near those phases.

The earth just spins under this tidal bulge created by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon on the earth. The land itself also lifts up several inches but can’t be noticed since everything gets lifted up with it. The tides vary from only a foot or two near the equator all the way up to 55 feet at the northern end of the Bay of Fundy. In that case an additional phenomenon called resonance comes into play. If the tides coincide with the natural resonance of a large body of water, they get amplified, as if you were sloshing the water back and forth in a bathtub to reinforce the waves or pushing a swing at the right time to make it go higher. The Pacific Ocean has a natural period of oscillation of about 24 hours and the Atlantic is 13 hours. The tide is simply a very long wave, 10,000 miles from crest to crest, that travels at about 450 miles per hour. Tides generate enormous amounts of power as they surge through narrow waterways all along the coasts of the world.

Jupiter and Mars are both a little higher, brighter and closer each morning. Look for them in the South-Southeastern morning sky about 45 minutes before sunrise on the morning of Jan. 6. They will be only one third of a degree apart. Your little finger at arm’s length covers one degree of the sky. Then keep watching as a slender waning crescent moon drifts past the pair on the morning of Jan. 11 one hour before sunrise.

The only slightly less dramatic pairing will occur between Saturn and Mercury, but lower in the morning sky. They are about the same brightness in the sky. They will be very close together on the morning of Jan. 13, about half an hour before sunrise. When you see this little light, which is Saturn low on the horizon just above Mercury, keep in mind the fact that humans have just purposefully crashed a tiny and very expensive spacecraft named Cassini into the amorphous surface of this giant gas planet after 20 years in space, and after gaining a lot of important and useful knowledge about the famous ringed planet and its many unique moons from its explorations.

Notice the waning crescent moon will be just above them on Jan. 13-14 and near the orange giant star named Antares in Scorpius. Then Saturn will get larger and closer as it rises earlier, and Mercury will disappear again.

There is another meteor shower this month on Jan. 4, named the Quadrantids after an extinct constellation called Quadrans Muralis, but the moon will be just past full that night so it will wash out most of the meteors. You could watch for a few of them right after it gets dark and before the moon rises around 8 p.m.

Regulus, the brightest star in Leo the Lion, will be occulted again by the moon, but that will not be visible in Maine. The sun was very close to Regulus in August when it was eclipsed last summer and this star even showed up nicely in the middle of the day in several of my eclipse pictures.

Ceres is our largest asteroid, about 600 miles in diameter, and it was the first one discovered on the first day of the year in 1801. It was even considered a planet for about 50 years until many more large objects were discovered in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It will reach about seventh magnitude and be visible in a pair of binoculars in Leo when it reaches opposition within the same hour as the total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31.

The first total lunar eclipse over this country since the Sept. 27, 2015 eclipse of the super moon will happen this month. We will not be able to see much of it on the east coast, since the full moon will be setting in the morning just as it enters the umbra and the earth’s shadow becomes visible on the moon. The farther west you go, the more of it you can see. Any lunar eclipse pales in comparison to a total solar eclipse, but it is still an interesting event that give you a better sense of how the solar system really works as you watch our nearly one million mile long shadow slowly and precisely drift across our only natural satellite.

Our penumbral shadow is about 10,000 miles wide in space at the place that the moon will cross through it that night, and our umbral, or darker inner shadow is about half that width at that distance. The entire event will last just over three hours, but we will only be able to catch the very beginning of it. The moon will be in Leo, close to where the sun was in August during the last great total solar eclipse over this entire country.


Jan. 1: The first and largest asteroid, Ceres, was discovered in 1801. Full moon is at 9:24 p.m. This will be a super moon just over four hours after its perigee. This is also called the Wolf or Old Moon.

Jan. 3: The earth is at perihelion, or closest to the sun, this morning at 91.5 million miles.

Jan. 4: The Quadrantid Meteor shower peaks this morning near the Big Dipper.

Jan. 6: Jupiter and Mars will be less than one degree apart in the morning sky 45 minutes before sunrise in Libra, just above Antares in Scorpius.

Jan. 7: On this day in 1610, Galileo discovered three of the four largest moons of Jupiter.

Jan. 8: Stephen Hawking was born in 1942. Last-quarter moon is at 5:25 p.m.

Jan. 11: The waning crescent moon joins Jupiter and Mars in the morning sky.

Jan. 13: Saturn and Mercury are less than one degree apart low in the southeastern morning sky.

Jan. 15: A thin waning crescent moon joins Mercury and Saturn in the morning sky.

Jan. 16: New moon is at 9:17 p.m.

Jan. 19: The New Horizons spacecraft was launched to Pluto in 2006. It got there less than 10 years later on July 14, 2015 to get the best and closest pictures ever of this icy dwarf planet.

Jan. 24: First-quarter moon is at 5:20 p.m.

Jan. 31: Full moon is at 8:28 a.m. This will also be a blue moon and a super moon, and a total lunar eclipse.

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

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