January 2016 Night Skies over Tanzania and the Year Ahead

January 2016 Night Skies over Tanzania and the Year Ahead



We begin the year 2016 with high expectations of using the opportunity of an upcoming major solar eclipse event this year on 1st September.  An annular solar eclipse will be centered over Tanzania with the mid-eclipse path starting in the Atlantic, then cutting across central Africa from Gabon, through the two Congos and into Tanzania from Katavi in the west through Sumbawanga, Mbeya, Songea, Tunduru, Masasi and crossing out across the Ruvuma into northern corner of Mozambique and ending in Madagascar.


It is one the major events for us since the eclipse is centered over Tanzania, hence the whole country will witness a huge decrease in brightness of the Sun.  It occurs during mid-day from 9 am to 3 pm so the whole population, including school children will witness the event and be amazed by the power of nature and wonder about our Universe and get a scientific understanding of how nature works.  Within the central path at maximum eclipse the Sun will take the shape of a ring when seen through eclipse viewers.  Hence this eclipse is an Annular Solar Eclipse.  The rest of the country will experience a major partial eclipse where more than 80% of the Sun will be covered up and will look like a thick crescent when viewed through eclipse viewers.

In fact almost the whole of Africa from extreme north to extreme south will experience some partial eclipse and since it occurs during a suitable time for schools and public to participate in observations is being followed by African astronomers to exploit the event to attract students and public to science.  Prepare yourself by making sure you understand how eclipses occur and be able to imagine that the Moon is able to cover almost the entire Sun.  This happens because the size of the Moon, though small, seen as exactly the same as that of the much bigger Sun since the Sun is as much farther away as bigger than the Moon.  Hence when viewed from Earth the Moon and Sun both appear exactly the same size.  However this time, the Moon is farther away from us hence has a just slightly smaller apparent diameter than the Sun, hence will create the annulus or ring around the edge of the Sun.  Mark your calendar for various activities in preparation for the eclipse.


There will be three other eclipses one solar (March 9) and two lunar (March 23 and Sept 16), but they will not be visible since the second solar eclipse and one of the lunar eclipses occur well away from Tanzania so cannot be seen and one of the lunar eclipses (that of 16th September, just two week after the major solar eclipse), though it occurs above Tanzania we will not see any shadow since it is a penumbral eclipse in which only a very light shadow will cover us.


All the major visible planets have deserted our skies since October last year when we last saw Venus in the evening skies.  However they are all set to come back to the evening skies in the coming months with Jupiter making a late night start from February and Mars and Saturn in April.  Jupiter is at opposition (brightest, rising in the east while the Sun sets in the west) on March 8 and hence can be seen in the sky throughout the night from sunset to sunrise of the following day. Mars will be at opposition on May 22, while Saturn will be in opposition on June 3 both rising in the east when the sun is setting in the west.  Venus makes its entry into the evening skies from July.  Fast moving Mercury jumps in and out of morning and night skies several times during the year but does not rise more than 25 degrees above the horizon hence always a challenge and exciting to see.  It will be at highest evening elevation of 20 degrees above the horizon at sunset on April 18.


For detailed listing of all the events that we will witness in Tanzania during the year, visit http://www.astronomyintanzania.or.tz where you will also get updates on the events.

This is a month when the our southern skies come alive with dense collections of stars, nebulae and galaxies since the densest potions of our Milky Way enters our skies. The Orion constellation, seen from our skies as a big rectangle crossed with three diagonal stars, is the most recognizable constellation for the next five months as it shifts from east to west. From March, the Southern cross is easily identified also. The brightest stars brightest stars in the whole sky, Sirius and Canopus are accompanied by Capella, Rigel, Procyon, Achernar, Beltelgeuse, Aldebaran. These are among the top ten brightest stars in the sky, so go out and know your stars.

The Milky Way contains a dense collection of stars and interstellar dust and nebulae stretching across the sky from the southeast across the sky to the north, grazing Sirius, Orion, Taurus and finally enclosing Perseus and Cassiopeia in the north. Three visible galaxies can be seen in the early night sky for the next few months. Two of these, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are members of our local group with our Milky Way galaxy. Only southern observes can see the two Magellanic Cloud galaxies since they are close to the South Pole. They both have irregular shapes and cover a wide area of the sky with more than 4 to 5 degrees of angular width. LMC lies between Canopus and the South Pole and can best be viewed after 9 p.m. The SMC (3½ deg across) lies similarly between Achernar and the South. These two galaxies are about 50,000 light years away from us. The Andromeda galaxy can be seen in the north above Cassiopeia. It is more than 2 million light years away from us and can be seen as a fuzzy patch of light, making it the farthest object seen with the naked eyes.

The International Space Station (ISS) will show a spectacular crossing across the night sky on January 23, Saturday, from 8 pm and will cut across the sky from southwest at 8:04 pm rising majestically as a brilliant star moving slowly across the night sky towards northeast.  However, while it is still in the sky, it will suddenly disappear when it reached the corner of Orion constellation.  It disappears suddenly since it will have entered the Earth’s shadow and sunlight can no longer be reflected from its surface.  It is quite dramatic disappearance of a brilliant object so it is worth enjoying the ride as well as its abrupt end in mid skies. For specific times for your own location visit www.heavens-above.com and enter your coordinates.