Bright But Cold Nights!
These are the best of times, but can also be the worst of times for stargazing. It's certainly not for the cold weather faint of heart! But if you bundle up, and especially keep your feet warm, you'll be rewarded with the best celestial show of the year as far as I'm concerned! It's a great time to break in that new Christmas telescope, but even with binoculars or your naked eyes you'll definitely be star struck! Just make sure your face isn't struck by frostbite!
You might want to delay your heavy duty January stargazing until later on this week because our first full moon of 2015 will be washing out all but the brightest stars as it takes a very high southeast to northwest arc across the sky.
Even with the masking moonlight you should have no problem seeing the great celestial hugging between the bright planets Venus and Mercury, going on in the very low southwestern sky about 45 minutes after sunset. You'll need a clear view of the southwest horizon from your viewing location because both planets are barely above the horizon. They're practically touching each other, less than a degree apart! That's less than the width of your forefinger held at arm's length. You'll love looking at them. Venus is by far the brighter of the two, shining just above and to the left of Mercury. Now of course they're nowhere each other physically, they're just in the same line of sight. Venus and Mercury are actually separated by over 46 million miles. You won't see much detail on either planet with a telescope because of the thicker layer of Earth's atmosphere near the horizon, but it's quite a sight with the naked eye.
Next week, after we get the full moon out of the sky, give yourself at least fifteen minutes to get used to the darkness and also the cold! Then, armed with your night vision, look in the low northeastern sky for the Big Dipper, standing up diagonally on its handle. Even though the Big Dipper is the most recognized star pattern in the sky, it is not an official constellation. The Big Dipper is actually the rear end and tail of the Big Bear, known more formally as Ursa Major. The entire Big Bear is a little difficult to see right now because it's still pretty low in the sky, and you're forced to look through more of Earth's blurring atmosphere. Nonetheless, look to the upper right of the pot section of the Big Dipper for a skinny triangle of three slightly dimmer stars that outline the head of the celestial bear. Below and to the right of the Big Bear's head look for two moderately bright stars, Talitha and Al Kaprah, which together mark Ursa Major's front paw.
The fainter Little Dipper, otherwise known as Ursa Minor or the Little Bear, is hanging by its handle, or tail, above the Big Dipper. At the end of the Little Dipper's handle is Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star. By no means is Polaris the brightest star in the night sky, but it's an important one. It's what I call the "Lynchpin of the heavens". That's because it shines directly above the Earth's North Pole. As a result, all of the stars and planets, the sun, the moon, and anything else in the sky seems to revolve around Polaris once every 24 hours as the Earth rotates on its axis in the same period.
The main stage in the January sky show is definitely in the eastern half of the sky, where "Orion and his Gang" are setting up celestial camp. Surrounding the constellation Orion are the brilliant constellations Taurus the Bull, Auriga the Chariot Driver, Gemini the Twins, and Orion's hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. I love this part of the sky! Orion's brightest stars are Rigel at his knee and Betelgeuse at his armpit. In fact, Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to "armpit of the great one" in English. Other shining jewels of Orion are the three stars in a diagonal row that outline the belt of the celestial hunter. From the lower left to upper right the stars are Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Nowhere else in the sky will you see three bright stars so neatly in a row.
After 9:00pm, look for the bright planet Jupiter on the rise in the low eastern sky. It will be by far the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky. Unlike Mercury and Venus, seen earlier in the evening, Jupiter is wonderful through even a small telescope, as you can track the positions of its four brighter moons on either side of the planet that resemble faint little stars. Some nights you can't see all four of the moons because one or more of them may be in front of Jupiter, lost in its glow, or behind the 88,000-mile diameter planet, the big guy of our solar system. Right now the king of the planets is only 418 million miles away, but next month it will be even closer.
Dress warm and enjoy these frosty January nights!