Take on the Cold! Don't Miss the Dazzling Jewels of January!
The conundrum of stargazing this time of year is that while you have some of the best and brightest constellations of the year itís hard to pull yourself away from that warm fireplace. Lynchís law of winter stargazing clearly states that the beauty of the heavens is directly proportional to how cold it is. January skies are very pleasing to the eyes, but tough on your skin. Not only should you dress for it, you should be prepared with a big thermos of something warm. Also try those potassium chloride hand and feet warmers. They do a fantastic job, keeping those extremities toasty warm for hours and hours. You can buy them at most sporting goods stores and even hardware stores.
Once you are armed against the chill with an attitude, get out and enjoy the best stargazing of the year. In the early evening the extremely bright planet Venus beams away at you in the low south-southwest sky. It's by far the brightest star-like object you can see. The next brightest star just to the upper left of Venus is Mars. It's not as bright as Venus but you can easily spot it with its reddish glow. Over the next several weeks the two planets will appear to get closer and closer in the sky as both planets and the Earth travel along in their respective solar orbits. The Venus and Mars show doesn't last long into the evening as both planets sink below the horizon around 8 to 9pm. As an added attraction to kick off this new year, the new crescent moon will be joining Venus and Mars on Sunday and Monday night. Don't miss this spectacular celestial hugging!
With the exception of Mars and Venus in the western sky, you can't help but notice that most of the really bright stars reside in the eastern half of the heavens. Over the last couple of months most of the summer constellations have slowly sunk below the western horizon, not to be seen again in the evening until next June. Of course they didnít move, we did. As the Earth continues its annual circuit around the sun, the nighttime side has now turned away from the stars and constellations of summer.
The dominant constellation of autumn, Pegasus the giant winged horse, is still hanging in there in the west. Look for the distinct great square, actually a rectangle, that makes up the torso of the mighty flying horse. With a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope, scan about halfway between Pegasus and the bright ďWĒ that makes up the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, and see if you can spot the Andromeda Galaxy. Itís our Milky Way galaxyís next-door neighbor. Honestly, all youíll really see is a faint little smudge, but that little smudge is a whole other galaxy, a little larger than our own, nearly two and a half million light-years away. If youíre new to astronomy, one light-year equals almost six trillion miles!
I call the bright constellations in the eastern sky "Orion and his gang". Orion is the brightest of the gang, and at first glance the mighty hunter looks like a sideways bowtie, but without too much imagination you can see how that bowtie resembles the torso of a very big man. The three bright stars that make up Orionís belt are in a perfect row and jump right out at you. There are also the bright stars Rigel at Orionís knee, and Betelgeuse at his armpit. By the way, keep your eye on this star because sometime in the next million years Betelgeuse could explode in a tremendous supernova explosion.
Elsewhere in Orionís gang is Auriga, the retired chariot driver with the bright star Capella. Thereís also Taurus the bull with the little arrow pointing to the right, which outlines the face of the bull with the reddish star Aldebaran marking the angry red eye of the beast. Just above Taurus are the Pleiades, a beautiful bright star cluster that resembles a tiny Big Dipper. The Pleiades Star Cluster is made up of over one hundred young stars, probably less than 100 million years old. If you stay out after 8:30, youíll see a really bright star on the rise in the southeast. Thatís Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky at any time throughout the year. If you draw a line through Orionís belt and extend it to the lower left, it will point right at Sirius, a little more than eight light-years away.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, ďStars, a Month by Month Tour of the ConstellationsĒ published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something youíre seeing in the night sky drop me a line at email@example.com