Super chilled starry nights
Welcome to stargazing in 2018! January nights 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 and hands warm, you’ll be rewarded with the best celestial show of the year over Marshall 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! By the way, you can check out my Starwatch column from Dec. 23-24 to help you get the most out of a new telescope and some great first light celestial targets.
We’ve already had our first full moon of January last Monday, but that’s not the only full moon. We’ll have another full moon on Wednesday, Jan. 31. Since we have a full moon every 29.5 days two full moons in one month aren’t very common. A rare second full moon in a calendar month is traditionally called a “Blue Moon” but on Jan. 31 the moon will actually be turning blood red as we’ll have a total lunar eclipse
The next two-and-a-half weeks will be great for chilled stargazing without a bright moon in the sky. Give yourself at least 15 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 seem 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 lined up so nicely!
Unfortunately there are no bright planets available in the evening sky this month but if you’re up early Jupiter and Mars are putting on quite a show in the low southeastern sky between about 5 to 7 a.m. The two planets are in a very tight conjunction this weekend, what I like to call celestial huggings. Right now they’re way less than a degree apart, less than the width of your finger held at arm’s length. Jupiter by far is the brighter of the two. In fact Jupiter is by far the brightest star-like object in the early morning sky right now. Even without binoculars or a telescope Mars has a definite reddish hue to it.
Jupiter and Mars are physically nowhere near each other though. They’re just in the same line of sight. Jupiter is actually over 550 million miles away and Mars is over 180 million miles from Earth. These type of conjunctions of planets actually happen quite often as our Earth and the rest of the major planets in our solar system orbit the sun in nearly the same mathematical plane. Through the rest of January from morning to morning Mars and Jupiter will gradually separate. Try to catch the Jupiter/Mars show this weekend or at least early this coming week. As an added incentive the waning crescent will be joining Jupiter and Mars in the southeastern predawn sky this coming Thursday, Jan. 11.
By the way you’ll be hearing a lot more about the Mars this summer as the Mars and the Earth will making their closest approach to each other since 2003. That will be the biggest astronomical happening of 2018. Stay tuned!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores or at http://www.adventurepublications.net.