Thrilling but chilling nights
Without a doubt winter stargazing can be challenging, but if you bundle up and keep your feet and face warm, the rewards are heavenly.
Believe it or not, in the early evening Marshall western sky you can still see the “Summer Triangle” of stars, Vega, Altair, and Deneb, which are the brightest stars in their respective summer constellations. Deneb, a star that’s at least 1500 light-years away, if not further, is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known by its nickname the Northern Cross. During the holiday season the cross is standing nearly upright above the northwestern horizon. This is the last call for the Northern Cross and the Summer Triangle, because next month the evening view from Earth will turn away from that part of space.
The great horse Pegasus is riding high in the south-southwestern sky with Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like a bright “W” in the high northern sky. The Big Dipper is still very low in the north, but you’ll notice that from night to night it will gradually get higher, standing diagonally on its handle. The Little Dipper is hanging by its handle above the Big Dipper, with Polaris the North Star poised at the end of the handle. Because Polaris is shining directly above Earth’s North Pole, it appears as if all the stars in the sky revolve around Polaris once every 24 hours, including our sun. We’re seeing a reflection in the sky of the Earth’s rotation.
Gazing to the east, just after evening twilight ends, you’ll be bombarded with all kinds of bright stars and constellations, even more as you get later in the evening. You are witnessing the rising of the winter constellations, the best of the year in my opinion. The constellations Auriga the Chariot Driver and Taurus the Bull lead the charge. Just above Taurus is the best star cluster in the sky, known both as the Pleiades and the Seven Little Sisters. This is a young group of stars, 410 light-years away, that looks like a tiny Big Dipper. After 8 p.m., Orion the Hunter, the great centerpiece of the winter constellations, climbs well above the eastern horizon. The three stars equally spaced out in a row that make the belt of the great hunter will definitely jump out at you.
If you’re a planet-watching fan the only planet I can offer you in the evening skies is Mars. It’s not as bright and close as it was this past summer but it’s still fairly bright. As early evening sets in Mars is the brightest star-like object you can see in the southern sky, directly above the southern horizon. It has a very distinctive reddish glow. You can’t miss it. Around Aug. 1 Mars was less than 36 million miles away, the closest it’s been since 2003. Currently it’s almost 60 million miles farther away. Honestly unless you have a very high power backyard telescope you won’t see much detail. It’s just getting too far away.
While you’re gazing at Mars in the southern skies there’s another bright star that actually is a star a little below Mars just above the horizon. That’s Fomalhaut in the very faint and unremarkable constellation Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish. It’s a star with a developing solar system 25 light- years away. I like Fomalhaut for a couple of reasons. First off it’s the only bright star in that part of the sky but I really like that star because of the pronunciation of its name. It’s pronounced “Foam-a-lot.”
On the night of Dec. 13-14 the Geminid meteor shower peaks. On that night there will be a last quarter (half) moon that will white out at least some of the meteors, but the Geminids are so bright and numerous that it should still be a half way decent shooting star show. I’ll have more on the Geminids next week in Skywatch.
Bundle up and take in the great December night sky! It’s worth the chill!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.