Prime time winter stargazing
Wintertime is a wonderful time for stargazing, the super bowl of stargazing as far as I’m concerned! Don’t wait until warmer weather to stargaze. If you received a telescope under the Christmas tree now’s the time for you to have it take in its first light. Too many people wait until warmer weather to try out their new scopes and that’s a mistake! You’re losing a golden opportunity to get really excited about amateur astronomy. Even though it’s still cold now’s the time to get serious with the night sky. If you wait until spring you’ll be more comfortable, but by then we’ll be losing the fabulous winter constellations below the western horizon. Also the air will have a little more humidity, somewhat blurring the heavens, especially if there is any kind of urban lighting. The biggest problem with star watching in the spring and summer is that you have to stay up late. So bundle up against the rigors of Old Man Winter and take in the dazzling February skies.
The best part of winter stargazing is what I call Orion’s great gang of constellations. As darkness sets in they start out in the southeast Marshall sky and then reach their highest point above the southern horizon by around 9 p.m. The constellations surrounding Orion are Gemini the Twins, Canis Major and Minor (the big and little dogs respectively), Auriga the sheep-schlepping retired chariot driver, and Taurus the Bull with the bright Pleiades star cluster, also known as the “Seven Little Sisters.” Without a doubt, Orion and his gang have the largest collection of bright stars assembled anywhere across the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. I love, love, love those constellations! As a matter of fact, I’m featuring the constellation Orion in my next two columns.
In the northern skies look for the Big Dipper, standing up on its handle, and the giant upside down “W” that outlines the throne of the constellation Cassiopeia. You can see those constellations and a few others every night in the north as they make a tight circle around Polaris, the stationary North Star. Polaris is about halfway from the northern horizon to the overhead zenith, and every celestial object in the entire sky appears to revolve around it every 24 hours. Circumpolar constellations like the Big Bear and Cassiopeia are close enough to Polaris in the sky so that they’re always above the horizon.
If you’re a fan of evening planet viewing, you’re pretty much shut out right now. Only faded Mars is available in the low southwestern evening sky. I say faded because Mars is so much farther away now than it was last summer when it was just less than 36 million miles away. Now it’s over 140 million miles away! Nonetheless it’s the brightest s star-like object in that part of the sky, but a poor telescope target because it’s so far away and so small, about half the diameter of Earth.
In the early morning pre-twilight sky there’s a couple of really bright planets available. This week around 6 a.m. you’ll see two very bright stars fairly close together in the low southeast sky. Those are actually the planets Jupiter and Venus. Even though they’re close together in the sky they’re nowhere near each other physically. They just happen to be in the same line of sight. Currently Venus is 75 million miles away, but Jupiter is about 550 million miles from Earth. Neither one of them are very good telescope targets because they are so close to the horizon and their light has to travel though a thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere to reach our eyes. That will make them really blurry through telescopes and binoculars. Venus will be in the shape of a half moon, and Jupiter will be a blurry disk with up to four tiny stars on either side of it, which are Jupiter’s bright moons in orbit around the big guy of our solar system.
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.