Super chilled starry nights
Welcome to stargazing in 2020! January nights are the best of times, but also the worst of times. Just about everywhere nights are cold to downright frigid. Bundle up and you’ll be treated to a great celestial show. In this stargazer’s opinion it’s the best of the year!
We start the month with the Quadrantids, one of the better meteor showers of the year. It peaks on the night of Jan. 3-4 and is best seen after midnight. The timing couldn’t be better this year because the moon will set around midnight making for darker skies. Away from heavy light pollution you may see over 20 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour!
The full moon this month is on the 10th, and on that same night there’s going to be what’s known as a penumbral lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, we won’t see here in Marshall but no great loss. The moon will hardly darken at all as it will only be in the lighter part of Earth’s shadow.
Venus will be the brightest star-like object in the sky in January, beaming away in the low southwest in the early evening. As January progresses, it will start the evening higher and higher in the southwest. Venus is so bright that it can actually cast a faint shadow in the super dark countryside. It’s less than 90 million miles away this month and is shrouded in a very reflective cloud cover. As bright as it is, Venus isn’t that great of a telescope target. It will appear as a blinding oval-ish disk, resembling a gibbous moon. Since Venus’s orbit around the sun is inside the Earth’s orbit, it goes through phases just like our moon.
Throughout January the absolute best stargazing in the early evening will be in the east-southeast. There’s a barrage of bright stars that make up the wonderful winter constellations. I call them “Orion and his gang.” Orion is the brightest of the gang.
At first glance the mighty hunter looks like a crooked 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 makeup Orion’s belt are in a perfect row and jump right out at you. There are three fainter stars in a row just to the lower right of the belt that make up Orion’s sword. The middle star in the sword is fuzzy, though, because it’s not really a star. It’s actually the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of hydrogen gas that’s giving birth to new stars. With even a small telescope you’ll see four newborn stars within the Nebula. Orion’s brightest stars are Rigel, marking one of the hunter’s knees, and the red giant star Betelgeuse at his armpit.
Elsewhere in Orion’s gang is Auriga, the chariot driver with the bright star Capella. There’s also Taurus the bull, with the little arrow pointing to the right that outlines the bull’s face and the bright 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.
Rising in the low southeast is a really bright star, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky at any time throughout the year. If you draw a line through Orion’s belt and extend it to the lower left, it will point right at Sirius, a little more than eight light-years away.
The dominant constellation of autumn, Pegasus, the giant winged horse, is still hanging in there in the western heavens. 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 nearly halfway between Square of Pegasus and the bright “W” that makes up the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, and see if you can spot the Andromeda Galaxy. It will have a faint ghost-like appearance. Andromeda is our Milky Way galaxy’s next-door neighbor, more than two and a half million light-years away.
In the low northern sky, the Big Dipper appears to be nearly standing on its handle. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation, but rather makes up the bright derriere and tail of Ursa Major. To the upper right of it is the Little Dipper hanging by its handle. Polaris, the North Stars, shines at the end of the handle. The Little Dipper is also known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.
Don’t hibernate inside at night in January. The celestial show is too good to miss!
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.