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 youíll be treated to a fantastic celestial show. In this stargazerís opinion itís 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 January 3-4 and is best seen after midnight. The timing couldnít be better this year because the moon will set around midnight making for darker skies. Away from heavy light pollution you may see over twenty meteors or ďshooting starsĒ an hour!
The full moon this month is on the 10th, and on that same night thereís going to be whatís known as a penumbral lunar eclipse. Unfortunately, most of North and South America wonít see it, but thatís no great loss. The moon will hardly darken at all as it will only be in the lighter part of Earthís shadow. Speaking of the moon, January 25th is the Chinese Lunar New Year.
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. Itís less than 90 million miles away this month and is shrouded in a very reflective cloud cover. Sunlight really bounces off it. As bright as it is, Venus isnít that great of a telescope target. It will appear as a blinding oval-ish disk, resembling a gibbous moon. Since Venusís orbit around the sun is inside the Earthís orbit, it goes through phases just like our moon.
On January 27th, dazzling Venus will have a lovely lunar company. The new crescent moon will be poised just below it, and the following evening on the 28th, a slightly fatter moon will be just off to the left of Venus. Donít miss these conjunctions. Theyíll be quite a sight! As a bonus on the 27th, you can use Venus to find the very faint and distant planet Neptune which is usually very tough to locate. Just aim a small telescope or even a decent pair of binoculars at Venus. The next brightest ďstarĒ just to the lower right of Venus is Neptune, less than half of a degree away. You should be able to easily see both planets in the same field of view with binoculars. Neptune will have a faint bluish tinge to it and is over 2.8 billion miles away!
In the early morning sky before twilight, the best celestial hugging is going be on Monday, January 20th. Just below the waning crescent moon youíll see two moderately bright reddish stars. The closest to the moon is actually the planet Mars, with the reddish star Antares to its lower right. This coming October our Martian neighbor will put on a great show in the sky as Mars and the Earth will be within 34 million miles of each other. Stay tuned for more on the 2020 great Martian encounter!
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 magnificent winter constellations. My nickname for them is "Orion and his gang." Orion is the most brilliant of the gang, more or less in the middle of the winter shiners.
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 massive man. Orion's brightest stars are Rigel, marking one of the hunter's knees, and the red giant star Betelgeuse at his armpit. The three bright stars that makeup Orionís 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 Orionís sword. The middle star in the sword will appear fuzzy. Thatís because itís not a single star but whatís known as the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of hydrogen gas, giving birth to new stars. With even a small telescope itís possible to see four newborn stars within the Nebula.
Elsewhere in Orionís gang is Auriga, the chariot driver with the bright star Capella. Thereís also Taurus the bull, with the little arrow pointing to the right that outlines the bullís face and the bright reddish star Aldebaran marking the angry red eye of the beast. Just above Taurus are the Pleiades, a beautiful shining 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 Orionís belt and extend it to the lower left, it will point right at Sirius, a star 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 tilted 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 ďWĒ 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 galaxyís next-door neighbor, but visiting our neighbor would require about two and a half million light-years of space travel!
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 instead 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.
Donít hibernate inside at night in January. The overhead show is just too good to miss!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org