In the Winter Sky

By Alan French

Win­ter can be a chal­leng­ing time to enjoy the night sky, but bun­dle up and let the cold, clear win­ter nights entice you out­side. The most obvi­ous dif­fer­ence between the skies of win­ter and sum­mer is the win­ter pre­dom­i­nance of bright stars, many in very dis­tinc­tive, eye-catch­ing patterns.

The show­piece of win­ter is the con­stel­la­tion Ori­on, the Hunter. Look toward the south at 10 pm in ear­ly Jan­u­ary, and you’ll eas­i­ly spot Orion’s three even­ly spaced and equal­ly bright belt stars angled upward toward the right. Two bright stars above the belt mark his shoul­ders. The left one – his right shoul­der – is Betel­geuse and is dis­tinct­ly red­dish. Below the belt two stars mark his knees, Rigel being the bright­est. Between the belt and the knees, you will see a line of three stars on the left, hang­ing down­ward. This is the hunter’s sword. Note that the mid­dle star looks fuzzy. This is actu­al­ly the Great Ori­on Neb­u­la, a cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born. By ear­ly Feb­ru­ary Ori­on will be in the south around 8 pm.

You can use Orion’s belt to find two oth­er con­stel­la­tions. Imag­ine a line going through the stars and con­tin­u­ing to the right. The first bright star you come to is a very red­dish Alde­baran. It marks the eye of Tau­rus, the Bull, and is at the end of a V” of stars, its bot­tom to the right, that out­lines his face. Head­ing across the sky in the oth­er direc­tion, you’ll come to Sir­ius, the lumi­nary of Can­is Major, the Big Dog.” Sir­ius is the bright­est star in our night sky.

Ear­ly Jan­u­ary’s dawn skies will offer a nice treat, when Venus will be close to Sat­urn and pass with­in ½‑degree (the appar­ent diam­e­ter of the Moon) of the ringed plan­et. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Tues­day, Jan­u­ary 5, at 6:30 AM. Look for the pair in the south­east. Bril­liant Venus will be high­est, with Sat­urn just over four degrees to its low­er left. You should also spot the red­dish star Antares below and a bit to the right. To the upper right you’ll find a cres­cent Moon, and far­ther right and high­er in the sky red Mars, with the star Spi­ca close by in the south. Bright Jupiter will be even high­er and in the southwest.
  • Wednes­day, Jan­u­ary 6, at 6:30 AM. The love­ly cres­cent Moon will be clos­er to Venus, and Sat­urn will be less than four degrees from Venus.
  • Thurs­day, Jan­u­ary 7, at 6:30 AM. The slen­der Moon will be left of Sat­urn. The dis­tance between Sat­urn and Venus will con­tin­ue to shrink, reach­ing less than one degree.
  • Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 8. Mak­ing their clos­est approach, Sat­urn and Venus will sep­a­rat­ed by less than ½‑degree. Then on each of the fol­low­ing morn­ings, Venus will be high­er and far­ther away.

As the weath­er warms, con­sid­er join­ing the Albany Area Ama­teur Astronomers for a Star Par­ty at the Lan­dis Arbore­tum. These events are free and open to the pub­lic. (Dona­tions to the Arbore­tum are always grate­ful­ly accept­ed.) After a brief ori­en­ta­tion to the night sky, par­tic­i­pants are invit­ed to view celes­tial phe­nom­e­na through sev­er­al tele­scopes. Our sched­ule will be pub­lished in the Arboretum’s 2016 Cal­en­dar of Events and is also avail­able both on the Lan­dis web­site and our own web­site (http://​dud​ley​ob​ser​va​to​ry​.org/AAAA). Reg­is­tra­tion is sug­gest­ed because Star Par­ties are can­celed if the skies are most­ly cloudy. For more details or to reg­is­ter, call me at (518) 3748460.


Winter 2016

Volume 34 , Number 1

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