Murphy’s law of winter stargazing clearly states that the beauty of the heavens is inversely proportionate to how many layers you have to put on to go outside.
January skies are very pleasing to the eyes but tough on the skin. Not only should you dress for it, you should also be prepared with hot drinks, and hand and feet warmers.
Once armed against the chill with an attitude, get out and enjoy the best stargazing of the year. You’ll notice that the eastern half of the sky has many more bright stars than the west.
Over the past couple of months the last of the summer constellations have slowly sunk lower and lower in the west, not to be seen again in the evenings until next June.
Of course they didn’t move, we did. As the Earth continues its annual circuit around the sun, the nighttime side has now turned away from the stars of summer.
The dominant constellation of autumn, Pegasus the giant winged horse, is still hanging in there in the west.
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 halfway between Pegasus and the bright W that makes up the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, and see if you can spot the Andromeda Galaxy.
It’s our Milky Way galaxy’s next-door neighbor. Honestly, all you’ll really see is a faint little smudge, but that little smudge is a whole other galaxy, a little larger than our own, nearly 2.5 million light-years away. If you’re new to astronomy, one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles.
The eastern sky is lit up like the Clark Griswold house from the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
There are many bright stars and constellations. I call this part of the sky Orion and his gang. Orion is the brightest of the gang and at first glance the mighty hunter looks like a sideways 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 make up Orion’s belt are in a perfect row and jump right out at you.
There are also the bright stars Rigel at Orion’s knee, and Betelgeuse at his armpit.
By the way, keep your eye on this star because sometime in the next million years Betelgeuse could explode in a tremendous supernova explosion. I’ll have much more on my favorite constellation late next month.
Elsewhere in Orion’s gang there’s Auriga, the retired chariot driver with the bright star Capella. There’s also Taurus the bull with the little arrow pointing to the right, which outlines the face of the bull with the 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 more than a hundred young stars, probably less than 100 million years old.
If you stay out after 8:30, you’ll see a really bright star on the rise in the southeast. That’s 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 brightest member of Orion’s Gang in the eastern half of the sky is actually “renting out space” among the regular winter shiners. It’s Jupiter, the head honcho of planets in our solar system.
It’s taken up temporary residence in the constellation Gemini the Twins, parked just to the right of the bright stars Castor and Pollux.
Jupiter is just over 390 million miles from Earth, nearing it’s minimum distance to Earth in over a year.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.