Winter stargazing in my opinion is simply the best. I do some my best stargazing, telescoping and celestial photography in January.
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 and now they are gone, not to be seen again in the evenings until next June.
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 tilted 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 the 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. All you’ll really see is a faint little smudge, but that little smudge is a whole other galaxy, one-and-a-half times the size of our own, more than 2 million light-years away. If you’re new to astronomy, one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles.
The eastern sky is still lit up like a Christmas tree. There are many bright stars and constellations, and this winter the bright planet Jupiter is among them and the brightest shiner of them all. I call this part of the heavens “Orion and his gang,” with the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter.
The hunter looks like a sideways bowtie rising diagonally in the southeastern sky. What really jumps out at you are the three bright stars in a perfect row that make up Orion’s belt. There’s also the bright star Rigel, at Orion’s knee and Betelgeuse, at his armpit.
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 that outlines the face of the bull with the reddish star Aldebaran as the angry red eye of the beast.
This year two comets show some promise of being really bright. The first one is Comet Panstarrs that could be bright enough to see with the naked eye in the mid-March morning sky. Next December Comet ISON may be really bright with a long tail. It’s way too early to make that claim and there’s also a chance that one of both of them could fizzle. The bottom line … stay tuned.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.