Rolling out of the sack, throwing on some clothes, and checking out the predawn star-filled sky this month is well worth losing sleep over.
You can grab a cup of coffee, but I think just gazing into the heavens will give you enough of a jolt. The stunningly bright winter constellations that we see in the evenings during the season are now putting on a preview.
I think they’re the best in the heavens, with the bright constellation Orion the Hunter as the centerpiece of the delights. There are also three planets visible to the naked eye in the morning sky right now, as well as a meteor shower. You’ve got a lot to take in.
As a bonus, you don’t have to wake up as early as you used to. We’re still on daylight saving time, and that delays the start of evening stargazing, but on the flip side the morning star show now continues until almost 7 a.m. You can catch the final act of the overnight star show without as much sleep deprivation. If you can get outside by around 6 a.m. you’ll be in great celestial shape.
Once you’re out there and get that sleepy head looking up, you’ll be nearly knocked over by the brilliance of the planet Venus in the eastern sky. It’s by far the brightest starlike object in the heavens, situated in the constellation Leo, which resembles a backward question mark.
A few weeks ago my wife woke me up about five in the morning and dragged me to the window, asking me what that bright light in the sky was. It was Venus, so bright that you could easily see its reflection in the small lake we live by.
With just a cheap pair of binoculars you’ll see that Venus is crescent shaped, just like our moon. Since Venus’ orbit lies within the Earth’s orbit around the sun, it goes through phase changes just like our moon.
In its 584-day cycle, Venus goes from being crescent-shaped to full stage and back to crescent, as well as going from the morning sky to the evening sky, and then back to being a “morning star.” Despite its brightness, there isn’t much to see on Venus because of thick but very reflective cloud cover.
Just to the upper left of Venus is Saturn, not quite as bright as Venus, but still the jewel of the solar system. In fact, Saturn and Venus are in a close junction, what I call a “celestial hug.” They will be less than 3 degrees apart, which is so close that you can’t help but see Saturn through even a small telescope as you scan around looking at Venus.
With your scope, you’ll see the ring system of Saturn without any trouble. Unfortunately the rings are nearly on edge from our view on Earth right now because of the relative positions of Saturn and Earth in their respective orbits around the sun. Believe me, though, it’s still worth a telescopic gander.
Although Saturn and Venus are in a celestial hug in our sky, they’re physically many, many worlds apart. Venus is just over 54 million miles away, and Saturn is nearly 928 million miles away from your morning coffee.
Mars can be found nearly overhead around 6 a.m., just to the upper left of the bright constellation Orion in the high southeastern sky. It’s the brightest star-like object near the zenith and is definitely sporting a reddish hue.
Most telescopes won’t show you much more than a little red disk right now. Mars, only 4,000 miles in diameter, is more than 80 million miles away. By this Christmas it will be a lot closer to the Earth, about 53 million miles away, and it should reveal a little more detail then. Stay tuned to this column for more on the great holiday Mars encounter.
To top off your early morning star show this week we have a meteor shower. It’s called the Orionid meteor shower because the meteors, or “shooting stars” seem to emanate from the direction of the constellation Orion. Toward the end of this week and this weekend you may see more than 20 meteors an hour, especially if you can get away from heavy urban lighting.
The best way to watch any meteor shower is to lie back on the ground or in a comfy chair and roll your eyes all around the sky. See if you can catch a falling star, but forget about putting it in your pocket. These meteors, which are leftover dust and pebble-sized debris from comets, are being incinerated high in our atmosphere.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site, www.lynchandthestars.com.