It’s the best time of year for stargazing

  • By Mike Lynch, Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, January 2, 2010 5:46pm
  • Life

Winter stargazing, in my opinion, is simply the best.

There’s so much beauty in the heavens this time of year, but it’s also cold, so dress for it. It is so worth it. Also, have a big Thermos of something warm with you if you’re out for an extended night of stargazing.

One of my best weapons against the cold are instant chemical-heat hand and foot warmers that work up to eight hours. Put those magic little bags of heat in your gloves and boots and you’re good to go. You can buy these at most sporting goods stores. I never go without them when I teach at one of my stargazing parties.

Once armed with your winter survival gear, 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 in the west, and now they are gone, not to be seen again in the evenings until next June.

As the Earth continues its annual circuit around the sun, the night side has now turned away from the stars of summer.

The dominant constellation of autumn, Pegasus, is still hanging in there in the west. Look for the distinct great 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, 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 galaxy, one-and-a-half times the size of our own, more than 2 million light-years away. In case you didn’t know, one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles.

The eastern sky is lit up like a Christmas tree. There are many bright stars and constellations. I call this part of the heavens “Orion and his gang.” The star, or should I say stars, of the big show is the constellation Orion. The mighty hunter looks like a bow tie 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 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 or so Betelgeuse could explode in a tremendous supernova explosion.

Elsewhere in Orion’s gang there’s Auriga the chariot driver, with the bright star Capella. There’s also Taurus, with ae little arrow pointing to the right, outlining the face of the bull. The star Aldebaran is its angry red eye.

Just above Taurus is the Pleiades, a beautiful bright star cluster that resembles a tiny Big Dipper. The cluster is made up of more than one hundred young stars, probably less than 100 million years old.

If you stay out after 8:30 p.m., 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 8 light-years away from Earth.

As far as planets this first month of 2010, one is coming and one is going. As soon as it’s dark enough, you can see Jupiter shining brightly in the low southwestern sky. Don’t wait too long into the evening to check out Jupiter, because it’s heading for the celestial exits. The biggest planet in our solar system slips below the southwest horizon by around 8 p.m.

If you have that new Christmas telescope, give Jupiter a look, but don’t expect too much. Because it’s so low in the sky, its light has to pierce a lot more of the Earth’s atmosphere, and that really muddies up Jupiter’s image through your scope.

Earth and Mars will have their closest encounter Jan. 29, when Mars will be less than 67 million miles away.

There’s no mistaking Mars as it rises above the eastern horizon. You should see it easily by around 9 p.m. It’s by far the brightest object in that part of the sky, and it has a definite red tinge.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch.”

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Its Web site is

Instructions for sky map

To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map to the compass points on the horizon where you’re observing from. East and west on this map are not backward. When you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.

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