Starwatch: Bundle up and enjoy winter’s show

  • By Mike Lynch Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, January 3, 2009 11:27pm
  • Life

These are the best times and the worst times for stargazing, at least in this stargazer’s opinion.

It’s certainly not a time for hothouse flowers to take on January stargazing. Just bundle up and think warm, and you’ll be rewarded with what I think is the best celestial show of the year.

It’s a great time to break in that new Christmas telescope, but even with binoculars or your naked eyes you’ll definitely be starstruck.

You might want to delay your January stargazing until next week, though, because this week not only do we have a full moon coming on, whitewashing all but the brightest stars, but this month’s full moon on Jan. 10 is the closest full moon of the year, making it about 7 percent brighter than an average full moon.

The moon’s 27.3-day orbit around the Earth is not quite circular, so every month the moon has its closest approach to Earth, the perigee, and also reaches its farthest point away from the Earth, the apogee.

It just happens that the full moons occur when the moon is in perigee, making it just over 222,000 miles away. At apogee the moon is more than 250,000 miles from Earth.

So next week, after we get the full moon out of the sky, give yourself at least 15 minutes to get used to the darkness and the chill, and then, armed with your night vision, look in the low northeastern sky for the Big Dipper, standing up diagonally on its handle.

Even though the Big Dipper is the most recognized star pattern in the sky, it is not an official constellation. The Big Dipper is actually the rear end and tail of the Big Bear, known more formally as Ursa Major.

The entire Big Bear is a little difficult to see right now because it’s still pretty low in the sky, and you’re forced to look through more of Earth’s blurring atmosphere. Nonetheless, look to the upper right of the pot section of the Big Dipper for a skinny triangle of three slightly dimmer stars that outline the head of the celestial bear. Below and to the right of the Big Bear’s head look for two moderately bright stars, Talitha and Al Kaprah, which together mark Ursa Major’s front paw.

The fainter Little Dipper, otherwise known as Ursa Minor, or the Little Bear, is hanging by its handle, or tail, above the Big Dipper. At the end of the Little Dipper’s handle is Polaris, the North Star.

By no means is Polaris the brightest star in the night sky, but it’s an important one. It shines directly above Earth’s North Pole. As a result, all of the stars and planets, the sun, the moon, and anything else in the sky seems to revolve once around Polaris every 24 hours, as the Earth rotates on its axis.

The main stage in the January sky show is definitely in the eastern half of the sky, where Orion and his gang are setting up celestial camp. Surrounding the constellation Orion are the brilliant constellations Taurus the Bull, Auriga the Chariot Driver, Gemini the Twins and Orion’s hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor.

I love this part of the sky. Orion’s brightest stars are Rigel at his knee and Betelgeuse at his armpit. In fact, Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to “armpit of the great one.”

Other shining jewels of Orion are the three stars in a diagonal row that outline the belt of the celestial hunter. From the lower left to upper right the stars are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Nowhere else in the sky will you see three bright stars so neatly in a row.

The only planet seen in the early evening sky this month is the very bright Venus, popping out vividly in the southwestern sky during evening twilight. It’s the brightest starlike object in the sky this month.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site

The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. The 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 of the horizon. East and West on this map are not backwards. 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 paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map using red light.

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