Column Look Up: Take pleasure in The Stars That Look Low – Way of life – The St John Information-File
The winter evening sky is a real treat with more of the brightest stars in the sky than any other time of the year. Let’s not neglect the lowly as we enjoy the bright starlight of Orion and its heavenly neighbors!
In this case I mean deep in the sky. Every evening of the year, if you look from southwest to northwest, you can still catch some constellations that were so prominent a few months ago but now say goodbye at dusk.
Before you talk more about the stars, however, take a look at the three planets glowing deep in the sunset!
Do you remember the “poinsettia” on December 21st, when Jupiter and Saturn were unusually close together, deep in the southwest? The pair is still there, a little more separate and lower in the sky, but together with a third planet, Mercury!
The three of them form a narrow, almost equilateral triangle this weekend. On Saturday, January 9th, each of the three sides of this triangle is about 3 degrees, roughly the space that six full moons would occupy side by side. On Sunday evening they are even closer, about 2 degrees on one side.
Warning – this is not easy due to the bright light. All you have to do is look for about 30 minutes after sunset. Bring binoculars and choose a location with an almost flat horizon to the southwest.
Jupiter is above, the brightest and simplest with a magnitude of -1.9; Mercury is second brightest at the bottom with a strength of -0.9; Saturn on the right is darkest at +0.6.
If these were seen high up in a dark sky, all three would be very bright and noticeable.
Take a look around this week. Mercury will slide higher to the left and pass the other two.
Mars appears like a fairly bright gold star, high in the south, when darkness falls.
The planet Venus can be seen about half an hour before sunrise, very low in the southeastern sky. Watch the waning crescent gradually move towards Venus. On Monday, January 11th, the slender moon will be at the top right of Venus. Binoculars help because of the brightening dawn.
Again, experience the dynamics of the solar system as the earth races around the sun while the outer planets lag behind and the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) race forward.
Back to the Stars: As soon as darkness falls, the trio of planets will have set in the southwest, but the stars will be in their glory.
Deep in the west-northwest is the constellation Cygnus the Swan, which is highest in the south in late summer evening. The main stars of the swan form the shape of a cross, with the asterism being called the north cross.
On January evenings, the cross stands upright, as you would see it on a church tower. Its brightest star, Deneb, is at the very top.
Look to the right, due northwest, for the shining star Vega, magnitude 0, that dominated the spring and summer skies. Vega, the harp in the constellation Lyra, will soon be lost behind the glow of the sun.
Turn right again and look north. The Big Dipper is on its handle, Alkaid! The “bowl” is up.
The front stars of the “bowl” serve as pointers to the north star (Polaris), which runs due north. The North Star is at the top of the Little Dipper’s handle, and on January evenings this group, weaker than the Big Dipper, looks like they’re hanging down, like the North Star is attached to a barn nail (as famous as amateur astronomer Leslie Peltier once did said).
With a low eastern horizon, you can see stars previewed on January evenings, highlighted high up on spring evenings. In the late evening, you can catch the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion to the east-northeast.
If you can’t wait for the relative warmth of a spring evening, be my guest and go outside at 3am this month to see Regulus glow brightly high in the south. Better dress extra warm!
View of the horizon is often obstructed, if not by hills, trees, and buildings, then often by the glow of light pollution when you have a city in the direction you are facing. The darkest part of the sky is usually high up where you can enjoy most of the stars.
Then there is “atmospheric extinction”. The air cover is thicker the deeper you look into the sky, and you will see through the dust and water vapor from the mots. Just as the rising and setting sun and moon get darker and redder, so do the stars.
On the other hand, it is often easier to see the bright stars “twinkling” low in the sky. The twinkle is caused by the turbulent layers of air that can give airplane passengers a bumpy ride and a pretty show for those who have their feet on planet earth and enjoy the stars above them.
The new moon is on January 13th.
Keep looking to the sky!
Peter Becker is the Editor-in-Chief at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at [email protected]. Please indicate in which newspaper or on which website you read this column.