By David Ward
With not very much snow on the ground in the valley, it may not feel like winter has really arrived, but the stars tell a different story. All the bright stars of winter are on display up there and on a clear, cold night, they are spectacular.
Orion the mighty hunter, probably the brightest and most familiar constellation in the sky, is rising in the east right after sunset. Look for three fairly bright stars in a tight row which depict his belt. Four stars in a large rectangle surround the belt and outline the rest of the figure. If you look carefully you can even see his sword hanging down at an angle from the belt.
Orion is often pictured battling a fierce bull known as Taurus. Look for him west of the hunter, a small “V” of dim stars with one bright star, Aldebaran, marking the red eye of the bull.
Orion’s two hunting dogs can be found to the south and east. The bigger of the two is easy to find. Just line up those three stars in his belt and point down to a very bright star. That is Sirius, the Dog Star, which is the brightest star in the sky at any time of the year. North of Sirius look for a slightly dimmer star, Procyon, depicting the smaller hunting dog.
Just below Orion a group of dimmer stars outlines the figure of Lepus, the hare. Orion seems to be aiming his club right at this rabbit, not particularly a worthy foe of the mighty hunter.
Do not forget Orion’s girlfriends, the beautiful Seven Sisters of Ancient Greece, embodied in the tiny Pleiades star cluster found almost overhead on a January evening.
Two of the stars for which characters in the Harry Potter books were named can be seen up there this month. Bellatrix, which means the female warrior, is found at the upper right hand corner of Orion, or his left shoulder if you imagine him looking down on Earth. Sirius Black was named after the brightest star in the sky, Orion’s larger hunting dog.
All of the five brightest planets make an appearance in January. Mercury, named after the Roman messenger god because it moves so quickly in the sky, can be seen low in the west just after sunset at the end of January and the beginning of February. On Feb. 1 look for Mercury below a thin crescent moon above where the sun just set.
Venus, the goddess of love, as you may have noticed, no longer adorns our evening sky as she has for the last few months. She has dropped into the sunset glare but will reappear as our “morning star” in the east just before sunrise in later January.
Mars, the god of war, rises late at night and just before dawn can be seen high in the sky. Earth is hurtling towards a rendezvous with the red planet in April. Watch it grow brighter as winter progresses. It will be a spectacular bright red sight in early spring.
Just before dawn is a great time to see Saturn, named after the ancient Greek god of time, Cronus. If early morning is just too early wait until summer when Saturn will be visible in the early evening and it will be a whole lot warmer out there too.
The star of the planet show this month is Jupiter, the king of the gods, which shines brighter than anything else up there all night long. Look for him in the east just after sunset, and if you are up early looking for Venus, you will find him low in the west. Jupiter is right in the middle of the Gemini twins, and those two stars to his left are Castor and Pollux, named after the famous twins of ancient Greece.
In other news, Earth reached its closest point to the sun for the year last weekend but it did not really seem to warm things up very much.
Also, a small asteroid slammed into our atmosphere a few days ago so you better keep looking up. You never know what might be up there!