January is a great time to check out the brightest stars in the night sky. Of course, it is freezing cold out there especially at night, so dress warmly. Stargazing is not an aerobic activity.
By 9 p.m. early in the month, the constellation Orion is in plain view in the south. Representing the great hunter in mythology, there is no place on earth where it is not visible. Are you wondering if you are actually seeing Orion? Look for his distinctive belt in the center of the constellation, three equally bright stars all in a row.
Follow the line of those three stars down and to the left to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. At the lower right-hand corner of Orion, another star almost as bright as Sirius shines with a sparkling white light. That is Rigel, the foot of Orion, and it is pumping out 60,000 times the power of our sun. Diagonally across from Rigel, orange-reddish Betelgeuse is a giant star destined to explode in the not too distant future.
North and west of Orion, Taurus the bull is locked in battle with the great hunter. Look for a distinctive “V” of dimmer stars depicting the face of the bull. A reddish star at one end of that “V” is Aldebaran, the angry red eye of Taurus. Not very far away, the Pleiades star cluster glitters like a handful of diamonds sprinkled on black velvet. They were the girlfriends of his dreams, but the seven sisters spurned Orion’s amorous advances as he chased them around ancient Greece for seven long years.
Did you know that we live in a giant pinwheel of hundreds of billions of stars? On a very clear, dark moonless night, see if you can spot part of that pinwheel, the Milky Way galaxy, arching from north to south across the sky. It will appear to be a faintly glowing band of light passing near Orion.
Pick out the planets
You still have a chance to see all of the naked eye planets, although a couple of them might be difficult to spot. Look for Mercury low in the west just after sunset. You will need to be able to see very low to the southwestern horizon. Much-brighter Venus will be your guide. Mercury will be a little lower and only visible at the beginning of the month. Later, the innermost planet will disappear into the sun’s glare and return soon after in the early morning sky.
Very bright Venus is easy to spot low in the southwest before it gets completely dark. Still you will need to be looking into a low horizon. If you cannot find it, do not worry, she will be climbing higher and higher and will be much easier to see as Winter winds down and Spring approaches.
Saturn is also hanging out in the twilight with Mercury and Venus. It is much dimmer than Venus, but its famous rings are a prize for a small telescope. On Jan. 22, Venus and Saturn will make a close pass. If you can catch the pair in your telescope, that will be a sight to remember.
Higher in the south, Jupiter shines as bright as any star up there. It has four moons which are easily visible in a small telescope. There are another 63 moons which are too small for us to see. If you have a powerful pair of binoculars you might be able to see the four with them. Watch them change positions from night to night as they revolve around Jupiter.
Almost overhead, brilliant Mars shines with a reddish color. It will fade this winter as the Earth pulls away from the Red Planet in our journey around the sun.
On Jan. 4, the Earth reaches a point on its elliptical orbit known as perihelion, our closest approach to the sun. So why are your feet freezing cold standing around in the snow trying to look at the stars? Our seasons are a result of the changing tilt of the Earth’s axis toward and away from the sun, not our distance from it. Stay warm out there, and I hope you enjoy the wonders of the night sky.