Looking Up column: Enjoying the stars looking low
Winter’s evening sky is a pure delight with more of the brightest stars of the sky in view than in any other season. While reveling in the bright star shine of Orion and his celestial neighbors, let’s not neglect the lowly!
In this case, I mean low in the sky. On any evening of the year, looking southwest to northwest, you can still catch a few constellations that were so prominent a few months before, but are now bidding adieu in the twilight of dusk.
Before talking more about the stars, however, take a look for the three planets low in the sunset glow!
Remember the “Christmas Star” on Dec. 21, when Jupiter and Saturn were unusually close together, low in the southwest? The pair is still there, a bit more separated and lower in the sky, but joined by a third planet, Mercury!
The three form a tight, nearly equilateral triangle this weekend. On Saturday, Jan. 9. each of the three sides of this triangle is about 3 degrees, about the space six full moons would take, side by side. On Sunday night, they are even tighter, about 2 degrees on a side.
Caution - this won’t be easy due to the bright glow. You will need to look only about 30 minutes after sunset. Bring binoculars, and choose a spot with a nearly flat horizon facing southwest.
Jupiter is on top, the brightest and easiest, at magnitude -1.9; Mercury, at bottom, is second brightest, magnitude -0.9; Saturn, on the right, is the most dim, +0.6.
If these were seen up high in a dark sky, all three would be very bright and conspicuous.
Take a look this coming week. Mercury will be sliding higher on the left, passing the other two.
Mars appears like a fairly bright golden star, high in the south as darkness falls.
The planet Venus may be seen about a half-hour before sunrise, very low in the southeastern sky. Watch as the waning crescent moon gradually moves down towards Venus. On Monday, Jan. 11, the slim moon will be close and to the upper right of Venus. Binoculars will help due to the brightening dawn.
Again, you are witnessing the dynamics of the solar system, as the Earth races around the sun as the outer planets lag behind and the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) speed ahead.
Back to the stars: Once darkness settles in, the planetary trio in the southwest will have set, but the stars will be in their glory.
Low in the west-northwest is the constellation Cygnus the Swan, most prominent high in the south, in late-summer evenings. The Swan’s principal stars form the shape of a cross, the asterism being dubbed the Northern Cross.
On January evenings, the Cross stands upright, much like one would see on a church steeple. Its brightest star, Deneb, is on the very top.
Look over to the right, due northwest, for the gleaming 0-magnitude star Vega, which dominated the spring and summer skies. Vega, in the constellation Lyra the Harp, will soon be lost behind the glow of the sun.
Turn right again, and face north. The Big Dipper is standing on its handle star, Alkaid! The “bowl” is on top.
The front stars of the “bowl” serve as pointers to the North Star (Polaris), which is due north. The North Star is at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper, and on January evenings, this group, fainter than the Big Dipper, looks like it is hanging down as if the North Star was hooked on a barn wall nail (as famed amateur astronomer Leslie Peltier once said).
With a low eastern horizon, on January evenings, you can wave hello to a preview of stars that will become prominent up high on springtime evenings. In mid-evening, you might catch the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion in the east-northeast.
If you can’t wait for the relative warmth of a spring evening, be my guest and go outside at 3 a.m. this month to see Regulus shining bright high in the south. Better dress extra warm!
Horizon viewing is often hampered, if not by hills, trees and buildings, then often by the glow of light pollution if you have a city or town in the direction you face. The darkest part of the sky is usually high up, where you can enjoy the most stars.
Then there is “atmospheric extinction.” The blanket of air is thicker the lower in the sky you look, and you will be looking through the mots dust and water vapor. Just as the rising and setting sun and moon are dimmer and redder, the stars, too, are more diminished.
On the other hand, it is often easier to see the bright stars “twinkle” when low in the sky. The twinkle is caused by the layers of turbulent air that can give airplane passengers a bumpy ride and a pretty show for those with their feet on the planet Earth, enjoying the stars above them.
New moon is on Jan. 13.
Keep looking up at the sky!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.