Skylights get new year off to good start
These are some of the best and worst times for stargazing; the nights are cold, but there will soon be what I think is the best celestial show of the year.
You might want to delay your January stargazing until late next week, though, because we have a full moon coming on, whitewashing all but the brightest stars from our view.
Despite the moonlight, the Jupiter and Venus will be extremely easy to see in our Rochester sky. Even before evening twilight, Venus will be brilliant in the southwestern sky.
While it’s the brightest star-like object in the night sky, it's not much of a target with any telescope because it’s cloud-covered.
On the other hand, Jupiter, the second brightest star-like object in the night sky, is wonderful through even a small telescope as you can track the positions of its four brighter moons. You will see them on either side of Jupiter; they resemble faint little stars.
Some nights you can’t see all four of the moons because one or more of them may be in front of Jupiter and lost in its glow, or behind the 88,000-mile-wide planet.
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 cold. 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. 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, otherwise known as 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 the 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 in the same period.
Gang's all here
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.
Orion’s brightest stars are Rigel at his knee and Betelgeuse at his armpit.
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.