Starwatch: New year kicks off prime stargazing season


The new year is just about here. In January we are in the best times and also the worst times for stargazing, but if you bundle up and think warm, you'll be rewarded with what I think is the best celestial show of the year. It's a great time to break in that new Christmas telescope, but even with binoculars or your naked eyes you'll definitely be star struck. Just make sure your face isn't struck by frostbite!

The first couple of weeks of January and the last few days of December will be the best for evening stargazing because moonlight won't be interfering. In fact, through Jan. 10 there will be no moon in the early evening sky, and from the 10th to the 14th we'll only have a thin crescent moon setting in the western sky shortly after the end of evening twilight. During that time, you'll have a much darker background in the heavens to see the constellations. Even if you're stargazing from the urban or suburban areas that will be the best time for viewing, but if you can make a trip out to the countryside, if you're not already out there, all the better! After mid-month as we approach the full moon, which will be full on the 23rd and for several nights after that, the skies will be "moonwashed" to varying degrees.

Take a Dipper

After you get all those layers on, give yourself at least 15 minutes to get used to the darkness and also the cold! Then, armed with your night vision, 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 and you're forced to look through more of Earth's blurring atmosphere. 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's what I call the "lynchpin of the heavens." That's because 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.

Look to the east

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.

I love this part of the sky! Orion's brightest stars are Rigel at his knee and Betelgeuse at his armpit. In fact, Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to "armpit of the great one" in English. 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.

If you're a fan of planet viewing you've been pretty much shut out since last summer. All of the brighter planets have been "living" in the early morning skies but that's starting to change a bit. In fact, if you stay up late enough, you'll see a very bright "star" rising in the eastern skies. That's actually Jupiter. I'll have much more on Jupiter, along with a very special celestial hugging between Venus, Saturn and the crescent moon in the early morning sky, in next week's column.

Dress warm and enjoy these frosty January nights!

Celestial Hugging this Week

Tomorrow (Monday night) the first quarter half moon will be just above the bright planet Jupiter. It will be a wonderful sight!


To use the map, hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map with the points on the horizon.

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