Welcome to 2021! It’s another year to view the wonders of the night sky. January will feature the usual wonder of the bright constellations of winter, Mars shining as a red beacon in the evening sky, and a chance to spot Uranus, a planet many have never viewed.
Nights will still be long in January but beginning to get shorter. We will gain almost an hour of daylight during the month, and by the end of the month the Sun will set over a half hour later than at new year. The advantage of these long nights is that you will not have to stay up late to catch the beauty of the winter sky, even if the cold makes your outside trip abbreviated!
A bevy of bright stars and constellations occupy the southeast and southern sky after sunset. Six of the night skies 15 brightest stars will be visible—Sirius (the brightest, other than our Sun, in Canis Major), Capella ( number 7, in the constellation Auriga), Betelgeuse (number 11, the shoulder of Orion), Rigel (number 8, foot of Orion), and Procyon (number 9, in Canis Minor). When you toss in the twins of Gemini (Castor, number 25) and Pollux (number 18), you have a dazzling display that makes the winter sky a favorite for many. Check them out on a clear night!
Mars still shines bright in the southern sky. The red planet is growing farther away from Earth, but it is still bright, outshining nearby stars. Watch its movement to the east during January. Early in the month it will be below and to the right of the constellation Aries, and by the end of January it will be to the southeast of the constellation, and closer to the bright star cluster Pleiades.
In January, Mars will also closely approach the planet Uranus, providing a good “signpost” to that outer planet. In mid-January, both planets should be visible in the view of a pair of binoculars. Uranus will be located below and to the right of Mars from about the 15th to the 25th of the month and will be slightly brighter than stars in the immediate area. The planet is technically visible to the naked eye but appears as a very faint star, so it’s difficult to pick out. If you want to give it a try, use the drawing with this article to determine its orientation relative to Mars. Uranus will not be as “large” as the little dot in the article, but the location helps you know where to look. Let me know if you see it!
We begin the new year with a waning gibbous Moon, low in the eastern sky. The third quarter Moon will lie just above the bright star Spica on the morning of Jan. 6, and above Antares, in Scorpius on the 9th. New Moon comes on January 13. On the 14th, see if you can spot the thin, crescent Moon to the right of Mercury and Jupiter, low in the southwest at sunset. On January 20, the first-quarter Moon will lie right below Mars in the southern evening sky. On the 23rd, the now bright Moon will be just above Aldebara, and the open star cluster Hyades in the constellation Taurus. Full Moon comes on the 28th.
I’ve mentioned it before in this column, but the star cluster Hyades is an interesting sight, in binoculars or with the naked eye. It makes up the “face” of Taurus, the bull. The bright star Aldebaran, which is not a part of the cluster, makes an eye of the bull. And how appropriate Aldebaran seems, an orange-giant star that can be imagined as the blood-red eye of a charging bull! But Aldebaran is much closer than the stars of the cluster. Aldebaran is about 65 light-years from us, whereas the members of the cluster are about 150 light-years away.
Hopefully some of you have been able to take in one of the online presentations from the Goldendale Observatory. The Observatory’s administrator, Troy Carpenter, has been conducting discussions of about an hour in length of various subjects, at 7 p.m. on Sunday nights. Even if you do not catch them live, you can watch them later on the State Park’s YouTube channel. If you join live, you can ask questions via chat. To date, as I write this just before Christmas, Troy has discussed satellites, the Moon, and the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Go to www.goldendaleobservatory.com, click on “live events” and then the “Episode Playlist” to give it a try!