I absolutely love stargazing in January. The cold nights can undoubtedly be a challenge, but with determination and bundling up, it’s worth it! Nights are long, with some of the brightest constellations of the year with their hidden celestial gems.
Stargazing kicks off with a bang in 2022. One of the better annual meteor showers of the year, the Quadrantids, peaks the night of Jan. 3-4. What’s great about the Quadrantids this year is we’ll have darker skies because there’s a new moon. Without moonlight you may see 10 to 20 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour, and possibly many more in the countryside. The best time to watch for them will be from about 3 a.m. to the start of morning twilight on the Jan. 4. The best way to see them is to lie back on reclining chair, covered with enough blankets, and roll your eyes all over the dome of the sky.
The best evening planet viewing will be in the first half of January. Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury will be in a parade lineup in the southwestern sky. It best to look for them toward the end of evening twilight. Don’t wait too much longer than that because they slip below the horizon not long after nightfall. Jupiter and Saturn have been part of the evening sky since summertime, but this is their swan song. Both planets are nearing their maximum distance from the Earth and are not nearly the attractive telescope targets they were this summer. With a small telescope though, you can still see Saturn’s ring system and the disk of Jupiter, along with four of Jupiter’s brightest moons. They resemble tiny stars on either side of the largest planet of our solar system. Even with a large telescope, it’s pretty much impossible to see much detail on Mercury. What is fun, though, is that Mercury will be in the shape a half-moon this week.
As an added attraction, the new crescent moon this week will be posing next to Saturn on Tuesday evening and Jupiter on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. There’s also an excellent chance that you’ll see the phenomena of Earthshine all three nights. The crescent light on the moon is provided by direct sunlight, and the rest of the moon’s disk is bathed in Earthshine, the grey light of second-hand sunlight bouncing off Earth and then onto the moon.
The great winter constellations in the southern and eastern evening sky will dazzle you all month long with all their bright stars. I call this part of the sky Orion and his gang. Orion is the brightest. At first glance the mighty hunter looks like an hourglass, but without too much imagination you can see how Orion resembles the torso of a bulky, well-built man. The three bright stars in a row that make up Orion’s belt really jump out at you. The brightest stars of the great constellation are Rigel at Orion’s knee and Betelgeuse at his armpit. By the way, keep your eye on Betelgeuse because sometime in the next million years or so, Betelgeuse could violently explode in a tremendous supernova event. The fuzzy middle star in the sword of Orion is an absolute must-see through even a small telescope. It’s the Orion Nebula, a lit-up cloud of hydrogen around 1,400 light-years or about 8,100 trillion miles. The high energy from gravitationally born new stars within the cloud light up the nebulae like a tremendous fluorescent light!
Elsewhere in Orion’s gang, there’s Auriga, the chariot driver with the bright star Capella. There’s also Taurus the Bull, resembling a little arrow pointing to the right. That allegedly outlines the bull’s snout with the reddish star Aldebaran playing the part of the angry red eye of the beast. Just above Taurus are the Pleiades, a beautifully bright star cluster that resembles a tiny Big Dipper. The Pleiades is comprised of well over 100 young stars, probably less than 100 million years old. After around 8 p.m., you’ll see a really bright star on the rise in the low southeast. That’s Sirius, the brightest star we see in our entire night sky from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Sirius is so bright because it’s one of the closest stars, a little more than eight light-years away. If you are new to stargazing, just a single light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles!
Bundle up and enjoy the fabulous celestial jewels of January 2022!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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