Orion has lots to offer winter stargazers

Posted Dec. 30, 2009, at 5:26 p.m.

With the likely exception of the Big Dipper, no constellation is more familiar to viewers of the winter night sky than Orion the hunter.

Most familiar to viewers is the distinctive three-star belt of Orion but the great Greek hero has plenty of other attractions as well. It is the only constellation to contain two first-magnitude stars. Rigel is a giant blue-white star and Betelgeuse is a red giant, located at a diagonal from each other with the belt between. Beneath the belt is the three-star sword of Orion.

A dusty luminous patch in the sword is the Great Nebula, an enormous glowing cloud of gas that was recently shown by infrared telescope to contain thousands of immature stars in various stages of development. For this reason the nebula and similar ones spotted throughout the universe are called “nurseries for the stars.”

Focus on the planets

Mercury does not make an appearance until about Jan. 15, when it may be seen fairly low in the southeast about a half-hour before sunrise.

Venus remains hidden behind the sun and will not reappear until February.

Mars is prominent in the east around 9 p.m. as the month opens. On Jan. 2, the Red Planet is directly to the left of the moon. Mars is closest to the Earth on Jan. 27 and outshines every star except blue Sirius.

Jupiter is brilliant midway up in the southwest shortly after sunset on New Year’s Day but sets shortly after twilight by month’s end. On Jan. 17, a thin crescent moon is situated just to the lower right of Jupiter.

Saturn rises in the east during the late evening hours and is highest in the predawn hours. On Jan. 8, Saturn’s rings open to their maximum tilt to Earth before gradually closing.

Uranus is high in the southwest at twilight’s end just south of the Circlet of Pisces. Its blue-green disk should be easily seen with powerful binoculars.

Neptune can be spotted just to the west of Jupiter, where it appears as a dim blue-gray disk.

January events

1Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:05 p.m. The moon is at perigee or closest approach to Earth.

3 This should be the peak night for the Quadrantid meteor shower but the recently full moon will render it all but invisible. Today the earth is at aphelion or closest to the sun for the year.

7 This is Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which goes by the Julian calendar that is now 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. Moon in last quarter, 5:41 a.m.

13 Mercury is low in the southeast 30 minutes before sunrise with a very thin crescent moon to its lower right.

14 This is Jan. 1 in the Julian calendar, which was superceded by the current Gregorian calendar in 1582.

15 New moon, 2:12 a.m.

17 The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth today. Looking to the southwest an hour after sunset will find the moon to the lower right of Jupiter.

18 Look to the southwest 30 minutes after sunset for a view of Mercury with the thin crescent moon to its immediate upper left.

19 The sun enters Capricornus on the ecliptic, however, due to precession, enters the astrological sign of Aquarius less than a day later.

23 Moon in first quarter, 5:53 a.m.

30 Full moon, 1:18 a.m. The full moon of January is called variously the wolf moon, cold moon and the moon after Yule. The moon is at its closest point to Earth for the year and the combination of fullness and perigee together should result in abnormally high tides.

31 Sunrise, 6:56 a.m.; sunset, 4:42 p.m.

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