Start Winter Observing

January’s cold but starry nights are upon us. Did you get a new telescope for Christmas or want to rediscover an optical telescope sitting in some corner? We’ll talk about at a few targets – mostly easy to find – up there. We’ll also look at upcoming astronomical events and programs within easy reach of Carroll County residents.

Astronomy popularizer and author Fred Schaaf has described the January evening sky as “splendid with stars this time of year.” Even if you don’t have a telescope, this would be an excellent time to go out for a few minutes and test out that warm winter coat or hat you got for the holidays. Let the eyes adapt to the darkness for several minutes, and have a look around.

The moon is a rewarding sight to the unaided eye as well as when viewed through a telescope. The dark lava flows called maria create the familiar figures of a man, woman, and rabbit in the full moon. But telescopically, the moon is best seen at almost any phase other than full due to the full moon’s overpowering and glaring brightness plus its absence of surface relief due to the lunar terrain’s lack of shadows.

The half-lit first quarter moon on January 5 is located in the constellation Pisces. Any sized telescope or binoculars will show you a wealth of features in terms of mountains, craters, and basins. If you’re serious about getting on a first name basis with these features then a moon map would be a worthwhile investment. Good maps are available from Sky Publishing Corp. and National Geographic. I would splurge a little for the laminated maps which offers protection from moisture such as dew.

As the moon orbits the earth, the visible features along its day/night line or terminator change from night to night and even hour by hour. You’ll see many beautiful sights due to the changing lighting effects on the surface as sunlight and shadows creep along.

Another prominent object in this January’s evening sky is the bright planet Venus. Venus is approaching its greatest angular distance of 47 degrees from the sun, which it reaches on the 12th. Venus is swinging around the sun and in the following weeks will be catching up and passing between the earth and sun in late March. Venus and the Earth are in separate orbits, and Venus doesn’t come any closer than 26 million miles.

In a telescope, Venus will have a phase roughly half full this month. As it approaches “inferior conjunction” on March 25, its disk will also grow in apparent diameter as well.

Orion is the dominant constellation in the winter sky. Look for it rising in the southeast in early January around 8 p.m. Orion as depicted as a hunter whose 3-star belt is very conspicuous. Two bright stars mark his shoulders and two more his knees. When facing him, the left shoulder is the star Betelgeuse and the right knee is Rigel. In his upraised arm stemming from Betelgeuse is a club. His other arm holds a shield made from a lion skin. His posture is directed at Taurus the bull which appears to be charging down on him.

A few fainter stars that hang from the belt mark the sword or dagger. In binoculars or a telescope one of the stars is revealed to be a nebulous patch of soft light. This is Messier 42 (M42), a.k.a. the Orion Nebula – a stellar nursery where new star formation is taking place. The darker your sky the more detail will be visible in the nebula through a telescope.

In upcoming events, on Saturday the 14th at 7:30 p.m. at the Bear Branch Nature Center there will be a program in the planetarium. Cost is $5.00 and guests are requested to call (410-386-2103, M-F 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.) in advance to reserve your seat. At the same time, outside there will be a free star party with telescopic observing in the observatory with members of the Westminster Astronomical Society.

On the same night is an astronomy program and telescopic observing at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Center near Owings Mill starting at 8:00 p.m. Call 877-794-0606 for information.

Both events are weather permitting. Additional information may be found under the calendar tab at the WASI website at WestminsterAstro.org.

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