Nature Connection #7 – Winter Night Sky

Are you as fascinated by the stars as I am? One of my favorite activities as a child was to lay out on a blanket in the back yard after dark and stare up at the sky.

My family had one of those star charts. I’d lay on my back holding the chart up against the night sky. Then I’d move the outside wheel to the current date, line the chart up so that the top of the chart faced north, the direction we were facing, and try to see if what the chart showed was what I was seeing. Sometimes it was!

If you live in a city, this activity is harder than it used to be, primarily due to light pollution. You may need to find a place out in the country, or somewhere that the lights of town don’t wash out the sky so much. You can purchase these night sky charts at many stores or online. Look for them at science stores, like Discovery, or places that sell a lot of games and have a science section. They are inexpensive, and usually feature glow in the dark star locators.

So what’s happening in the night sky this time of year? These skies are filled with the brightest and most abundant stars: 12 of the very brightest can be seen in winter, including Sirius, Procyon, Betelgeuse (like the movie) and Pollux. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, second only to our Sun!

Hundreds of billions of stars make up our Milky Way galaxy. This galaxy is very visible in the night sky if you are in a spot where lights from a city or yard lamps don’t wash them out . Orion is one constellation that’s easy to spot, as well as the always familiar Big Dipper. (Orion looks like a giant X with a wide bar across the middle, while the Dipper looks like a big sauce pan!) Pleiades is another familiar constellation, the Three Sisters.

Stars are different magnitudes, based on their brightness, and different colors, based on their temperature. Red is the coolest, then orange, yellow, white and blue, with blue being the hottest star. Pollux is a red giant, as is Betelgeuse. Pleiades is the brightest star cluster visible from earth, and includes many hot blue stars.

So why do stars seem to flicker as we look at them? It’s because we see them through the distortion of winter’s turbulent atmosphere. Brighter stars on the darkest nights seem to flicker more.

Many planets are very visible in the winter because the days are illuminated by the sun for a much shorter period of time. In December, Jupiter and Venus could both be seen in the evening sky. Saturn, Mercury and Mars could be seen late night and early morning.

Now, as we approach the end of January, Mercury is no longer visible in the morning. However, tomorrow, January 26, Venus is bright enough to be seen during the day!  Venus will appear together with the moon in the evening. Next week, Jupiter can be seen with the moon on the evening on Jan. 30, when the moon is at First Quarter.

On January 5, the perihelion occured. This is when the Earth reaches its closest orbital point to the Sun for this year. On that day, we were 91.4 million miles closer to the sun than we will be in July at aphelion.

There’s a lot more information to be learned about stars. Research is easy on the internet. Take some time to research, get your star chart, then bundle up and go look at the fantastic winter night sky!

(The information provided here was found on Chris Hardman’s Ecological Calendar, available at www.pomegranate.com)

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