The planets: After months of having as many as five visible planets in the evening skies, Mars now stands alone. It’s not anywhere near as bright as it was this past summer simply because, as we came around the sun, we passed the slower moving red planet on the last few days of June. Since then, Mars has been falling farther behind. Because of its own motion across the sky, this red planet has been able to almost keep up with us. But now this gallant race is being won by planet Earth and Mars will more swiftly settle low in the southwest each evening. Nevertheless, it will be late August before we lose him as he passes behind the sun on September 2 to emerge in the evening twilight.
The real show of the planets lies in the predawn sky. Venus has been well up above the dawn twilight since November and is a spectacular “Morning Star” for early risers. As the new year progresses, it will settle down a bit but will still be the brightest object, other than the moon, before dawn until late July. Below Venus for the moment is the second brightest planet, the giant Jupiter. As Venus settles down, Jupiter will be coming around the sun and, thus, appear higher each morning. Tomorrow morning, they will be a mere 2.4° apart. By the morning of the 31st, the waning crescent moon will join this pair to stand in the sky between them. Thus, we have a view of the three brightest celestial denizens of the night sky: Jupiter, the moon, and Venus from upper right to lower left.
Speaking of the lower left, the beautiful ringed planet Saturn passed behind the sun on January 2 and has now moved into the morning twilight. Extend the line formed by Jupiter, the moon, and Venus down to the left and you can spot Saturn nestled among a group of stars to the left of the famous teapot asterism of Sagittarius the archer. The front part and spout of the teapot forms the bow and arrow of Sagittarius. He is aiming at the bright red star Antares which marks the heart of the scorpion. Sagittarius has the job in mythology of keeping the scorpion from going around the sky and stinging Orion the hunter. Orion was up in the early evening and, now that he has set, the scorpion is rising. Jupiter/Zeus placed the two of them on the opposite sides of the sky to protect Orion from the scorpion. In our morning sky we can spot Antares to the right of Jupiter at about the same altitude above the horizon.
The swift and elusive Mercury passed behind the sun last night and, thus, is not visible to us until it comes out in the evening twilight next month.
The stars: When asked to name a favorite constellation, many people respond with either “Orion” or “The Big Dipper.” Orion is the hunter in the sky and was well known to the ancient Greeks. It is one of the 88 traditional or classical constellations. Realize, of course, that the 88 classical constellations are a part of our Western heritage. Those with roots elsewhere may be familiar with other constellations made of the same stars. Constellations are not real objects, but imaginary patterns seen in the eye of the beholder be he/she Greek, Asian, African, Native American or other.
The Big Dipper, originally known as The Drinking Gourd, is another matter. It is a more modern invention and is, in fact, recognized as such only in North America. It is not a classical constellation. Rather, it is part of the ancient constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Thus, astronomers would more properly refer to the Big Dipper as an asterism, sort of an unofficial constellation. Perhaps the best-known use of the Big Dipper is to use the two stars at the end of the bowl as pointers to the North Star. Many a Scout has learned this trick as they study for their astronomy or star badges.
Both Orion and the Big Dipper are beginning to make themselves known in the evening skies giving the veteran stargazer a sense of the passage of time. Once again, I see Orion rising in the evening and I know another year has passed. He is lying on his side low in the east. The Dipper is seen low in the northeast as it rises bowl first.
January 21, 12:16 a.m. – Full Moon, Total Lunar Eclipse was visible from the Carolinas (Next one in May 2022)
January 27, 4:10 p.m. – Last Quarter Moon
February 4, 4:03 p.m. – New Moon
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About the Learning Center at PARI: The Learning Center at PARI is a public not-for-profit 501 (c) (3) organization established in 1998. Located in the Pisgah National Forest 30 miles southwest of Asheville, NC, the Learning Center provides STEM educational programs at all levels, from K-12 through post-graduate research. For more information about the Learning Center at PARI and its programs, visit www.pari.edu.