What's Up?

Winter of What's Up?

Winter sky chart©Stellarium

The Winter Sky

by Gerald Rezes

Winter arrived at 2:44am (PST) on December 21 - the longest night of the year. The Earth was at perihelion (closest to the sun–91,403,815 miles) on January 2, 2016 at 2:49 p.m. PST. Winter is a great time for star gazing as long as the weather holds out and in Southern California this is usually the case.

There are too many propionate stars, constellations and astronomical objects in the winter sky to detail here. But the winter's featured constellation has to be Orion. The stars that make up Orion's figure are identified in many cultures as a hunter. Astronomically speaking, Orion is looks like a large hourglass pattern with three star making up his waistline belt. His right shoulder is marked by Betelgeuse, a large red giant star. In the opposite corner, Orion's left knee, shines Rigel a hot blue supergiant. There are three stars that make-up Orion's sword but actually, the middle "star" is the Great Orion Nebula (M42). This brilliant nebula is a hot bed of new star creation and is one of the easiest objects for the amateur astronomer to find and view in any telescope or binoculars.

Moon Phases

  • Dec. 28 - New Moon
  • Jan. 5 - First Quarter
  • Jan. 12 - Full Moon
  • Jan. 19 - Last Quarter
  • Jan. 27 - New Moon
  • Feb. 3 - First Quarter
  • Feb. 10 - Full Moon
  • Feb. 18 - Last Quarter
  • Feb. 26 - New Moon
  • Mar. 5 - First Quarter
  • Mar. 12 - Full Moon
  • Mar. 20 - Last Quarter
  • Griffith Observatory

The before mentioned Betelgeuse along with Sirius and Procyon make up the asterism called the Winter Triangle. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky; Procyon is a binary system with a white dwarf star. Rounding out the notable stars in the winter sky are Aldebara, Capella, Castor and Pollux.

Opposite the galactic center, the winter presents the Milky Way's outer arm spanning across the sky. With this river of stars, their are many Messier objects. The before mentioned Orion Nebula, M42, is probably the most famous winter object. Next perhaps is M1, The Crab Nebula, which is a circular supernova remnant from an explosion in 1054 AD. M45, The Pleiades, is sometimes mistaken for the Little Dipper but this open cluster of new stars is nowhere near the northern pole. There are several additional open clusters in the winter sky including: M41, M35, M36, M37, M38 and M67. Last, there are the Hyades, the nearest open cluster which makes up the "V" in Taurus.

Planets:

Mercury starts in Sagittarius and moves to Pisces.  Mercury is difficult to spot in the morning in January and in the evening in March as it will be spending most of its time close to the Sun.

Venus starts in Aquarius and moves into Pisces.  It continues to shine brightly as the Evening Star in the west.  It will be skinning near the western horizon by winter's end.

Mars is in Pisces and begins the winter in the west during evening.  It will be near the horizon by winter's end meeting up with Venus for a pairing.

Jupiter is in Virgo and rises late in the night for most of the winter gradually rising earlier as the season progresses.

Saturn rises very late in the night in the constellation Sagittarius.

Uranus is in Pisces and begins the winter in the evening but transitions to the morning by winter's end.

Neptune is in the constellation Aquarius and is already difficult to spot in the western twilight when winter begins. Neptune makes the transition to morning by the end of winter.