Orion
©Stellarium

by Gerald Rezes

Winter arrives at 2:02 am (PST) on December 21, 2020 – the longest night of the year. Winter is a great time for stargazing as long as the weather holds out and in Southern California, this is usually the case.

There are too many 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 looks like a large hourglass pattern with three stars 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 Orion’s sword but actually, the middle “star” is the Great Orion Nebula (M42). This brilliant nebula is a hotbed 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. 21 – First Quarter
  • Dec. 29 – Full Moon
  • Jan. 6 – Last Quarter
  • Jan. 12 – New Moon
  • Jan. 20 – First Quarter
  • Jan. 28 – Full Moon
  • Feb. 4 – Last Quarter
  • Feb. 11 – New Moon
  • Feb. 19 – First Quarter
  • Feb. 27 – Full Moon
  • Mar. 5 – Last Quarter
  • Mar. 13 – New Moon
  • (Source: timeanddate.com)

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 Aldebaran, 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, there 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 reaches greatest eastern elongation on Jan 24. During this time it will be pairing with Jupiter and Saturn nicely. Otherwise, Mercury is not positioned well in the evening or morning sky.
  • Venus is the morning star but is descending throughout winter.
  • Mars is a dimming evening planet throughout winter. In late February, it will be near the Pleiades.
  • Jupiter is exiting the evening sky in solar conjunction on Jan. 28. For the rest of the winter, it will be in the morning sky.
  • Saturn is exiting the evening sky in solar conjunction on Jan. 24. For the rest of the winter, it will be in the morning sky.
  • Uranus is visible in the evening well-positioned in late January and early February for viewing. It will be 1.6 degrees from Mars on Jan. 20.
  • Neptune is visible in the evening in January near Phi Aquarii. By February, it is affected by twilight and in solar conjunction on Mar. 10.
  • Pluto and Mercury are near one another on Jan. 4 in the evening sky. It will be transitioning from evening to morning while in Sagittarius.
  • Ref: https://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/advice/skills/astronomy-guide-viewing-planets-night-sky/ & https://theskylive.com/pluto-info