Sky at a Glance December 28 – January 4

Photo showing some of the winter's brightest stars clustered around the constellation Orion.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, 2019 December 28 – 2020 January 4 ~by Curt Nason

Before, or after, the flash of New Year’s Eve fireworks this week, take a look around the sky. As a new year begins, many of the brightest stars are at their best when you face south. Halfway up the sky is the slanted line of three stars that forms Orion’s Belt. Above it are the shoulders of the giant hunter, marked by reddish-orange Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. Below, blue-white Rigel and Saiph are parts Orion’s legs. The Belt points to the right at the V-shaped Hyades cluster star, anchored by orange Aldebaran, and the compact, eye-catching Pleiades cluster, which together form the face and shoulder of Taurus the Bull.

To the left of the Belt is the night sky’s brightest star, Sirius, in Canis Major, the larger of Orion’s two canine companions. Bellatrix and dim Meissa, marking Orion’s head, form an arrowhead with Betelgeuse at the tip, which points toward Procyon in two-star Canis Minor. Auriga and Gemini ride above Orion. Among these New Year’s Eve constellations are five of the ten brightest stars, with 12 more in the top 50. Betelgeuse, like many red supergiant stars, varies in brightness over long periods as it expands and contracts. Over the past few months it has dimmed and might have slipped out of the top ten.

Rather than make a New Year’s resolution that involves great sacrifice and likely won’t see February, why not start an astronomy project to learn the sky over the year. I recommend the RASC Explore the Universe program, which involves observing and describing or sketching objects using your unaided eyes, binoculars or a small telescope. The objects include constellations and bright stars, lunar features, the solar system, deep sky, and double stars. By observing 55 of the 110 objects you could earn a certificate and a pin. For details, see or contact me.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 8:00 am and sunset will occur at 4:40 pm, giving 8 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (8:02 am and 4:48 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 8:01 am and set at 4:46 pm, giving 8 hours, 45 minutes of daylight (8:03 am and 4:54 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Friday, giving great evening views through telescopes and binoculars all week. After sunset on Thursday telescope users can see the Lunar X just inside the shadow line, a little below centre. Mars opens the New Year near the Libra-Scorpius border, rising three hours and 15 minutes before sunrise. Meanwhile, Venus shines easily through evening twilight in the southwest and Saturn sets less than an hour after the Sun. The Quadrantid meteor shower, with its radiant between the handle of the Big Dipper and Hercules, peaks on the morning of January 4. With no Moon in the sky, this shower could make it worthwhile to get up very early or stay up very late.

The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on January 4 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? Contact Curt Nason.

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