Celestial Heavy-Hitters

Only the brightest stand up against the waxing winter moon

Thursday’s first-quarter moon appears almost directly overhead with sunset around 5:35. By the time the sky has become truly dark an hour later, the moon has pivoted westward and the red star Aldebaran, of Taurus, has taken its earlier place. 

The next evening the waxing moon has edged closer to Aldebaran. While the bull’s eye blazes a dozen degrees to the east of the moon, you will have to hunt for the Pleiades sisters a scant two degrees from the moon’s upper edge, marking the bull’s shoulder. However, train a pair of binoculars or a telescope on this cluster and you’ll cut through the glare, discovering far more than the seven sisters of lore.

The familiar shape of Taurus makes Aldebaran easy to identify even as the moon pulls away from it over the weekend. But it’s not the shape of the constellation Auriga — the charioteer? — that draws your eye to the brighter star Capella 20, nor is it that close to the moon, 20 degrees below. No, golden Capella is one of the gems of the heavens because not only is it the sixth-brightest star, but this time of year it shines at the apex of the celestial dome. 

With the start of the new week, the near-full moon is at the feet of Gemini. On Tuesday the 15th, it shines midway between Pollux, the brighter of the two Gemini twins, and Procyon, of Canis Minor. Procyon is the eighth-brightest star, but you’ll see why it’s called the the Little Dog when compared to its beaming brethren Sirius in Canis Major far to the south.

The two brightest planets dazzle at either end of darkness this week. Sunset reveals Jupiter, at –2 magnitude twice as bright as any star, in the west-southwest, but by 9pm it has sunk beneath the horizon. And for a couple hours before sunrise — this week finally coming before 7am — Venus commands the sky even though perched low in the southeast.