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Lighting Up Our Cold Nights

The sky is awash in the sun’s absence

While winter has only just begun, it’s heartening to know that a little more sunshine is creeping into our lives day by day. Since a month ago, we’ve gained 15 minutes of light at day’s end, with sunset now after 5pm. Monday marked the latest sunrise of the year, at 7:25, and although it’s a slow go at first, that time will inch earlier hereafter. Heck, before you know it will be summer.
    The winter moon wanes through morning skies, reaching last quarter before dawn Tuesday, when it hovers less than two degrees north of the blue-white star Spica. Look for the two high in the south around 6am that morning. Look to the southeast for early-rising Saturn, which is roughly a dozen degrees above the red-giant Antares.
    Jupiter rises around 8pm, but it is high over the west horizon in the hour before sunrise. Look to its left for the backwards question mark known as the Sickle of Leo, punctuated by brilliant Regulus at its base.
    The real show-stoppers are Mercury and Venus, which will be within one degree of each other low in the southwest shortly after sunset most of the week. The two planets are at their closest Saturday, a mere 0.7 degrees apart. You should have no trouble spotting Venus, which outshines everything else visible and is more than a dozen times brighter than its neighbor. Even so, Mercury is one of the brighter objects in the heavens shining at magnitude –0.8. Look for them above the southwest horizon about 45 minutes after sundown.
    Mars, too, joins the fray, well to the upper left of Mercury and Venus. The red planet is no match for either of its kin, but its ruddy tint easily sets it apart from the similarly bright stars around it. Mars sets around 8pm.
    As darkness settles, the unmistakable hourglass figure of Orion the hunter appears above the southeast horizon. By 10pm, he stands high in the south, facing his quarry the bull Taurus to the west. Orion boasts two of the 10 brightest stars: Fiery Betelgeuse marks the shoulder of the hunter’s upraised arm, while icy Rigel marks his opposite foot.
    Perhaps most noticeable, however, are Orion’s three tightly aligned belt stars. Follow these stars toward the horizon and they point to the brightest star of all, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog. Another grouping of stars hangs from Orion’s belt, marking the hunter’s sword. One of these, appearing as a fuzzy patch of light, is no star at all but rather a stellar nursery, the Orion Nebula.