view counter

Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Spring is days away, but the stars of winter still rule the heavens

Thursday as the sun sets around 6:10, the waxing moon glows high in the west. Look just a few degrees below this smiling crescent for glimmers from the Pleiades star cluster. With clear dark skies you might see six of these distant lights, but with the moon’s glow you’ll have an easier time with binoculars, which should reveal far more stars. Shaped like a small dipper, the Pleiades cluster fits within a pair of binocular’s field of view, about 5 degrees.

Sometimes we can’t see the things right before our eyes

By week’s end, the moon is lost amid the glare of the sun, with new moon at 3:46 Friday afternoon. While you might say that the moon has disappeared behind the sun, it has in truth disappeared in front of the sun. As our natural satellite, the moon’s orbit around earth never carries it opposite the sun. Rather, the new moon is there before our eyes, as close as ever. But as it hovers in broad daylight directly between Earth and the sun, we are blind to it.

If not for science, then do it for the thrill of the hunt

By the time the sun sets around 5:55, Jupiter shines through the fading twilight low in the west. There should be no mistaking Jove’s brilliant glow, but the darker the sky grows, the closer to the horizon he settles, finally disappearing around 8pm.

The cycle continues in the heavens and in distant galaxies

February’s full moon straddles Thursday and Friday, appearing equally large both nights. The actual moment of totality is at 4:36am Friday, when the moon is opposite the sun with earth smack-dab between the two.     Despite some spring-like days, February often ushers in the heaviest snowfalls of the year, hence the names the Snow Moon and the Hunger Moon. But February also marks the stirrings of life, as names like the Sap Moon and  the Worm Moon indicate.

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. 

Brace yourself for the quickening

You might not know it with the cold, gray weather of late, but this week we pass the midpoint of winter, with February 5 marking the first of the year’s four cross-quarter days.

Some of the sky’s brightest sites travel this road through the heavens

The waning gibbous moon rises around 7:45pm Friday, January 21. Look a half-dozen degrees above it for the blue-white star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. Just as the lion is the king of beasts, Leo is the king of the constellations. In Latin, regulus means little king. The star is located right on the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun, moon, planets and the constellations of the zodiac, meaning that at times during each year it rises with the sun, giving it great powers throughout cultures of yore.

Follow the waxing moon and test your eyesight

The waxing gibbous moon brightens the night sky this week, appearing high in the southeast Thursday at sunset a little after 5:00. The next evening, and each following night, sunset finds the moon roughly a dozen degrees to the east.

Even at their best, we can never see the full face of Mercury or Venus

While winter has just begun, we’re already in the process of reclaiming daylight, and Saturday marks a milestone when the sun sets at 5:00. Over the next month, the sun sets roughly one minute later each day. That same Saturday, daybreak arrives at 7:25, but alas, through January, it will come just a few minutes earlier each week. 

While Old Sol is seven percent stronger this week, it’s unlikely you’ll need to break out the sunscreen

While we commonly mark the first week of January as the commencement of the new year, it also marks two significant milestones in the passage of the earth’s journey around the sun.