Long winter nights.
Crisp clear skies.
Denser colder atmosphere.
These are a few of my favorite things during the winter months and they add up to darker skies and brighter stars. This weekend also has a few things going for it, astronomically, and also happens to be Twelfth Night (tomorrow, January 5th) and Epiphany (the day after) commemorating the journey of the Three Wise Men guided by a Star in the East.
Friday, January 4
Although people in the Northern Hemisphere experienced the shortest day of the year two weeks ago (at the winter solstice December 21), the Sun has continued to rise slightly later with each passing day. That trend stops this morning for those at 40° north latitude†. Tomorrow’s sunrise will arrive at the same time as today’s, but the Sun will come up two seconds earlier Sunday morning. This turnover point depends on latitude. If you live farther north, the switch occurred a few days ago; closer to the equator, the change won’t happen until later in January.
† I’m just 68 miles south of the Kansas-Nebraska border, which juxtaposes with the 40th parallel. Weird fact discovered this morning via Google Maps: The Kansas Highway that is literally a block west of my house (K-7) ends at the border and turns into 666 Avenue (see map screenshot below).
Saturday, January 5
New Moon occurs at 8:28 p.m. EST. At its New phase, the Moon crosses the sky with the Sun and so remains hidden in our star’s glare. At least, it typically does. But if you live in the right area, you can watch the Moon pass in front of the Sun and cause a partial solar eclipse. Observers in southwestern Alaska, Japan, and eastern Asia can see the Moon partially eclipse the Sun. Maximum eclipse occurs in eastern Siberia, where our satellite covers 71 percent of the Sun’s disk. Remember that when viewing the Sun during a partial eclipse, protect your eyes by using a safe solar filter.
Sunday, January 6
Venus appears brilliant in the southeast before dawn. It reached greatest elongation late yesterday evening, when it was 47° west of the Sun, so it stands highest in this morning’s sky. The inner world shines at magnitude –4.6, more than 10 times brighter than the second-brightest planet, Jupiter. Venus rises nearly four hours before the Sun and stands 20° high in the southeast when twilight begins. The planet lies among the background stars of Libra, but it will move into Scorpius this coming week. If you point a telescope at Venus, you’ll see a disk that spans 25″ and appears half-lit.
• Here it is January, and the Summer Triangle is still in view — if you look early after dark. Vega is its brightest star, low in the northwest. The brightest star above that, and perhaps a bit left, is Deneb. Look for Altair farther to Vega’s left and perhaps lower (depending on your latitude).
• In the late-arriving dawns of early January, watch Venus close in on Jupiter and Antares from morning to morning, as shown here.
Saturday, January 5
• As we enter the very coldest time of the year, the dim Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) turns to hang straight down from Polaris after dinnertime — as if, per Leslie Peltier, from a nail on the cold north wall of the sky.
The Big Dipper, meanwhile, is creeping up low in the north-northeast. Its handle is very low and its bowl is to the upper right.
And Cassiopeia, a flattened letter M, is nearly overhead in the north-northwest, just beginning to tilt.
• New Moon (exact at 8:28 p.m. EST).
Sunday, January 6
• Orion stands in the east-southeast after dark, higher every week, but in early evening his three-star Belt is still nearly vertical. The Belt points up toward Aldebaran and, even higher, the Pleiades.
Down below, the Belt points to the horizon where Sirius rises around 6 or 7 p.m. (depending on how far east or west you live in your time zone). Just after Sirius clears the horizon, it twinkles slowly and deeply through thick layers of low atmosphere. It twinkles faster and more shallowly as it gains altitude, and its flashes of vivid color blend into shimmering whiteness.
• Venus is at greatest elongation on this date, 47° west of the Sun in the morning sky.
My morning commute this time of year is something I actually look forward to because I drive into the east and I get to observe all of these amazing solar, lunar and planetary dance routines to start my day.
Don’t sleep in.
Keep looking up!