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The Nighttime Sky of Winter
Star Chart of the night sky for northern hemisphere observers
Jupiter and its moons
On any given dark, clear and moonless night, just step out into your backyard, and look up into the night time sky. You will be surprised at the thousands of sparkling gems that are visible to the naked eye. Some give give off a steady light and than there are others that twinkle rather quickly against the blackness of space.
Observing the sky is a great way to get your mind off of the bone-chilling reminders of winter. Most of us here in the northeast find ourselves in the icy and snowy grips of old man winter. However the science of observing the heavens is not only for the young at heart, but it is great if you're older as well.
And besides with nothing else to do on a cold, dark night, but to sit around the fire with a cup of hot chocolate in hand, possibly thinking about how depressed you are; or how much those aches and pains are overwhelming you. Why not try something different and go out by yourself or with a few friends to do some winter stargazing.
You will not only be surprised how good of a time you will have, but there are a number of celestial objects that you can view during this time of the year without the aid of a pair of binoculars. However with a good pair of (7x35) magnification binoculars objects that appear to be in faint clusters will certainly be easier to make out.
I also recommend a good, but simple star chart, nothing fancy. I have included one in this article to share with you, that shows the night time sky during mid- January. Please be aware though that this map currently displays the night time sky in the Northern Hemisphere. If you are currently in the Southern Hemisphere, you will be able to go online to download a star map for your location.
A few websites that I find useful in accessing these type of charts is either at http://www.astronomy.com, http://www.skyandtelescope.com, or http://www.topastronomer.com. Here you will be able to view or download the interactive sky charts, that are available for the hemisphere that your are doing your observing in.
During the evening hours if you look out towards the southeast you will be able to see a very bright star, glowing in a steady yellow-white light.This is the planet Jupiter. And if you are fortunate enough to have clear viewing conditions; you may also be able to see with binoculars, four of Jupiter's main moon's or satellites.
These Jovian moon's as they are so-called are: Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io. Through a pair of binoculars they will appear as tiny pinpoints of light or white dots on either side of the planet. And if you are still fortunate enough you may be able to get a glimpse at the so called cloud bands that cross the face of the giant gas-planet. You should be able to pick up one or two of these bands if conditions are favorable through a pair of binoculars.
If you take your arm and extend it outward towards Jupiter, place your thumb on the planet if you will, than spread your forefinger outwards and away from your thumb. This separation of distance is a quick way that I found and works well in determining the amount of separation or degrees one object is from another. Well than, about two degrees above Jupiter, where your fore finger lies above your thumb, point your binoculars in this direction.
If you have a dark cloud free sky and away from the glare of nearby city lights. You should be able to pick out the faint but greenish-blue hue of one of the solar systems gas giants. And this gas giant is Uranus shining at about 7th magnitude, which makes it a bit difficult to see with the naked eye. Usually without optical aid the human eye can only visualize objects of about fifth to sixth magnitude at most. A good pair of (10x50) Binoculars will make finding Uranus a whole lot easier.
If you are an early riser than you will also be able to see the Planet Venus shining a brilliant white in the sky at about 4A.M. to 6A.M. Venus is very much like our own moon in that it goes through phases just like the moon. From a thin crescent to a full gibbous phase. Its phases in other words wane and wax just as the moons do. During the winter months in the northern hemisphere, you will find earth's moon to be at the waning gibbous phase; as it displays less and less of a prior full-gibbous moon, until it once again reaches the new moon phase.
With a small telescope you will have no difficulty seeing the current and future phases of Venus. A pair of Binocular's is just not quite powerful enough to do the job, even during a clear, haze free morning. A good pair of Binoculars however can be purchased for about fifty to sixty-five dollars on Amazon.
Also the nearest neighbor to our own earth, the planet Mercury, may be seen in the early morning along with Venus. Mercury sets about an hour or so before Venus, and you may have difficulty seeing it. For one, its not nearly as bright as Venus is right now, and secondly it tends to get lost in the approaching light of dawn. It helps to have a treeless horizon, looking out over the ocean or other body of water to visualize Mercury about three to four degrees below Venus, and to the East Southeast.
Not to worry, you will never be bored looking at the winter night time sky, or the sky in general at any time of the season for that matter. Because there are still countless other constellations and binary or double stars; and star clusters that can still be seen with the naked eye, or with a cheap pair of binoculars.
I like starting out by looking at a few star clusters that I do not need optical aid to make out. The Pleiades or seven sisters as this cluster of stars is commonly referred to as can be seen low in the winter sky, starting at about 9P.M. And it will be visible all through the night as it climbs high above the zenith or point right above your head, so to speak.
With a decent pair of binoculars you will be able to see seven to eight bright, bluish-white stars that the binoculars field of vision separates for you. It is an awe-inspiring sight to any pair of eyes that lays sight on this cluster of stars. The Pleiades is located in the constellation of Taurus the bull, which is in the same general location as this star cluster.
The naked eye will be able to see a group of stars that looks like an upright V. This is Taurus the bull, and if your eye is sharp enough you will be able to distinguish a reddish star in the upper left hand corner of the V. This is the Super-Red giant star Aldebaran. It is indeed a splendid sight to view with a pair of binoculars.
Also once you have been outside for awhile and away from the light of indoors, your eyes will now have had a chance to adjust to the darkness around you. You in turn will be able to notice more and more objects in the sky now, that literally pop out at you. Objects that you may not have noticed a half an hour or so earlier. See if you can locate a group of stars that are not too bright, but form a definitive square or large rectangle.
Try looking in the same general direction as you did when observing Taurus the Bull and the Pleiades. Once you have found four fairly faint stars that make up this large square, you will have found the constellation Pegasus, or the Great Square as it is often called. Try looking for a small fuzzy object out of your peripheral vision.
Or to make life easier utilize your binoculars. This faint fuzzy object discernible to the naked eye is (M-31) or the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Galaxy should appear right below the great square, or a bit to the left of it. The constellation Andromeda is also a part of this general area of sky. However the Andromeda technically lies between both of these constellations.
The Andromeda Galaxy, or (M-31) is the closest neighboring galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. It is also a spiral type galaxy like our own milky way. The Great Square and Andromeda Galaxy do lie a bit further than to the North Northeast than Taurus the Bull does, but not a significant distance away. Remember when in doubt utilize your sky chart, if your not sure exactly where the sky object you are looking for is, at the particular time of night sky that you are viewing it in.
There are so many celestial objects...planets, constellations, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, asteroids etc... etc... too many to mention alone in this article. Hopefully some of the objects that I have mentioned here for starters will help get you acquainted with the night time winter sky.
It's also a wonderful way, no matter whether you're new to the science of astronomy, or an amateur ground observer just starting out and learning about the wonders of our own solar system. Because this is an avocation in which you can share with others during a crisp, cold winters eve, a wide variety of celestial objects. The majority of us are so preoccupied with the routines of our own daily lives, that we often forget many times, to look up at the night sky, and envy at all the mystery, that it offers to all who gaze deep into its infinite beauty