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Sonoma County Gazette
Guide to the Night Sky

Guide to the Night Sky

Jan 5, 2018
by Tre Gibbs


Happy New Year! January always seems to be an interesting time, psychologically speaking. The holidays are behind us and we are in the early throws of winter, which always has me feeling slightly melancholy - to put it mildly. However, I keep reminding myself that as of December 21st, the days have been ever-so-slowly getting longer. This becomes more noticeable towards the end of January and early February. Trying to focus on the positive, this extended darkness allows us more time to observe the night sky, although most of the action happens in the early, pre-dawn skies.

On New Year’s Day, around 4:00 am, planets Jupiter and Mars rise as a pair in the southeast just before the rising sun’s glare renders them both invisible. Jupiter is very bright, while Mars in comparison is much dimmer. What’s more interesting is that over the next week, Mars will appear to slip across Jupiter, essentially switching places with the gas giant. By the early morning of the 5th, Mars is closing in on Jupiter, appearing at Jupiter’s one o’clock position. The very next morning, January 6th, Mars appears to be in contact with Jupiter, the two almost appearing as one bright object and on the morning of the 7th, Mars appears to breakaway from Jupiter, roughly at Jupiter’s seven o’clock position and continues to wander farther and farther away from it’s temporary companion. Remember, these events are happening right before the dawn’s first light so you’ll have to be observing the southeast while it’s still dark outside, ideally between 5:30 am and 6:00 am. Oh - early in the morning of the 11th, the waning crescent moon will have slipped closer to the pair, thereby creating a triple conjunction of the Moon, Jupiter and Mars. A beautiful, astronomical treat for early risers.

One of the easiest constellations to spot this month is Orion, The Hunter. Orion, a winter constellation, stands out not only due to his unique and large shape, but is also easily identified by the three stars in a row that make up his belt. By now, Orion rises around sunset, is high in the south at midnight and sets in the west near sunrise. Orion will appear closer and closer to the western horizon each week, until mid March when Spring in the Northern Hemisphere is just around the corner. If you didn’t have a calendar, you could mark winter’s progress - and spring’s approach - by watching Orion appear farther west in the sky each consecutive night.

The “Full Wolf Moon” is January’s full moon and rises in the east around sunset on the last day of the month, January 31st. The name comes from the time when during this particular full moon, hungry wolves would gather outside Native American villages and howl, which must have been a rather frightening circumstance.

So until next month, have a productive and safe start to 2018, and as always, Keep Looking Up!


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