Resolve to Look at the Real Sky
There are lots of reasons to go outside at night and look at the sky. Our planetarium stars are great, and we always have clear skies in the dome, but it’s just not the same as the real thing.
The outdoors, of course, is a multi-sensory experience. Stop and listen to the crickets and frogs and dogs. You might smell a fireplace from down the block or freshly cut grass, depending on the season. The stars themselves… simply pretty. You don’t need any special equipment, but this star chart and a lawn chair will certainly help. You can do it alone or with a group, Plus, stargazing is fun for all ages, and it’s entirely free!
January is a great time to get started because there are so many bright stars. Orion the hunter is already above the trees in the east after sunset. Orion is easily identified by the three stars in a row that mark the belt around his waist. Two stars above the belt represent his shoulders while two stars below mark the hunter’s feet. When Orion is in the east, it looks like he is lying on his side. Later in the evening, Orion stands up to take his place above the southern horizon.
In one direction, a line drawn through Orion’s belt stars points toward Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and part of Canis Major, the big dog. In the other direction, the belt stars point to the orange-red star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull.
Continue the line past Aldebaran until you reach the Pleiades star cluster riding on the bull’s shoulder. The Pleiades are also known as the “seven sisters”. This group of stars is often confused with the Little Dipper, which is instead low in the north at this time of year.
Draw a line from Rigel, the bright star in Orion’s right foot, through Betelgeuse in his left shoulder, and keep going. This line will lead your eye to a pair of bright stars, Castor and Pollux that mark the heads of Gemini the twins. These twins are hard to tell apart, so remember that Pollux is closer to Procyon, the one bright star in Canis Minor the little dog. Castor is closer to the bright star Capella in Auriga the charioteer.
Turn toward the west after the sky has darkened, about an hour after sunset, and hunt for Pegasus the winged horse. You’ll need a lot of imagination to see a winged horse in this group of stars.
The Great Square represents the horse’s body and wings. His neck and head look like a hockey stick dangling off one corner. The front legs extend from an adjacent corner as if the horse is racing across the sky at a full gallop. The two long, curving lines of stars that should the horse’s hind legs actually form the long flowing gown of Andromeda the princess. Nearby, just north of Andromeda Cassiopeia the queen appears as the letter “M” high above the northern horizon.
Resolve to See Pretty Planet Pairs
The brightest planet in the evening sky this month is Venus, shining brightly but very low in the southwest during evening twilight. Between 5:30 and 6:00 pm on the evening of January 21, a very thin crescent Moon will be positioned to the right of Venus. You will likely need binoculars to see the Moon, but it is well worth the effort. Once you find the Moon with the binoculars, scan down from the Moon to spy a single point of light. This is Mercury, the closest planet to our Sun.
The following evening, January 22, at the same time, a pretty crescent Moon will appear higher in the southwestern sky just to the right of Mars, the “pale orange dot” planet.
Pay attention to the distance between Venus and Mars in the current night sky. As Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun, we see them move against the background stars. Over the next couple months, Venus will appear a little higher in the sky each night demanding our attention. On the evening of February 21, Venus, Mars, and the crescent Moon will form an especially nice grouping.
By mid-evening, Jupiter, king of planets, rises in the east followed closely by Leo the lion. Only early risers get to enjoy Saturn because it doesn’t rise until about 3:00 am. It will definitely be worth rising early on the morning of January 16 when the crescent Moon will stand very close to lovely Saturn.
Resolve to Attend a Star Party
There are two free public star parties this month: January 9 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at Bells Bend Outdoor Center, and January 24, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Shelby Bottoms Nature Center.
Members of the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society (BSAS) set up their telescopes at these family-friendly events so everyone can observe the Moon, star clusters, galaxies, and more. Be sure to bundle up so you can fully enjoy the evening because it will almost certainly be cold!
Star parties require good weather and may be cancelled if it’s cloudy. Visit our web site for updates before making the trip, especially if the weather is iffy. You’ll also find star party tips, driving directions, and a list of future events. Learn more about BSAS at bsasnashville.com.
“The Longest Night”
Dome Club - January 15
The Sudekum Planetarium presents Dome Club Nashville to showcase artistic experiences that envelop audiences within the unique environment of the planetarium. Join us for the next Dome Club Thursday, January 15, from 7:30 to 8:30 pm as we present “The Longest Night: A Winter’s Tale.”
On a cold, dark, winter’s night, a young girl must embark on a quest to save her family. Along the way she discovers a dragon’s nest, a way to help her village, the meaning of courage and generosity, and the importance of renewal.
The Longest Night is the result of a collaboration between the Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and the Paperhand Puppet Intervention. This unique program features live-action video of Paperhand's world-class puppetry seamlessly combined with beautiful and intricate fulldome scenery to create an imaginative show.