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January skies of the Gulf Coast

Long exposure from EAAA member Nick Fritz.
Long exposure from EAAA member Nick Fritz.

The new moon is on Jan. 2, and the waxing crescent lies just below Mercury in twilight on Jan. 3. The short-lived Quadrantid Meteor Shower will peak on the morning of Jan. 3, but it will be better for Europe than u this year. The Earth is closest to the Sun at perihelion on Jan. 4. Our orbit is so circular that this slight variation does not have a major impact on our seasons. Our 23.5 degree tilt is much more important. Your last glimpse of Venus will be just to the right of the moon on the third. It moves into the morning sky after this. The moon lies just below Saturn on Jan. 4 and below Jupiter on Jan. 5. The first quarter moon is on Jan. 9. The Full Moon, the long night moon, is on Jan. 17. The third quarter moon is on Jan. 25, and the waning crescent moon lies below Mars on Jan. 29, and below Venus, now in the dawn, on Jan. 30.

The planets are leaving the evening sky fast. Venus passes between us and the Sun on Jan. 8 to spend most of 2022 in the dawn. Mercury is out during the first week of January low in the southwest, but also gets lost in the Sun’s glare after that. It joins Venus in the dawn on Jan. 31. Saturn sets in the southwest twilight by month’s end. Jupiter will also vanish into the Sun’s glare by Valentine’s day. Mars starts the year alone in the dawn, but by month’s end, is joined by Venus and Mercury both.

While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, visit skymaps.com.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking W in the northwest. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the northeast corner star of Pegasus’’ Square, and goes northeast with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the W of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye. M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant.

Overhead is Andromeda’s hero, Perseus, rises. Between him and Cassiopeia is the fine Double Cluster, faintly visible with the naked eye and two fine binocular objects in the same field. Perseus contains the famed eclipsing binary star Algol, where the Arabs imagined the eye of the gorgon Medusa would lie. It fades to a third its normal brightness for six out of every 70 hours, as a larger but cooler orange giant covers about 80% of the smaller but hotter and thus brighter companion as seen from Earth.

Look at Perseus’ feet for the famed Pleiades cluster; they lie about 400 light years distant, and over 250 stars are members of this fine group. East of the seven sisters is the V of stars marking the face of Taurus the Bull, with bright orange Aldebaran as his eye. The V of stars is the Hyades cluster, older than the blue Pleaides, but about half their distance.

Yellow Capella, a giant star the same temperature and color as our much smaller Sun, dominates the overhead sky. It is part of the pentagon on stars making up Auriga, the Charioteer. Several nice binocular Messier open clusters are found in the winter milky way here. East of Auriga, the twins, Castor and Pollux highlight the Gemini.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk. The reddishsupergiant Betelguese marks his eastern shoulder, while blue-white supergiant Rigel stands opposite on his west knee. Just south of the belt, hanging like a sword downward, is M-42, the Great Nebula of Orion, an outstanding binocular and telescopic stellar nursery. It is part of a huge spiral arm gas cloud, with active star birth all over the place. You should be able to glimpse this stellar birthplace as a faint blur with just your naked eyes, and the larger your binoculars or telescope, the better the view becomes.

While M-42 is a emission nebulae, shining reddish from the ionization of its hydrogen gas by hot young stars forming inside it, at Orion’s right foot is brilliant Rigel, one of the most luminous blue super giants ion the Galaxy, about 50,000X more luminous than our Sun. Its visible light causes the nearby Witch’s Head to shine as a bluish reflection nebula, visible in photos to the lower right of Rigel.

Last but certainly not least, in the east rise the hunter’s two faithful companions, Canis major and minor. Procyon is the bright star in the little dog, and rises minutes before Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius dominates the southeast sky by 7 p.m., and as it rises, the turbulent winter air causes it to sparkle withshafts of spectral fire. Beautiful as the twinkling appears to the naked eye, for astronomers this means the image is blurry; only in space can we truly see “clearly now”. At eight light years distance, Sirius is the closest star we can easily see with the naked eye from West Florida. Below Sirius in binoculars is another fine open cluster, M-41, a fitting dessert for New Year’s sky feast.

We have set new dates for our public gazes at Big Lagoon State Park west of Pensacola for these Saturdays: January 8 and 22, February 5 and 19, March 12 and 26, and April 8 and 23. Be sure to check in at the gate before sunset.

The EAAA hopes to renew its summer stargazes on the beaches once Covid vaccinations are adequate. For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers and our local star gazes for the public, visit eaaa.net or call our sponsor, astronomy teacher Lauren Rogers at Pensacola State College at (850) 484-1155, or e-mail her at lrogers@pensacolastate.edu. Or join us on Facebook.

If you want free solar filters for sunspot viewing and the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses, drop a line to me on our Facebook page with your address.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.