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January Skies Of The Gulf Coast

Ed Magown/EAAA

The full moon, the long night moon, is on Dec. 28.  The Earth is closest to the Sun at perihelion on Jan. 2.  Our orbit is so circular that this slight variation does not have a major impact on our season — our 23.5-degree tilt is much more important. The last quarter moon is Jan. 6.  The crescent in the dawn is above Venus on the morning of Jan. 11.  The moon is new on Jan. 12.  The waxing crescent lies to the upper left of Mercury and Jupiter in early twilight on Jan. 14.  The first quarter moon is on Jan. 20, just south of reddish Mars overhead.  The full moon, the hunger or wolf moon, is Jan. 28.

If skies are clear, Mercury joins them low in the southwest about 35 minutes after sunset on Jan. 9-10. Brighter Jupiter will be on top of the trio, with Mercury to lower left, Saturn to right.  A week later, Mercury is at its highest and best, but the giants are lost in the sun’s glare until February.  With the giants gone, only reddish Mars is an evening planet.  It is overhead now at sunset in Aries, but much smaller and fainter than during its historic opposition three months ago.  Venus is also about to vanish behind the Sun by month’s end.  Look for it rising only an hour before the dawn at the start of January.

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. Visit skymaps.com and download the map for January 2021.

The constellation Cassiopeia makes a striking west 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 west 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 (think Ben Hur). 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.  UWF alumni can associate the pair with Jason and the Golden Fleece legend, for they were the first two Argonauts to sign up on his crew.

South of Gemini, Orion is the most familiar winter constellation, dominating the eastern sky at dusk.  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 starbirth 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. 

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 with shafts 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.

Our cosmic highlight for the new year is the New Solar Cycle 25.  Already the southern hemisphere of the sun is active with new spots, flares, faculae, filaments, and prominences.  The northern side is lagging behind, for reasons that will win you a Nobel Prize if you figure it out. 

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 484-1155, or e-mail her at lrogers@pensacolastate.edu. For free solar filters for sunspot viewing and the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses, drop a line in the Facebook page with your address.