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Easy-to-find Objects in the 2015 Winter Sky

The season offers several bright planets, notable constellations, and bright deep-sky objects.

RELATED TOPICS: METEOR SHOWER | MERCURY | MARS | VENUS | SATURN | ORION | ORION NEBULA

Transcript

Hi, I’m Astronomy magazine Senior Editor Rich Talcott. I’ll be discussing the objects you can see with your naked eyes and binoculars in this winter’s sky. The season offers several bright planets, notable constellations, and bright deep-sky objects.


The nights may be cold at this time of year, but the stars seem to twinkle with added intensity. No other season boasts as many luminaries. Five of the sky’s ten brightest stars appear conspicuous on winter evenings. So bundle up, step outside, and prepare to be dazzled.

You can look long and hard as darkness falls in early December, but you won’t find any bright planet. Fortunately, that soon changes. By midmonth, Mercury pops into view in evening twilight. It climbs higher with each passing day and will appear obvious in the Sun’s fading glow around the time it reaches greatest elongation on December 28.
Venus, Mars, and Jupiter stretch across the predawn sky on chilly December mornings.
Venus, Mars, and Jupiter stretch across the predawn sky on chilly December mornings.
All illustrations: Astronomy: Roen Kelly
The clock will be approaching midnight by the time the next planet emerges. Jupiter rises around 11:30 p.m. local time in mid-December and about 30 minutes earlier with each passing week. The giant planet shines at magnitude –2, which makes it noticeably brighter than any star in the night sky.

Two other planets rise during the early morning darkness. First up is Mars, a 1st-magnitude object that stands out for its reddish color. A couple of hours later, Venus pokes above the horizon. There’s no mistaking this brilliant planet. Gleaming at magnitude –4, it outshines every other point of light in the sky. The three bright planets form a conspicuous line in December’s predawn darkness.

You’ll have to wait until late December before Saturn comes into view. The ringed planet first appears in bright twilight but climbs out of the horizon murk by early January. On January 9, it passes within a fraction of a degree of Venus, marking the closest approach between these two planets in a decade.

Mercury passes between the Sun and Earth in mid-January and soon returns to view before dawn. By early February, Mercury joins Venus in the morning twilight, and the two remain within 5° of each other for much of the month. You won’t want to miss the scene on February 6 when the waning crescent Moon poses with these two planets.
Geminid meteor shower
A Geminid meteor shoots past Orion (lower center) shortly before dawn at the peak of the 2013 shower. Similarly Moon-free ­conditions bode well for this year’s shower.
Tony Rowell
Much smaller pieces of the solar system put on spectacular shows twice this winter. On the morning of December 14, the prolific Geminid meteor shower reaches its peak. With the waxing crescent Moon setting around 7 p.m., skywatchers can expect to see up to 120 meteors per hour under optimal conditions.

The Quadrantid meteor shower does almost as well. When it peaks before dawn on January 4, a waning crescent Moon provides only minimal interference. Observers could see up to 100 meteors per hour during the show.

Winter’s starry background dazzles more than any other. Our signpost in the winter sky is the bright constellation Orion the Hunter, which boasts seven bright stars. The most conspicuous are three closely spaced luminaries that shine at 2nd magnitude and form the Hunter’s belt. Two of Orion’s stars shine even brighter. Ruddy Betelgeuse stands to the upper left of the belt and blue-white Rigel lies to the belt’s lower right. A line of stars descending from Orion’s belt includes the fabulous Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery with few equals.

If you extend an imaginary line joining the belt stars to the lower left, you’ll find the brightest star in the sky. Sirius shines at magnitude –1.5 and belongs to the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog. This star typically twinkles madly when viewed from the Northern Hemisphere because it lies low and its light must pass through thick layers of air.

Next, go back to Orion. If you extend the line of Orion’s belt to the upper right, you’ll come face-to-face with Taurus the Bull and its luminary, Aldebaran. Aldebaran marks one tip of the Bull’s V-shaped face. A star cluster known as the Hyades forms the rest of the V shape. The Hyades lies twice as far from Earth as Aldebaran, which is why the single star appears so much brighter. An even more impressive star cluster, the Pleiades, lies north of the Hyades. You may see six or seven stars with your naked eyes, but you’ll want to view the cluster through binoculars as well. Their added light-gathering power will show you dozens of fainter stars.

You’ll find Auriga the Charioteer joined to Taurus. Auriga’s brightest star, Capella, passes nearly overhead on winter evenings. Trailing Capella is a pair of slightly dimmer stars, Castor and Pollux. These two mark the heads of the Twins in the constellation Gemini. The Twins’ bodies point back toward Orion.

Before we leave the winter sky, take a few minutes to trace a huge group of bright stars. The “Winter Hexagon” starts with Rigel and, from there, makes a clockwise loop. After Rigel, pick up Sirius, then its neighbor Procyon in the faint constellation Canis Minor the Little Dog. Next, locate the twins Pollux and Castor, followed by Capella, then Aldebaran, and finally back to Rigel. The Winter Hexagon is one of the largest groups of stars, or asterisms, in the entire sky.

We’ve created two more videos like this one to help you enjoy everything the winter sky has to offer. Astronomy magazine Senior Editor Michael Bakich’s video “Winter observing for small telescopes” highlights this season’s best targets you can see with a 4-inch or smaller telescope. Astronomy magazine Editor Dave Eicher’s video “Observing winter deep-sky objects through a large telescope” highlights this year’s best winter deep-sky objects visible with an 8-inch or larger telescope. Both of these videos are available for Astronomy magazine subscribers at Astronomy.com/videos.

Be sure to look for another video this spring that explores what’s on view once the weather starts to warm and winter’s starry canopy disappears below the western horizon.
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