January 2024 Stargazing Guide

Posted on Friday, January 5th, 2024

Greetings Junior Scientists, Scientists and citizens of this great big weird, wild and wonderful world in which we live. As always I’m your humble science communicator, the great Orbax, coming to you from the Department of Physics at the University of Guelph and I’d like to welcome you to our January 2024 Star Gazing Guide.

Welcome into a brand new year as our planet, the Earth, continues to orbit our nearest star, the Sun, which itself orbits the center of our Milky Way galaxy. This month we watch our planets dance with the Moon, take a deep dive into Orion and see what the first Full Moon of the year has to offer. All this and more if we just take some time... to look up.

Our best Constellations this month are Lepus the Rabbit, Taurus the Bull and Orion the Hunter. These appear in the Eastern sky in the evenings and move towards the Southern sky as the night, and the month, goes on.

Now you'll remember that I told you last month to get comfortable with spotting Orion. Orion is considered by many to be the most recognizable constellation in the entire world. In fact it lies along the celestial equator which means that it can be seen by both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

The asterism of Orion’s belt is comprised of three stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Near Alnitak is the famous Horsehead Nebula, while the stars that comprise the sword dangling from Orion’s belt are part of the Orion Nebula M42 which you should be able to see with the unaided eye as a hazy light patch around those stars.  

Two of the brightest stars in Orion are actually two of the 10 brightest stars in the night sky. Rigel, which marks one of the feet, is actually a blue super giant which is 770 light years away. The reddish-orange star in Orion’s shoulder is Betelgeuse. It’s a red supergiant 550 light years away and is 800x larger than our sun!

Now Betelgeuse actually makes up one of the corners of an asterism known as the winter triangle.  If we head back to Orion's Belt and follow the straight line that it makes towards the East you don't have to travel very far until you find Sirius the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky and part of the constellation Canis Major. We complete the triangle by traveling up and to the left until we find Procyon in Canis Minor, the eighth brightest star in the sky. This big triangle dominates our winter skies. See if you can spot it junior

Our planets this month are dominated by Jupiter which is high and bright in the sky this month, creeping its way from the evening into the twilight hours and gaining in brightness. On January 18th we'll be able to spot a gorgeous first quarter moon alongside a bright shining Jupiter dancing its way through our skies.

Saturn is setting earlier and earlier this month and will actually be setting just before 7:30 by months end. Take a look at the nights of the 13th and 14th however to spot Saturn right next to the crescent of the Waxing Moon.

What about our mornings? Well on January 12th Mercury reaches its greatest Western Elongation. This will be the best time to view Mercury since it'll be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky before sunrise.

Our Full Moon this month takes place on January 25th at 12:54 p.m. and will be found in the constellation Cancer that night. Settlers call the January Moon the Wolf Moon, referring to the call of hungry wolves in the middle of the night. Since the North Pole is tilted away from the Sun right now, during these short days the Sun remains low in the sky whereas the January Moon remains very high giving meaning to how the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region refer to this January full moon as Gichi-manidoo Giizis, the “Great Spirit Moon”. This is a time to honour silence and recognize one’s place within all of Great Mystery’s creatures as captured in Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.

Now it's not always quiet as that silence is often broken by Nature. The Cree capture this as the "Frost Exploding Moon" – since the trees crack from the extremely cold temperatures here in Canada.

There's so much out there to see junior scientists and this year we've got nothing but excitement to look forward to. I mean we're even going to have a full Solar Eclipse in April! But for now bundle up, take a walk outside and don't forget to take some time... to look up.

See you next month junior scientists and don't forget to have a science-tastic day!

Special thanks to Royal City Science's own planetary geochemist Dr. Glynis Perrett for her help preparing our Star Gazing Guide.

And the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.


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