For me personally the ‘great conjunction’ of Jupiter and Saturn in December was a big disappointment because whenever I tried to make an observation the cloud to the SW horizon thwarted me. I hope some of you had better luck. However 2020 wasn’t all bad from an astronomical point of view as witnessed by the reminiscing at our online Christmas party of what had been observed throughout the year so let’s look forward to what this year will bring.
We had a broad look at the sky last month so we will focus in more detail on the winter sky facing south this month.The chart below represents the south facing night sky at 10.00pm on the 8th January and at 9.00pm on the 23rd January. No need for navigational help this month because Orion is so obvious but facing south and looking up you will find the bright star Capella just short of your zenith.
With clear skies we are in for a treat because we have seven of the twelve brightest stars visible from the northern hemisphere. You will be familiar with the chart above but I’ll fill in some details for completeness sake. We have already come across four of the constellations- Orion- The Hunter, Taurus- The Bull, Auriga- The Charioteer and Gemini- The Twins. The two new constellations are Canis Major- The Great Dog and Canis Minor- The Little Dog. In mythology they are the dogs of the hunter Orion but from an observational point of view these constellations are small with little to offer apart from their main stars, Sirius (alpha Canis Major, the brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere) and Procyon (alpha Canis Minor, the 6th brightest star). Incidentally they are two of our Sun’s closest neighbours, Sirius being 8.6 light years distant and Procyon 11.4 light years. These two stars along with Betelgeuse in Orion form an asterism known as the Winter Triangle depicted in yellow in the diagram.
But Betelgeuse is roughly in the middle of another asterism- the Winter Hexagon comprising the stars Sirius, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux and Procyon and depicted by the red outline in the diagram. It is obvious with the unaided eye that these stars are different and within that grouping, including Betelgeuse, you will find a yellow giant (binary twin), a red supergiant, a blue supergiant, a red giant, a yellow star and two stars which are part of a binary system with a white dwarf (not visible to the unaided eye). And allowing for variability they all have a magnitude of about 1 or brighter.If that doesn’t make you reflect on what you are looking at in the winter night sky I don’t know what will. Now that we are in lockdown again if you are not sure which star fits into which category why not do a little research to fill in your time of an evening!
You may be thinking I’ve said nothing about Castor, the second bright star in Gemini, because it’s not as bright as the others but in fact it is an amazing star in its own right.To the unaided eye, the star Castor appears as a bright pinpoint of light but it’s actually three pairs of binary stars – six stars in all – in a complex dance about a common centre of mass. Even a fairly small telescope will show Castor as two stars and perhaps a glimpse of a much fainter star nearby, also part of the Castor system. Each of these three stars is also double but they cannot be resolved in a telescope and have to be inferred from spectroscopic data.
Something to look out for
Although the ‘great conjunction’ is now in the past, Jupiter and Saturn continue to be of interest as they have a close approach with the planet Mercury between the 9th and 14th of January, visible above the south-west horizon from around 4.30pm as darkness falls, and you need to be quick as they are visible for only a short time. On the final day they are joined by a crescent Moon. We will be saying ‘Goodbye’ to Saturn and Jupiter as they are lost to view behind the Sun but Mercury continues to its greatest elongation and highest altitude above the horizon on the 27th January. Let’s hope for some clear skies to show off the winter night sky to its best.