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The Sky This Week, 2016 January 5 - 12

Count the stars in Orion for science!
Orion, Sirius, and the Winter Milky Way
Imaged on 2016 January 2 from Morattico, Virginia

The first full week of 2016 finds the Moon waning in the pre-dawn sky before returning to the early evening by week’s end. New Moon occurs on the 9th at 8:31 pm Eastern Standard Time. If you’re up before the Sun on the mornings of the 6th and 7th, you’ll have a nice photo opportunity as the Moon glides by the bright planet Venus. If you have a very flat eastern horizon look for the yellow planet Saturn with the Moon and Venus as morning twilight begins to glow on the skyline.

The first few days of the week will see the latest sunrises of the year in the northern hemisphere mid-latitudes. Here in Washington Old Sol crests the horizon at 7:27 am EST and will continue to rise at this time until next week. However, sunset occurs at 5:00 pm on the 5th, and one minute later on each successive night for the remainder of the week. The shortest nights of winter are behind us!

We are in the midst of the first monthly observing campaign for the Globe at Night citizen-science program. From now through the 10th, take advantage of the season’s first crisp winter nights to count stars in the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. Your observations will help scientists characterize the brightness and cleanliness of the skies on a global scale. Last year over 22,000 observations were recorded on the program’s website, and this year it’s easier than ever to contribute, either through the website or with apps for your smart phone. Orion is probably the most easily recognized constellations in the sky, visible from all of Earth’s inhabited zones, and it is made up of a number of bright stars that are visible from the hearts of major urban areas. It also hosts a number of fainter stars in many distinctive patterns, so it’s ideal for this type of observation. While the Hunter is impressive from the city, he really commands attention from dark-sky locations. I was fortunate to spend the holiday weekend down on Virginia’s Northern Neck and found myself staring at Orion and his companions as they wheeled across the meridian. Just to the left of Orion and above the bright star Sirius I had a nice view of the winter Milky Way, which sweeps up through the stars of Gemini and Auriga, past Perseus and Cassiopeia overhead, and off to the southwest horizon. The galactic plane is much more subdued than its summer counterpart because at this time of the year we’re looking along a sight line that’s opposite the galactic center. Rather than peering through layered star clouds surrounding the Milky Way’s nucleus, we are looking through relatively few stars toward extragalactic space. This section of the Milky Way abounds with star clusters that are easily visible in binoculars, and small telescopes will provide hours of viewing enjoyment, provided that you’re bundled up against the winter chill.

All of the planetary action still takes place in the morning sky, but giant Jupiter is making inroads into the evening sky. Old Jove rises at around 10:00 pm EST by the end of the week, coming up under the stars of the constellation of Leo, the Lion. If you’re up before the Sun you’ll now find him west of the meridian as twilight gathers, but he’s still well-placed for telescopic viewing. He reaches the first stationary point in this year’s apparition on the 8th; for the next several months he’ll drift westward against the stars.

Mars is located in the southeast as twilight gathers, a lone ruddy beacon between the bright blue star Spica in Virgo and the second-magnitude star Zubenelgenubi in Libra.

Venus gets a visit from the Moon on the 6th and 7th as she speeds eastward through the stars of Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Bearer, just north of Scorpius, the Scorpion. You’ll probably notice the golden glow of Saturn in the area as well, but you’ll really notice the pair before dawn on the 9th, when Venus passes less than a third of a degree north of the ringed planet. That’s a sight worth getting up early for!

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