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Skywatch - The Night Sky
Dr. Thomas Lesser

Shooting stars are not stars at all but meteors, bits of cosmic dust that burn up some 50 miles above the Earth as they race through the atmosphere. As a comet orbits the sun, it gives off gas and dust. This dust remains in a cloud that also orbits the sun. From time to time, the Earth passes through one of these dust clouds left behind by a comet and we experience a meteor shower.

On the evening of December 13-14 you can see the Geminids. The best time to watch a meteor shower is between midnight and dawn. No special equipment is required, perhaps a blanket or a lounge chair – just lay back and scan the sky with your eyes for those brief flashes of light we call shooting stars. The Geminids are the best of these meteor showers. On a good clear night you might see some 60 meteors per hour.

The night of January 2-3 is the maximum of the Quadrantid meteor shower. This is usually one of the best meteor showers of the year. Unfortunately, the bright moonlight will overpower all but the brightest shooting stars.

Jupiter and Mars are very close in the sky and rise in the east around 3 a.m. Wait an hour or so for them to climb higher in the sky and you’ll easily spot them. On January 3, they will be at their closest, what astronomers call a conjunction. They are only close as we see them from Earth. In fact, the two planets are hundreds of millions of miles apart.

Many people think winter is caused by the Earth being farther from the sun. In fact, this year the Earth is closest to the sun on January 3. Besides, while people in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing winter, people in the Southern Hemisphere are having summer. And we’re all on the same Earth. The Earth is farthest from the sun in July.

As the Earth goes around the sun, sometimes the North Pole of the Earth is tilted toward the sun – summer up North. Well, if the North Pole is tilted toward the sun, the South Pole must be tilted away – winter in the Southern Hemisphere. When the North Pole is tilted away from the sun it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the South Pole is tilted toward the sun and it’s summer for them. When the poles are not tilted toward or away from the sun, we have the in-between seasons of spring and fall.

If you look toward the northwest, about halfway up in the sky, you should be able to find some stars in the shape of a "W". This is Cassiopeia, the queen. Of course a W looks nothing like a queen, but do not let that trouble you, most constellations look nothing like their names suggest.

The bright stars of Orion are high in the southern sky. Two stars, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, form Orion’s shoulders and two more bight stars, Saiph and Rigel, mark the hunter’s knees, and three more fairly bright stars form his belt.

Orion has with him two hunting dogs. Look slightly to the east and south of Orion. There you will find Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky. This star marks the nose of Canis Major, the Great Hunting Dog. There are fainter stars that somewhat form the shape of the dog, but good luck seeing it. East and north of Sirius, but not as far as Jupiter, is another bright star, seeming to stand alone in the sky. This is Procyon and it marks Canis Minor the Lesser Hunting Dog. Lower in the sky than Sirius is another very bright star, Canopus, the second brightest star of night.

Canopus is the brightest star in the constellation of Carina, the keel of a ship. Carina was once part of the larger constellation of Argo Navis. The Argo was the ship Jason and the Argonauts sailed on in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Argo Navis was divided into three pieces. In addition to Carina there is Puppis (the poop deck) and Vela (the sails of the ship).

Just to the north of Orion are the zodiacal constellations of Taurus the Bull, and the Gemini Twins. The bright red star Aldebaran marks the red right eye of the Bull and the heads of the Twins are marked by two stars of about the same brightness, Castor and Pollux. To the Greeks, Taurus represented Jupiter when he transformed himself into a pure white bull. In this form Jupiter carried Europa across the sea to Crete. The Gemini Twins accompanied Jason and the Argonauts.

This column is prepared especially for TCI stargazers by DR. THOMAS LESSER