the sky on a clear night in January

Flash addition 31 January: the blood moon eclipse dimmed the nearly full moon so the stars and planets all came bright….

If you get up early say 0300 and the sky is clear and you look toward the south and east there is a pageant in the sky that you may not be able to forget. Rising in the southeast and curving toward the south as it rises further is Jupiter, the brightest of the night, the king of the gods to some cultures, and, if you have binoculars, some of the attendant moons. Jupiter is so bright that many of the stars nearby can barely be seen. But the four large Galileian moons, named in 1610 and often visible by eye, can be clearly seen because they are large and so much closer. In all Jupiter has 53 named moons and an amazing 69 total.

Just above it is Zubenelgenubi, the Arabic name for the brightest star in what we call the constellation Libra. Below Jupiter is reddish Mars, in the head of Scorpius closely followed by red Antares and the Hawaiian fishhook tail with the two stars of the stinger at the end.

High above all, is bright Spica and a little to the right nearly due south, is Corvus, the Crow, Alala flying to the west. And directly underneath it, Crux, the Southern Cross, nearly vertical, as far above the horizon as it is tall. To the west the Moon, Canopus, Sirius and Procyon are chasing after Orion diving into the horizon.

If you continue watching for an hour or two more, Jupiter, Mars and Scorpius will continue rising, arcing up and toward the south. Below them will appear Saturn, and then toward dawn, Mercury. These four planets arcing across the sky describe precisely the flat disk of our solar system tilting up above the Milky Way, the bright lumpy disk of our home galaxy seen on edge. And soon after as all these dim rises the sun. All this rarely seen and hard to forget when they are flung across the sky so majestically before us.

In the coming months where as we move around the sun, we get to see the Milky Way continue its clockwise twist until the Teapot, Sagitarius, rises in the southeast and we can see the center of the galaxy directly between the the spout and the stinger on the tail of the Scorpion.

5 Replies to “the sky on a clear night in January”

  1. Richard,
    What latitude do you get to watch from? I’m guessing a bit further south than either Jody or I (we’re right at 41 degrees N).
    I need to read up on axial precession, but am thinking we’d need to be elsewhere to see the Southern Cross.
    Your sky does sound pretty nice though.

    1. Hi Clem – yep to further south. we are at 19. N
      though i spent 50 years mostly around 40.
      still you should be able to see all the planets, the
      thing being precisely where they are before the sun lightens the sky. Oh and Zubi and the top of Scorpius the good news is that this pageant is going to go on for some months…. tho with Mars going slowly toward the sun. We all only get to see a part of the elephant… and only if we look

  2. Zubenelgenubi
    That is a name to conjure with; I’ll will have to get out there at 0300 hours to behold so extravagantly named a being!

    1. The sandfaring desert Arabs much like seafarers had pretty much just the stars, planets, sun, and moon to guide them. And they were quite good at it early on. To this day many/most of the names for the top say 25 navigational stars that have come down through to the present with Arabic names in “western” navigational nomenclature.
      see among many sources Of course the Polynesians had their own as Nainoa and the rest have so carefully perserved… without writing and with little known contact. Many ancient efforts are evident. The Chinese had their own system as well, but after withdrawing into China after voyaging to west africa, so called western culture has little record of that entire body of knowledge. The Phoenicians had their system (1000BCE), and the more ancient group called simply “the Sea People” must have had their own as well with settlements all over what we call Europe and possibly the Americas. Add in the Vikings much later.
      It never ceases to put me right sized to be just a beginner in learning the history of how the earlier human cultures have not only named but used the stars to spread around the planet.

  3. Richard,
    Thanks for the reminder. I am so ignorant of the stars. Living in the midwestern US the night sky is polluted by lights from nearby cities. Sometimes, when I take the dogs out for their last opportunity to “toilet” at night, I look up and see the stars. But trees often obscure my view. Sometimes, there they are.
    I recall a trip to Flagstaff, from Phoenix, AZ. We stopped to stretch our legs. I was spellbound! The night sky was scintillating with stars! I had never seen so many stars so clearly, literally, diamonds sparkling in the sky!
    I’ve often thought I should learn to name the star formations, but so far, I never have. Other than the big and small dipper.
    Thanks for your observations,

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