The new year opens with Jupiter still dominating the night sky. Earth passed the king of planets in the orbital race a month ago, but something as brilliant as Jupiter takes a while to fade.
On the first, Jupiter will be well up in the east after nightfall. As the month goes by, it comes out further and further to the west as Earth speeds away from it. In Taurus, Jupiter shines above the V-shaped Hyades star cluster and the bright orange star Aldebaran, the eye of the bull.
Perhaps the most striking winter constellation is Orion, with its hourglass form, set off by the three stars of the hunter's belt and the sword hanging from it. Orion's sword and belt area are home to the Orion Complex, a sprawling region of glowing gas, dark dust clouds, and intense star formation. One feature visible to the naked eye is a pink smudge in the sword; this is the Orion Nebula, a beautiful but turbulent area illuminated by the light of young stars. Orion is now in the south during prime evening viewing hours.
In the morning sky, Venus is sinking toward the sunrise horizon. It opens the year rising about an hour before the sun, but by month's end the interval shrinks to only about 40 minutes as our beautiful sister planet heads behind the sun. Saturn, however, is getting higher as it moves through the southeastern predawn sky. It follows the bright star Spica, in Virgo, across the heavens.
Earth reaches perihelion, its closest approach to the sun, at 10:39 p.m. on the first. At that moment we'll swoop to 91.4 million miles from our parent star.
Many Algonquin tribes called January's full moon the Wolf Moon, for the hungry howling of wolves outside their villages as winter deepened. It was also known as the Old Moon. This year it reaches fullness at 10:38 p.m. on the Jan.26.
If your eyes are sharp, you may be able to make out a thin, waning crescent moon to the left of Venus about half an hour before sunrise on Jan.10. Both objects will be bathed in the sun's foreglow, so this will be a challenge. Much easier is the pairing of Jupiter and a fat, waxing moon on the evening of Jan.21.
And if you want to get involved with astronomy from the comfort of your computer, the University of Minnesota is spearheading an effort to identify as many star clusters as possible in the Andromeda Galaxy, our Milky Way's closest big neighbor, using data from volunteers around the world. It's called the Andromeda Project, and all you have to do is visit www.andromedaproject.org and follow the directions. After taking a brief tutorial on how to identify star clusters, you can start examining close-up images of the galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and recording what you see.
The data will help astronomers learn how stars form and evolve, and will help in tracking the major chapters in the history of galaxies like ours. Project Andromeda is part of Zooniverse, a portal where anyone can get involved in a wide range of citizen science projects.
The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth Campus. For more information and viewing schedules, see: Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet