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Youth Astronomy


What you will see on a clear night in

Jan.-Feb. 2012

Constellations/star groups: The Big Dipper (part of  Ursa Major, the Great Bear) and Orion.

Double Stars: Alcor & Mizar

Cluster: The Pleiades

Solar System: Jupiter &Venus & The Moon

Special Event: planet-Moon conjunctions on Jan. 25 & 26 and on Feb. 25 & 26(see note below)

Bundle Up!

With cold weather now upon us, stargazers are shortening their observing time. However, some spectacular wonders await those who brave freezing temperatures by putting on lots of winter clothing.

Here’s a tip on keeping warm: BUNDLE UP TWICE AS NORMAL.

Put on layered clothing, like two sweaters under a winter jacket. Ski pants, insulated boots and warm gloves are a must.

Because you’ll be standing still on frozen ground while scanning the sky, don’t stay outdoors too long. Limit your stargazing to about 15-to-20 minutes, then come indoors to warm up. Then go out again to make some new discoveries!

Sure it’s cold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun finding constellations, double stars, a planet or two and the Moon’s craters just as we did in the summer.

The winter stars you’ll observe will be brightest of the entire year. Crisp, arctic air often creates clean, clear skies.


The bright “star” that’s high in the southern sky in early Jan. is actually JUPITER! During the next two months, the king of planets will move to the right, eventually ending up close to the west horizon by late Feb.

The giant planet appears as a star because it's five times as far from the Sun as the Earth. Since it is so far away, it takes a long time to circle the Sun. If you are 12 years old, you have something in common with Jupiter: you've been on the Earth the same time the gaseous planet has taken to orbit the Sun once.

Jupiter and four moons

Jupiter, the fifth planet from the Sun, is a huge gas ball of helium and hydrogen. Its diameter of 143,000 km is so big that 11 Earths could fit across it. To put it another way, its volume could contain as many as 1,300 Earths.

Are you aware there are about 150 moons in the solar system? Because of the powerful magnetic fields of the four gaseous planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—they have most of the moons. Since Jupiter has 65 moons, some observers refer to the giant planet as a mini solar system.

If you aim a telescope at Jupiter, you will see more than a white disc (as well as some parallel lines representing layers of gas). Look closely and you’ll spot the planet’s four largest moons. Jupiter’s remaining 61 moons are too small to be seen.

Even though these four moons appear as tiny dots, they are about the same size as the Moon. They are always in a straight line because they are rotating around Jupiter’s equator. Usually they appear in three patterns: (1) three on one side and one on the other, (2) two on either side, or (3) four on one side.

If only three moons appear, it means one is either in front of (or behind) Jupiter. The four largest moons, called IO, EUROPA, GANYMEDE and CALLISTO, are known as the Galilean moons after Galileo who discovered them four centuries ago.

You can Google the moons to learn about their surface features and size. For example, an ocean capped with fractured ice fields covers Europa. There might be microscopic life in that frigid ocean!


Look southwest--and provided your view is not obstructed by trees or houses--you will spot an unusually bright "star,” which is actually VENUS. If you don’t have a clear view of the southwest horizon, have your parents drive you to Wilmot Line, a road that branches to the right off Erb St., just past the Waterloo landfill. From there you will have a clear view of the planet.


Even though Venus looks cold, it is the hottest planet in the solar system with a surface temperature of 500 deg. C, twice as hot as your mom's oven! The second closest planet to the Sun is broiling hot because the surface is like a greenhouse, covered by clouds of deadly sulphuric acid, trapping in the Sun’s heat. Venus so hot that all of the robotic probes that have landed on the planet burned up moments after landing!

Believe it or not, the planet’s day is longer than its year! During its 225-day trip around the Sun, it hasn't quite rotated around once on its axis; it requires another 18 days. Venus is referred to as our sister planet since the two are similar in size. Venus is the solar system's brightest planet, so the best time to see it is just after dark. However, you should look for it RIGHT AWAY as it is dropping lower and lower. By late June will disappear below the horizon as it passes between the Earth and the Sun.


The most dramatic of all constellations—ORION THE HUNTER—is visible in east-southeast with his 3-star belt around his waist. Upper left of his belt and lower right are his shoulders. Lowerleft and lower right are his feet.

Despite the cold, Orion is a must-see night sky object.Hanging from the Hunter’s belt is his sword. In fact, the sword is the GREAT ORION NEBULA—the only star nursery that can be spotted with the naked eye.

This fuzzy star zone can be seen more closely with a pair of binoculars. A telescope will produce a fantastic close-up of new stars!

Orion is a good guidepost to other stars. That very bright star that you will spot lower left of the constellation by late December will be SIRIUS, the brightest star in the night sky.


Can you see another fuzzy group of stars upper right of Orion? That’s the PLEIADES CLUSTER that looks similar to the bowl of the Big Dipper through binoculars. Even though you’ll be able to pick out half a dozen stars, the Pleiades actually consist of about 500 stars!

The Pleiades

PleiadesCan you see a fuzzy group of stars upper right of Orion? That's THE PLEIADES CLUSTER that looks similar to the Big Dipper through binoculars. Even though you’ll be able to pick out half a dozen stars, the Pleiades actually consists of hundreds of stars!

The Big Dipper

The most popular group of stars is the BIG DIPPER. Look north and you’ll spot the four-star bowl with its three-star handle. This time of year, however, because the Big Dipper is at its lowest point to the horizon, you need a clear view.

The seven-star Big Dipper is in the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear). The Big Dipper is a well-known group of stars as it can be seen year-round. It never sets below the west because it is close to the NORTH STAR (POLARIS),making it a CIRCUMPOLAR grouping.

Most constellations are known as SEASONAL constellations because they are far from the North Star and slip beneath the western horizon after travelling for a few months across the night sky.

Big Dipper

The Big Dipper can be used to find the North Star. First, find the bowl.Then draw an imaginary line up and beyond the two end stars of the bowl and you will see the North Star. Many people think that the North Star is the brightest star in the night sky. Not true! It’s way down on the brightness scale at about 50.

The North Star (which remains in one spot year-round) is the lead star of the seven-star LITTLE DIPPER, which pours into the Big Dipper. But you have to be at a very dark site—like a farm or a cottage away from city lights—to make out the Little Dipper.

There is something unique about one of the seven stars of the Big Dipper. Look carefully at the second star from the end of the Dipper’s handle and you’ll spot a double star, ALCOR & MIZAR. The star duo is more definitive with binoculars or a telescope.

The Moon

Some astronomers say the most rewarding object in the night sky is THE MOON. Some astronomers say the most rewarding object in the night sky is the MOON. Between Jan. 9-to-30 and from Feb. 7-to-29, the Moon will display it’s early evening (waxing) phases:

Jan. 9 & Feb. 7: full Moon.

Jan. 27 & Feb. 26: crescent Moon.

Jan. 30 & Feb. 29: first quarter Moon.


Craters and “seas” (the grey areas of the Moon) can be easily picked out with binoculars or a low power telescope. The secret to viewing the night sky with binoculars is to keep them as steady as possible: either mount them on a tripod or sit back in a lawn chair that has a tilted back.

Where to look for the Moon? The crescent phase will appear in the west, the quarter phase in the south and the full Moon in the east.

Did you know that the Moon’s craters are the result of our closest celestial object being pummelled and battered by giant space rocks or asteroids? If the Moon had an atmosphere, the craters would have long eroded away from wind and water erosion like what happened here on Earth. But because there is no atmosphere on the Moon, the craters have not changed ever since they were formed.

The Moon’s craters and mountains are most dramatic if you look along the terminator—the line that separates the dark side from the sunlit side. That’s because the shadows created by the Sun are the longest. If you look through a telescope, you can even spot crater walls disappearing into the shadows.

Venus-Moon & Jupiter-Moon Conjunctions

Seeing a new planet for the first time is dramatic stuff for young amateur astronomers. Even more exciting is spotting a planet next to the Moon! Your chance will come in late Jan. and late Feb. when, as noted above in Special Events, a pair of planet-Moon conjunctions will occur. (Conjunctions happen when two night sky objects appear close). Venus will be near the crescent Moon on Jan. 25 & 26.

A month later, on Feb. 25 & 26, a rarer conjunction will occur when both Venus and Jupiter will appear next to the Moon. Jupiter will be upper left of (and slightly dimmer) than Venus. The late Jan. and late Feb. conjunctions will be above the southwest horizon. An excellent site for viewing the southwest sky (as stated above) is on Wilmot Line, off Erb St., west of the Waterloo landfill.

Even though Jupiter and Venus will appear close to the Moon during both conjunctions, in fact, the two planets will be much farther away than the Moon.