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Youth Astronomy


What you will see on a clear night in

Jan.-Feb. 2016

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 and the Moon

Special Events: Jupiter-Moon conjunctions on Jan. 27 and Feb. 23.

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 most dramatic of all constellations—ORION THE HUNTER—is visible in the southeast in Jan. (and south in Feb.) with his 3-star belt around his waist. Upper left of his belt and lower right are his shoulders. Lower left and lower right are his knees.

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.


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!


Good News! After four months of no evening planets, the biggest one—JUPITER— appears as a bright "star" in the east beginning in mid-Feb.  It will remain in the east and southeast during the rest of the month.

The largest planet in the solar system is more brilliant than the brightest star Sirius because it is much closer.

Even though the giant planet appears so bright, it is 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

This video shows Jupiters's largest moons in different positions.

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.

With binoculars, you may be able to make out Jupiter’s largest moons—called Galilean moons after the early astronomer who discovered them, Galileo. These four moons will pop out quite clearly if you view them with a telescope. In addition, you will likely see bands going across the planet; these are layers of gas.

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. Feel free to Google the four largest moons, called IO, EUROPA, GANYMEDE and CALLISTO. For example, an ocean capped with fractured ice fields covers Europa. There might be microscopic life in that frigid ocean!

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.  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. Between Jan. 13-to-24 and from Feb. 12-to-22, the Moon will display it’s early evening (waxing) phases:

Jan. 13 & Feb. 12: crescent Moon.

Jan. 16 & Feb. 15: first quarter Moon.

Jan. 24 & Feb. 22: full Moon.

This photo shows the Moon between crescent and first quarter.


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.

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.

 Jupiter-Moon Conjunctions

Seeing a new planet for the first time is dramatic stuff for young amateur astronomers. Even more exciting is spotting a conjunction: your chance will come on Jan. 27 and Feb. 23 when Jupiter will appear near the Moon. Even though Jupiter will seem close to the Moon, the planet will be much farther away. It’s no wonder Jupiter looks like a star!