Frontenac winter stars

Eyes on the skies – January

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This “space” will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

The cold, crisp days of the New Year often reward us with fantastically beautiful nights, rich with bright stars and interesting sights.

Of the 17 brightest stars seen from Ontario, nine are visible during winter nights, and many interesting objects await the observer who is prepared to brave the cold.

Here are our astronomical highlights for January:

The sun

Earth does not follow a circular path in its orbit around the sun. Its path is actually an ellipse (shape of an egg) and the sun is not quite at the centre of this ellipse.

 

As a result of this non-circular orbit, Earth is actually closest to the sun on January 2, and gradually moves further away throughout the rest of the year.

Being closer or further from the sun has little to do with our summer and winter; rather, it is due to the angle of the sun’s rays hitting the northern or southern hemisphere.

Despite common belief, the date of the earliest sunset and latest sunrise does not occur on December 21.

Instead, for most people in Ontario, the date of the earliest sunset in 2020 was on December 10 and the date of the latest sunrise in 2021 is on January 4.

January 1 January 15 January 30
Sunrise 8:08 a.m. 8:03 a.m. 7:49 a.m.
Midday 12:29 p.m. 12:35 p.m. 12:39 p.m.
Sunset 4:51 p.m. 5:05 p.m. 5:30 p.m.

January’s lunar phases are as follows:

lunar calendar

The planets: Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn

After an incredible 2020, the three nearest outer planets are finally fading from view.

Saturn and Jupiter set shortly after sunset and Mars, well placed high near the beginning of the month, starts to set lower and lower at sunset by month’s end.

Unfortunately, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was mostly clouded out in Ontario.

planets

In this picture — a single shot taken on December 18 three days before the date of conjunction — you can just make out the rings of Saturn (top left), and see Jupiter and its four largest (Galilean) moons: Callisto (lower centre), Ganymede, Europa, and Io (lower right).

Mercury, the planet closest to the sun, makes a brief visit to the evening skies and peaks in distance from the setting sun on January 24.

On this night, if you have a clear unobstructed view of the southwestern skies, you should be able to see the planet — which is about the same brightness as the brightest stars! Binoculars greatly help in finding the elusive planet.

Comets and meteor showers

January brings us one of the best unseen meteor showers: the Quadrantids.

This meteor shower can offer as many (or more!) meteors as the well-known Perseids of August or the Geminids of December.

meteor shower

The problem is that the meteor shower occurs at one of the worst times of the year weather-wise for those of us living in Ontario. Also, the peak of the meteor shower rises and falls sharply (within six hours), whereas some meteor showers rise and fall over weeks.

This year, the meteor shower peaks at 9:00 am on January 3. The best time to see the meteor shower would be after 4:00 am that morning.

Next year, however, the shower peaks earlier in the morning and the moon is favourable. We’ll see you then!

Stars

For thousands of years, humans have looked up at the stars. The stars helped them try to understand their purpose, and the role they play in our lives.

To help memorize the different stars, patterns of connect-the-dot figures were created by many different cultures. Today, we recognize 88 official patterns or “constellations” of stars.

To learn more about the constellation Orion and some of its neighbours, click here.

Did you know…

The calendar has astronomical origins.

While the the constellations were, largely, created to help people remember significant star patterns, they have plenty of other uses. One of these is for the formation of the calendar.

Stars

For example, the ancient Egyptians watched out for the star Sopdet, which is known as Sirius in Canada today. They knew that each year, when they would spot Sopdet rising, the annual Nile floods would soon be upon them.

Click here to learn more about how the calendar came to be.

That completes January’s ode to the night skies

Check back each month as we highlight celestial events through the seasons, or click here to read more about astronomy in provincial parks.