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 of them 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).

As a result of this non-circular orbit, the earth is actually closest to the sun at the beginning of January and gradually moves further away throughout the rest of the year. So being closer or further from the sun has little to do with our summer and winter.

The earth is closest to the sun on January 3, 2019.

January 1 January 15 January 30
Sunrise 8:07 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. 5:07 p.m. 5:30 p.m.

The moon and the planets

On January 1, around 7:30 in the morning sky, Venus, Jupiter, and the moon are all beautifully visible.

This is a taste of what’s to come at the end of the month. On January 31 at around 7:30 in the morning, Venus, the moon, and Jupiter put on a very impressive display.

As can be seen from the images below, the moon will appear very close to the planet Venus with the unaided eye (left) and in binoculars or a small telescope (right) both objects will beautifully fit into one field!

Sky chart images Courtesy of SkySafari 5 Pro.

The moon reaches perigee (the point at which it is closest to the Earth) during full moon. This produces what is popularly known as a “supermoon.”

But don’t be fooled. While a supermoon sounds like something spectacular, most people cannot visually distinguish between a supermoon and a regular full moon. Nevertheless, any full moon is an impressive sight.

January’s lunar phases are as follows:

Total lunar eclipse

The moon will take on a blood red colour during this month’s total lunar eclipse. The eclipse is best viewed between 22:30 on January 20 and 2:00 on the morning of January 21.

red moon

Normally, we see the moon lit by the reflected light of the sun. However, when the moon is directly opposite the sun from the Earth, all of the direct light of the sun is blocked by the Earth.

If the Earth had no atmosphere, that would be the end of the story. The moon would pass through the Earth’s shadow and become virtually invisible. Its presence would be noted by observing a dark area of the sky where no stars could be seen (the moon blocking the distant starlight).

However, because the Earth does have an atmosphere, the air refracts or bends the sunlight around the Earth and onto the moon. Although this refracted light is present it still is a great deal less than normal sunlight, so the moon appears dark.

diagram of refracted light on earth

But why red?

As seen during sunset, the Earth’s atmosphere tends to scatter away the bluer part of the sunlight, leaving the redder part behind. It is this redder light, devoid of the blue scattered light, that falls upon the moon during a total lunar eclipse.

In ancient times, it was thought that these eclipses were portents of evil. Various cultures including the ancient Chinese and Greeks documented concerns that they associated to the total lunar eclipse. However, not all the news was bad.

ancient diagram of lunar eclipse

A brilliant ancient astronomer and mathematician – Aristarchus of Samos – used the shadow of the sun upon the moon to correctly calculate the relative sizes of the sun, Earth, and moon and disance from the Earth to the moon.

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, click here.

Catch this celestial event!

This year, the Quandrantid Meteor Shower peaks on January 3 and 4.

A clear dark sky, warm clothes, sleeping bag, chaise lounge and hot drinks are essential for braving the winter cold to watch as many as 60 meteors per hour.

Just lay back and look straight up. You know you’re dressed warmly enough if you doze off.

Did you know…

Stars

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.

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.