Welcome to the new 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, 2017:
The Earth, in its orbit around the Sun, does not follow a circular path but 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.
Solstices and sunrises
Everyone knows that the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, takes place between December 21 and December 23.
What most people do not know is that, because of the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun and how long the earth needs to revolve to put the Sun back in the same place each day, the latest sunrise of the year does not occur during the Solstice, but during the first week of January. The earliest sunset occurs about a week and a half before the Winter Solstice.
Moon, planets and other phenomena
Phases of the moon
- Waxing (thin moon after sunset) crescent – January 2
- 1st quarter (half-moon in the evening sky) – January 5
- Waxing Gibbous (“humped” moon between half and full) – January 9
- Full Moon – January 12
Planets — whose name comes from the ancient Greek asters planetes — and stars that wander are fun to find. It’s beautiful to observe their slow motion against the backdrop of fixed stars over many nights.
In January, three of the brightest planets are visible.
At sunset, Venus, the brightest planet in the sky, can be seen low in the southwest. If you are in one of our more remote parks that provide very dark skies, Venus’ intense brightness may actually be seen to cast a shadow.
Towards the upper left from Venus is the reddish Mars, which remains in the low southwest for much of the month.
Finally, in the late night / early morning hours, one can see the planet Jupiter as a bright star-like object that is brighter than almost all the other stars except for Sirius (in Canis Major).
Through binoculars, Jupiter’s four brightest moons, the Galilean satellites, can be seen. Through a telescope, such as the one found in Killarney Provincial Park, you can see much more detail of Jupiter’s cloud belts.
In dark skies, people often notice a streak of light crossing the sky. These streaks are (incorrectly) called shooting stars.
At one time it was thought that they were actually falling stars and that if you counted up the number of stars before and after seeing one, there would be one less star in the sky.
We now know that these objects called “meteroids” are bits of dust and (rarely) rock that the Earth encounters during its orbit around the sun. The material burns up high in the atmosphere and we see the glow of the intense heat created during entry. We refer to this glow as a meteor.
While most meteors do not survive the burning, the occasional rock is big enough such that fragments do reach the ground in the form of a meteorite. Some of the bigger meteorites produce craters. Algonquin Provincial Park hosts the magnificent Brent Meteor crater and meteorite fragments can be seen at the Killarney Provincial Park office.
January meteor shower
This year, the Quandrantid Meteor Shower peaks in the early hours of January 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 are dressed warmly enough if you doze off.
Featured constellation: Orion
What is a constellation?
For thousands of years, people have looked to the stars to 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.
A constellation is merely a two-dimensional view of the stars as seen from our planet. The stars are actually at quite different distances from us and are generally unrelated to the other constellation stars.
For example, the middle star of Orion’s belt (Alnilam) appears the same brightness as the other 2 belt stars, but actually two times further away than both Alnitak (the left most belt star) and Betelgeuse, the red star marking out one of Orion’s shoulders.
Orion is the great and boastful hunter of Greek Mythology.
Underneath Orion’s belt is his sword. The middle object within the sword is a fuzzy, nebulous object that, when magnified, appears as a glowing gas cloud (easy to see in binoculars from provincial park skies).
Orion is accompanied by his hunting dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor) and is doing battle against Taurus the Bull.
To find Canis Major, follow the belt of Orion down towards Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. A collection of medium bright stars flowing down and to the left marks out the body of the great dog.
If one follow the belt stars to the upper right, they will find the reddish star Aldebaran which, with a collection of faint stars, forms a “V.” The “V” represents the face of the bull (Aldebaran is the eye) and there are two stars above the face forming Taurus’ horns.
Towards the back of Taurus, one can find a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. This cluster, also known as the “Seven Sisters,” is not a formal constellation but is often mistaken for a little dipper.
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.