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Happy New Year!

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 03 January 2023

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 03 January 2023

Mars, 2022 December 30, 02:25 UT

The Moon brightens the sky as she waxes among the bright stars of the winter sky.  Full Moon occurs on the 6th at 6:08 pm Eastern Standard Time.  January’s Full Moon is popularly known as the Wolf Moon; in older days rural folk could hear the howling of hungry wolves in the night.  It is also known as the Moon After Yule.  Look for the Moon just east of the red planet Mars on the evening of the 3rd.  On the 6th she lies close to the Twin Stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.  She ends the week among the rising stars of the springtime constellation of Leo, the Lion.

Earth reaches perihelion, its closest point to the Sun, on the 4th at 11:00 am EST.  At this time our home planet will be some 147 million kilometers (91,400,000) miles from Old Sol.  The eccentricity of Earth’s orbit is very slight, so the excursions between perihelion and aphelion amount to some 5 million kilometers (3 million miles).  Since Earth moves fastest in its orbit at the time of perihelion, which occurs about two weeks after the winter solstice, northern hemisphere winter is our shortest season, lasting about 89 days.  Those of you who enjoy warmer weather have 93 days of summer.

The annual Quadrantids meteor shower peaks during the early morning hours of the 4th.  This shower can be one of the most productive of the major annual showers, but it is very enigmatic.  The period of peak activity lasts for only a few hours, but this year its visibility is hampered by the waxing gibbous Moon.  However, one of the predicted peaks in activity favors observers in the eastern US, and moonset occurs at around 5:00 am, so you have a chance to see meteors between that time and the start of morning twilight.  At its peak, the shower can produce up to 100 meteors per hour as seen from dark rural locations.

The late evening hours are dominated by the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle, which dominate the southern half of the sky.  Despite the presence of the bright Moon, the constellations inn this part of the sky are quite distinct, clustered around the imposing figure of Orion, the Hunter.  This is probably the single most-recognized star pattern in the sky since it is visible from every permanently inhabited location on the planet.  For this reason it figures into the sky lore of just about every culture that has left us their records of the night sky.  It is also incredibly ancient, appearing in the records of some of the earliest civilizations to emerge over 5,000 years ago.  It is not hard to see why Orion leaves such a wide impression.  The principal stars are bright and colorful, ranging from the red hue of Betelgeuse to the ice-blue tint of Rigel and the three “belt” stars Alnitak, Mintaka, and Alnilam.  All of these stars are incredibly far away, beaming down on us from up to 2,000 light years’ distance.  This means that they must be intrinsically bright, shining with the light of tens of thousands of Suns.  In contrast, the very bright star Sirius, which follows Orion across the sky, is almost next-door at 8.6 light years.  It shines with about 25 times the luminosity of Old Sol.

Venus is gradually working her way into the evening sky.  Right now she should be visible low in the southwest half an hour after sunset.  She is very bright, though, so you should be able to spot her if your horizon is flat.  She will gradually climb a bit higher on each successive night, and will be a fixture in the evening sky for much of 2023.

Saturn hangs low in the southwest as evening twilight fades.  The ringed planet sets at around 8:00 pm, so the “window” to catch a clear view of him in the telescope is now very limited.  Over the next few weeks bright Venus will overtake him, passing him on the 22nd.

Jupiter stands near the meridian as the Sun sets, and spends the evening hours arcing through the western sky.  The giant planet still presents a good target for the telescope during the early evening hours.  His disc is now about 75 percent of the size that it was back at his opposition, but it still should reveal considerable detail to the studious observer.

Ruddy Mars has faded considerably from his opposition glow, but he still commands your attention among the stars of Taurus, the Bull.  His disc is also shrinking rapidly, but a six-inch or larger telescope should show his more prominent albedo features.  


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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