Looking Up: Bright moon lights the end of 2009
As 2009 draws to a close, enjoy the bright moon high in the winter sky. Full moon is on Dec. 31. If there is snow on the ground, notice how brilliant the moonlight reflects. It is best to see this away from man-made lighting.
A few nights afterward is the peak of one of the best meteor showers.
January 2010 arrives with a brief but intense meteor shower visible the night of Jan. 3-4. Known as the Quadrantids, more than 100 meteors an hour have been seen, some years.
There will still be a lot of moonlight during the meteor shower’s peak. This will hamper observations.
Meteors will streak cross the sky, seeming to radiate from a point mid way between the handle end of the Big Dipper and the head of the constellation across the Dragon. At this time of night, the radiant point is high up in the northeast. You may watch for them earlier in the evening, but the shower numbers will be lower. The higher the radiant is in the sky, the more likely you can expect to see.
Bundle up very warmly. This is generally the coldest time of year, and you may be surprised how quickly you feel the cold if you are out for a while, even in a coat and hat.
It’s amazing how many people don’t care to wear a hat! Comfortable winter stargazing, in snowy climes, means going beyond what you need to dash to the car. Consider a sleeping bag, hunter’s hand and feet warmer pads, and protection for your face. Layers are important.
It can be frustrating to use a telescope on very cold nights. It does not take long for your breath to condense on eyepiece lens. Be very careful not to scratch the lens to wipe off the dew; use a soft, clean tissue or cloth, dabbing lightly. Keeping the eyepiece warm in your coat pocket, or even tied to a hunter’s hand warmer, can help. If you have a reflector telescope - one that has a large mirror at the bottom and an open top end - set it outside for at least an hour before observing. This will help the warmer air inside the tube to escape, damping down the air currents that would otherwise spoil close-up views of the moon or planets.
While at it, let your eyes adjust to the darkness before venturing out in the cold. Then you will be ready to begin observing the starts immediately and you will make more efficient use of time before the cold winter air sends you back inside. You may look like a lunatic, but at least one company (Orion Telescopes & Binoculars) sells red eye goggles. Wear these inside even in a lighted room, and your eyes will still be able to adapt to the dark night. That can be preferable to sitting in a darkened room inside if your honey for some reason you can’t imagine, might want the lights on inside the house a little while longer.
Speaking of domestic tranquility, consider putting up shades on the window near where you might go outside, which will block inside light and let normal indoor activities to continue.
Astronomers can be an odd bunch. They’re the last ones to call the power company when there is an electrical outage and the stars are out. They’re the ones who sometimes forget to go to bed and its not because of the "Late, Late, Night Show" (is that movie show still airing on TV?). They’re the ones who, upon seeing a beautiful blue daytime sky, immediately think hours later, whether the clear weather will continue.
In the evening, enjoy beautiful Orion, the champion of winter, high in the southeast.
Above Orion is a very bright orange-red “ruby,” the Planet Mars. The bright orange-red star Betelgeuse marks the top left corner of Orion but is not as bright as Mars. Right overhead is the constellation Perseus. While standing south at around 8 p.m. in early January, look just a little to the right of overhead, heading west. The bright Andromeda Galaxy M31 stands out as a faint hazy ellipse, better in binoculars.
There are four eclipses in 2010, an annular solar eclipse Jan. 15, a partial lunar eclipse June 26, a total solar eclipse July 11 and a total lunar eclipse Dec. 21. Only the lunar eclipses will be visible from the United States.
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Keep looking up!