Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - 45

Under The Stars by Fred Schaaf

Wonders of the Year-Start Sky
Now is the time to seek new sights by night - and by day.

ESO / BA BA K TA FRESHI

A

new year always begins with the
possibility of new sights and experiences - and therefore with the possibility of wonder. This is particularly true in
the world of observational astronomy.
So let's take a look at how 2017 gets
off to an especially wondrous start
in the sky. Let's also explore why the
familiar "year-start" sky is really a
whole new beast (as the saying goes)
if you look at it in new ways (or in
many directions). And, finally, let's
see how a small calculation about the
Moon's cycle reminds us why we should
appreciate not just every year, but every
month, in the heavens as a thing new
and wonderful.
Begins with wondrous. In our era
every New Year begins at midnight
with the brightest star, Sirius, on or
very near the meridian - technically
not a new sight but one so impressive
it's always wondrous. And the opening
hours of 2017 bring a sight that will be
new to almost everyone: two planets
hardly more than 1 arcminute apart,
the closest readily observable two-planet
pairing in almost 30 years (see more on
the next page).
We're talking about beginnings here,
but let's not forget that a little past
the middle of the year there comes the
awesome American coast-to-coast total
eclipse of the Sun. Mark your calendars for August 21, 2017. If you're not
an experienced solar observer, you can
start practicing now.
Wonders of the year-start sky. In
last January's edition of this column,
I noted that we could start the year by
going out at four different times between
nightfall and midnight to experience
four different "bright beginnings" in the
heavens. But now let's look more closely
at just one of those times - the one presented on our all-sky map at the center
of the magazine.

The crescent Moon sets over ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile.

If you look due south you see a
surprising dimness. Until you reach the
bright head of Cetus, the Whale, the sky
in this direction is filled with the meandering of Eridanus, the River, most of
which needs a really dark sky to show up
well. High up, the Pleiades are approaching the meridian. But this cluster is better appreciated as a top adornment on a
peerless pile of stellar brightness stacked
up in another direction: the southeast.
No one direction at any hour is as
splendid with stars this time of year.
Sirius is low and the rest of bright Canis
Major, the Big Dog, is just beginning to
rear up from the southeast horizon. But
directly above Sirius stands unmatchable
Orion, and directly above Orion looms
Taurus, the Bull, with Aldebaran, the
Hyades, and Pleiades. Perseus, extending
a foot to the Pleiades, poses at the zenith.
Looking east shows low Procyon
under the reclining bodies of Gemini,
the Twins, and the pentagon of Auriga,
topped with bright Capella. The northeast sky is dim, though the bowl and
part of the Big Dipper's handle are
approaching it low in the north-northeast. Gazing northward reveals the Little
Dipper hanging from Polaris.

A look northwest finds Vega setting,
the Northern Cross of Cygnus standing
upright on the horizon, and the top of
the Northern Cross, Deneb, far below
bright Cassiopeia. Almost the entire line
from zenith to horizon in the due west
is covered by the bodies of Andromeda
and Pegasus, hanging straight down.
And last but not least is the mostly dim
southwest - this January rescued by the
brilliance of Venus and Mars.
A lifetime of Moons. The new year
makes us think about matters of time.
One is the number of full Moons or
lunations - the period from one new
Moon to the next - that occur in a
long human lifetime. The approximate
number is 1,000, which is a generous
amount, but not unlimited, especially
when you consider how many cloudy
nights and times of illness or preoccupation there are in our lives.
We have a limited number of lunations, a measured amount of Moons
in our lives. Starting tonight, use them
wisely. Use them well.
¢ Contributing Editor FRED SCHAAF
has been writing about the skies above
us for more than 40 years.

s k y a n d t e l e s c o p e .c o m

* JANUARY 2017

45


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Sky and Telescope - January 2017

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky and Telescope - January 2017

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Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - Cover1
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - Cover2
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - 1
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - Contents
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - 3
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Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - Cover3
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - Cover4
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - SGA17RAL
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - 90
Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - SGA17R
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Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - SGA17EAL
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Sky and Telescope - January 2017 - SGA17SA
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