SKY WATCH

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY BLAINE P. FRIED­LAN­DER JR. Blaine Fried­lan­der can be reached at PostSkyWatch@gmail.com.

Con­tem­plate con­stel­la­tions and pick out plan­ets, even as Jan­uary’s tem­per­a­tures chill.

Jupiter opens Jan­uary’s night sky fes­tiv­i­ties at dusk well above the hori­zon, snug­gled be­tween the con­stel­la­tions Pisces and

Aquar­ius in the south-south­west. You’ll rec­og­nize the king of the plan­ets by its bright­ness, since it loi­ters at neg­a­tive sec­ond mag­ni­tude, bright enough to see from ur­ban skies.

By the mid­dle of the month, Jupiter de­scends to the hori­zon about 10:30 p.m., and it ducks out around 9:40 p.m. at month’s end.

Be­fore Saturn rises near the mid­night hour, en­joy the pa­rade of con­stel­la­tions on these crisp win­ter nights. They seem to fol­low Jupiter like a plan­e­tary pied piper. Orion dom­i­nates the sea­son’s heav­ens. Along the eclip­tic, Orion is fol­lowed by Gem­ini,

Can­cer and Leo. Orion the Hunter makes its pres­ence known. If you look to­ward the south about 9 p.m., Orion is the huge con­stel­la­tion in the south with an “H” shape. The right shoul­der be­longs to the star Betel­geuse and the left foot is

the star Rigel, both zero mag­ni­tude (bright).

While ob­serv­ing Betel­geuse, think about this: It’s about 14 times the mass of our sun and its ra­dius reaches an as­tound­ing 2.8 as­tro­nom­i­cal units (or, 2.8 times the dis­tance be­tween Earth and

the sun.) If it were the cen­ter of our so­lar sys­tem, Mer­cury, Venus, Earth and Mars would be toast.

Orion’s belt con­sists of Al­ni­tak (the east­ern­most star, first mag­ni­tude), Al­nilam (the mid­dle star, first mag­ni­tude) and fi­nally Min­taka,

the hard­est one to view since it is sec­ond mag­ni­tude.

Let’s get Sir­ius. Tonight and for the next few nights, catch the star Sir­ius (in Ca­nis Ma­jor) due south at mid­night. It’s to the lower left of Orion. It’s bright at neg­a­tive first mag­ni­tude.

Shortly af­ter mid­night in the east­ern sky, Saturn rises. By 2 a.m., the ringed planet climbs the south­east­ern sky in the con­stel­la­tion Virgo. Then by 5 a.m., catch Saturn as it hangs high in the south-south­east. This large and gaseous planet is zero mag­ni­tude, bright.

By the end of Jan­uary, Saturn rises just be­fore 11 p.m.

Venus is sheer glory. It rises now be­fore 4 a.m., and you can en­joy this lu­mi­nous planet be­fore the daily sun washes it out.

It’s a whop­ping neg­a­tive fourth mag­ni­tude, very bright. Go out now be­tween 6:15 and 7 a.m. to see Venus as a bril­liant dot against the back­drop of dawn, in the east-south­east­ern sky.

Watch the old cres­cent moon near Venus on Jan. 29.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, the skin­nier cres­cent will be closer to the hori­zon.

The fleet and nim­ble Mer­cury makes a cos­mic cameo early in Jan­uary. It rises now about 5:45 a.m. and hugs the hori­zon high enough for sky gaz­ers to see. By mid-Jan­uary, Mer­cury gets washed out by the sun’s glare.

With mem­o­ries of “Snow­maged­don” fresh in Washington’s me­mory, it may be ironic that Earth on Mon­day will reach per­i­he­lion – our planet’s clos­est point to the sun in the or­bit around our star, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Naval Ob­ser­va­tory.

On July 4, we reach aphe­lion, Earth’s most dis­tant point from the sun.

Down-to-Earth events

Jan. 3 — “Stars Tonight” for Jan­uary at the David M. Brown Plan­e­tar­ium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Ar­ling­ton, ad­ja­cent to Washington-Lee High School. Hosted by Jonathan Har­mon, di­rec­tor. $3 for adults, $2 for se­niors and chil­dren. 7:30 p.m. In­for­ma­tion, 703-228-6070. www.save­plan­e­tar­ium.

Jan. 5 — Open house at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Ob­ser­va­tory, Col­lege Park. Scan the heav­ens af­ter as­tron­omy lec­ture, weather per­mit­ting. 8 p.m. 301405-6555. www.astro.umd.edu/ open­house.

Jan. 8 — Ruben Kier ex­plains “ The Best Tar­gets for Win­ter Astropho­tog­ra­phy” at the Na­tional Cap­i­tal As­tronomers meet­ing, Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Ob­ser­va­tory, Col­lege Park. 7:30 p.m.

http://cap­i­ta­las­tronomers.org.

Jan. 9 — Gary Hand, from Hands on Op­tics, Da­m­as­cus, dis­cusses con­sumer op­tics at the North­ern Vir­ginia As­tron­omy Club meet­ing, Room 80, En­ter­prise Hall, Ge­orgeMa­son Uni­ver­sity, Fair­fax. 7 p.m. www.no­vac.

Jan. 20 — Open house at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Ob­ser­va­tory, Col­lege Park. Te­le­scope view­ing fol­lows as­tron­omy lec­ture, weather per­mit­ting. 8 p.m. 301-405-6555. www.astro.

Jan. 29 — For­get “Amer­i­can Idol” as the birthplace of stars. Find out how real stars are born, as grav­i­ta­tion­ally con­trolled ther­monu­clear fu­sion re­ac­tors, in a pro­gram at the Mont­gomery Col­lege Plan­e­tar­ium, Takoma Park. 7 p.m. www.mont­gomerycol­lege.

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