The big events in the night sky are a total lunar eclipse, or "blood moon," if you want. This will be the first we have seen since 2015, and the last we will see around here until 2022. So let's hope and pray for the clear sky on the night of January 20 when the moon explores fully into the reddish Earth of the shadow, turning the moon red blood. I will have more about the eclipse in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the star riddle in the new year is that even though you can have some of the clearest skies and some of the best and brightest constellations, it's hard to be motivated to stay away from a warm fireplace to enjoy the wonders of the winter in the night sky.
Murphy's law of observing stars in winter clearly states that the beauty of heaven is inversely proportional to how many layers you have to use to go outside. The January sky is very pleasing to the eye but tough on the skin. You don't just have to dress for the weather, you also have to be prepared with a large thermos from something warm. Try the potassium chloride hand and foot warmers. They do a fantastic job, keeping their feet warm for hours. You can buy it at most sporting goods stores and even hardware stores. Don't leave your warm house at night without it when you make a star as your friend!
After armed with cold, get out and enjoy the best star of the year. You will see that the eastern part of the sky has many stars that are brighter than the western part. Over the past few months, the last constellations of summer have slowly sunk lower in the west, not seen again at night until June. They don't really move. We have done it. As the Earth continues its annual circuit around the sun, the nighttime side has now turned away from summer stars.
The dominant constellation of autumn, Pegasus, a giant winged horse, still hangs there in the west. Look for different rectangles that form the mighty rod of a flying horse. With a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, scan halfway between Pegasus and the bright "W" that forms the constellations of Cassiopeia the Queen, and see if you can find the Andromeda Galaxy. It is a neighbor near our Milky Way galaxy. What you really see is just a small, faint stain, but that little stain is another galaxy slightly larger than our galaxy, almost 2.5 million light years (one light year equal to nearly 6 trillion miles).
Even though we will leave the holiday season, the eastern sky lights up like a big and bright Christmas tree. There are so many stars and bright constellations. I call this part of the sky Orion and his gang. Orion is the smartest of the gangs. At first glance, the mighty hunter looks like a side bowtie, but without too much imagination you can see how the bowtie resembles the torso of a big man. The three bright stars that make up the Orion belt are in perfect lines and visually jump out towards you. There are also bright stars, Rigel on Orion's knees, and Betelgeuse in his armpits. By the way, keep an eye on Betelgeuse because sometimes in the millions of years ahead it can burn in an extraordinary supernova explosion.
Elsewhere in the Orion gang, there is Auriga, a retired train driver with the bright star Capella. There is also a Bull Taurus with a small arrow pointing to the right, which describes the face of a bull with a red star Aldebaran marking the red eyes of an angry beast.
Right above the Taurus there is the Pleiades, a group of beautiful bright stars that resemble the little Big Dipper. The Pleiades Star cluster consists of more than 100 young stars, perhaps less than 100 million years old.
If you stay out after 8:30 a.m., you will see a very bright star rising in the southeast. That's Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky at any time of year. If you draw a line through the Orion belt and stretch it to the lower left, it will point right to Sirius, a little more than eight light years.
The only planet that you can see with the naked eye this month is Mars. This has made a long separation in the night sky throughout the fall. You can easily see it as a bright "red" star in the southwest sky in the afternoon. On August 1, Mars was as close as it had been on Earth since 2003. It was truly brilliant and the target of a great telescope was only less than 36 million miles from Earth. Now more than 80 million miles further, only larger telescopes can detect much detail on Mars. With the smallest coverage, this appears more or less as a small red orange disk. Mars and Earth will once again get closer and personal to each other in October 2020.
To get up early this weekend, there will be a truly special heavenly show to begin in 2019. The fading crescent will pass close to the planet Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury at dusk, low in the southeast sky. Do not miss!