With the shortest day of winter behind us, we can begin to look into the new year with anticipation of more sunshine and new beginnings. Even with that positivity, the ground outside is still hard and uninviting; it can be difficult for some of us to see the light at the end of the season’s dreary, icicle-laden tunnel, especially now that the holiday sparkle is also behind us. But—fear not!—there are ways to connect with nature and remain grounded even during these days of long nights. Ironically, you can do so by looking aloft, at the night sky.
If there’s one thing the frigid winter air offers us, it’s crystal clear nights. It isn’t a figment of your imagination that January and other cold months have clearer skies: It’s fact! How? Warmer air holds more moisture, and moisture holds onto dust and air pollutants that cause the atmosphere to appear hazy and thereby dilute our ability to view stars, planets, and other astronomical (literally and figuratively!) events. With colder weather the moisture levels in the air drop, which in turn causes dust and pollutants to also drop—to the ground, that is—leaving clearer, more pristine skies above that are perfect for appreciating wintertime’s celestial offerings.
Two of the soonest events to occur are the Quadrantids Meteor Shower, on January 3 and 4, and the Total Lunar Eclipse, which will happen on the night of January 21.
The Quadrantids Meteor Shower appears annually and the event is thought to be produced by dust left behind by an extinct comet discovered by scientists in 2003. Though the shower technically runs from January 1-5, this year it’ll peak the night of the 3rd and morning of the 4th. Best viewings will occur after midnight and the absence of a bright moon will improve the meteors’ visibility, which will primarily originate from the constellation Boötes, “The Herdsman”, though the “shooting stars” can appear anywhere in the sky. (The constellation Boötes is one of the largest in the sky and can only be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. It can be found at the tail end of the popular Big Dipper constellation, which is made up of stars from the less familiar and larger Great Bear (aka Ursa Major) constellation.)
As for the Total Lunar Eclipse, that happens when the Earth comes directly between the Sun and Moon. The result: A Moon covered completely by the Earth’s shadow that glows ominously in the sky a rusty-blood red. We can only cross our fingers and hope our view of our planet’s only natural satellite isn’t hindered by cloud cover or inclement weather.
Winter officially ends March 20th, on Spring Equinox. That means we have only a few more months of cold, crystal skies left! So pull out those blankets, boots, mugs of hot beverages, and whatever else you’ll need to stay cozy before the haze of warmer weather clouds our nighttime view of these wonderful local wild celestial shows.
(For a more complete listing of celestial events for the U.S., please visit Sea and Sky’s Astronomy Reference Guide at www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2019.html.)