January’s starry nights

What's up in the night sky above Oak Bay this month?

This rare Harris’s Sparrow was caught on camera by Geoffrey Newell during the Oak Bay Christmas Bird Count.

This rare Harris’s Sparrow was caught on camera by Geoffrey Newell during the Oak Bay Christmas Bird Count.

What’s Up for January 2016? A full moon, a binocular comet and the winter circle of stars.

A full moon is scheduled for Jan. 24. The moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and its face will be will be fully illuminated. This full moon was known by early Coast Salish as the Full Wolf Moon because this was the time of year when hungry wolf packs howled outside their villages. If you’re at Cattle Point Star Park, I expect you’ll hear Oak Bay’s own coastal wolf, Staqeya, howling from Discovery Island. The Salish say he can be heard as far as the Highlands. Some say he howls with joy at the full moon. Others say he howls with loneliness ,urging female wolves to come live with him on the islands.

Mid-month, midnight through pre-dawn is prime time for viewing comet Catalina, also near Ursa Major this month. It should be visible in binoculars if you have a dark sky, but a telescope would be ideal. From Jan. 14 to 17, the comet will pass two stunning galaxies, M51, the Whirlpool galaxy and M101, a fainter spiral galaxy. These will be gorgeous in a telescope against a clear, crisp winter’s night.

Winter is also the best time to view the constellation Orion in the southeastern sky toward Seattle. Even from Cattle Point Star Park, you’ll see its stars have different colours. No telescope needed. Just look up a few hours after sunset. Orion’s shoulder star Betelgeuse is a red giant while its opposite knee is blue. Below the familiar belt stars is the Orion Nebula, a star-forming region easily visible with binoculars.

The colourful stars of Orion are part of the Winter Circle of Stars. Let’s start with Orion’s Blue star Rigel, and work clockwise to create the circle. At 6 o’clock, notice the brilliant white of Sirius, the brightest star in our northern hemisphere skies.

Next up is faint yellow Procyon at 8 o’clock, and the colourful Gemini Twins Pollux and Castor at 10 o’clock. Brighter Pollux is faint orange and Castor is white. Yellow Capella appears at 12 o’clock. Finally at 2 o’clock, stunning orange Aldebaran, near the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus the Bull. In the middle of our circle lies red Betelgeuse. A star’s colour reveals its temperature and age. The hotter a star, the more blue light it produces. The cooler the star, the more red light it produces. Medium-hot stars like our sun are yellow. Learn all about NASA’s studies of the stars and much more at NASA.Gov

Summarized from “What’s Up In January 2016” by NASA announcer and astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point Urban Star Park and the Oak Bay News. By Bill Smith and the RASCals of Cattle Point, volunteers at Cattle Point DARK SKY Urban Star Park.