January 2017 is here. We can look forward to nice long - and likely frigid nights. Do I mean snug inside by the fireplace (if you have one)? How about under the stars!
I have to admit that extremely cold nights my region experiences in northeast Pennsylvania don’t encourage me to stay out long as I’d like. Still, if you are able, with proper preparations there’s no need to let those beautiful winter stars shine unseen.
Bundle up very warmly. You may be surprised how quickly you feel the cold if you are out for a while, even in a coat and hat. It’s amazing how many people don’t care to wear a hat! Comfortable winter stargazing, in snowy climes, means going beyond what you need to dash to the car. Consider a sleeping bag, hunter’s hand and feet warmer pads, and protection for your face. Layers are important.
Certainly, don’t compromise your health or safety.
It can be frustrating to use a telescope on very cold nights. It does not take long for your breath to condense on eyepiece lens. Be very careful not to scratch the lens to wipe off the dew; use a soft, clean tissue or cloth, dabbing lightly. Keeping the eyepiece warm in your coat pocket, or even tied to a hunter’s hand warmer, can help.
If you have a reflector telescope- one that has a large mirror at the bottom and an open top end- set it outside for at least an hour before observing. This will help the warmer air inside the tube to escape, damping down the air currents that would otherwise spoil close-up views of the Moon or planets.
While at it, let your eyes adjust to the darkness before venturing out in the cold. Then you will be ready to begin observing the starts immediately and you will make more efficient use of time before the cold winter air sends you back inside. You may look like a lunatic, but at least one telescope company sold red eye goggles last time I checked. Wear these inside even in a lighted room, and your eyes will still be able to adapt to the dark night.
Consider putting up shades on the window near where you might go outside, which will block inside light and let normal indoor activities to continue.
Astronomers can be an odd bunch. They’re the last ones to call the power company when there is an electrical outage and the stars are out. They’re the ones who sometimes forget to go to bed and its not because of the Late, Late, Night Show (is that movie show still airing on TV?). They’re the ones who, upon seeing a beautiful blue daytime sky, immediately question whether the clear weather will continue into the night.
Full Moon is on January 12th. Planet Venus is glowing brilliantly in the southwestern sky. Dimmer Mars is to the upper left of Venus.
The planet Jupiter is very bright, visible in the morning sky before dawn, high in the southeast.
In the evening, enjoy beautiful Orion, the champion of winter, high in the southeast. The bright orange-red star Betelgeuse marks the top left corner; bright Rigel is on the lower right, the three “Belt Stars” in the middle.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.