Upstate New York Stargazing – January, 2018

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the and websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Upstate NY Stargazing in January: Supermoon, Quadrantids by moonlight, Uranus by binoculars

Light pillars over New Berlin, NY on Dec. 14. Photo courtesy of Nihal Dhanoa.

Published: Jan. 02, 2018, 4:12 p.m.

By Special to

By Damian Allis | Contributing writer

The interest within the space science community about Martian habitability may leave you with the question, "Just how inhospitable is Mars?" A small part of the answer comes from Canada this past week, reporting that parts of North America were colder than Mars that same day. On Dec. 28, Gale Crater on Mars peaked at -23 C, while Montreal never cleared -24 C. While the Martian night will slip much lower in temperature, it is remarkable to consider that, despite the differences in mass, atmosphere, and distance from the Sun, there are at least two places in our Solar System where a person could be easily kept warm enough to complain about the cold.

New York winters afford us opportunities for both crystal-clear astronomy and interesting physics. Light pillars, what at first blush might look like the northern lights, occur when light from the ground reflects off of ice crystals in the atmosphere. The stunning image of the phenomenon shown above is likely powered by the Chobani Plant in New Berlin. Given the positions of the most prominent stars and the knowledge that the photo is from Dec. 14, one can even pull out a star chart and deduce that the shot was taken at around 9 p.m. from a point just south of the plant.

Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York

New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for January. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees. And bring one more layer of clothing than you think you are going to need!

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake1st Friday ObservingJan. 57:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper Lake3rd Friday ObservingJan. 197:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingJan. 187:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterMember MeetingJan. 57:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusFinest Winter SkiesJan. 197:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalKAS Monthly MeetingJan. 37:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 57:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 127:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalWinter Skies TourJan. 197:00 – 11:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingJan. 267:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleMeetingJan. 107:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingJan. 207:30 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Syracuse Astronomical SocietySyracuseLecture @ OCC & ObservingJan. 127:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website

Lunar Phases

Full MoonThird QuarterNew MoonFirst QuarterFull Moon
Jan. 1, 9:24 pmJan. 8, 5:25 pmJan. 16, 9:17 pmJan. 24, 5:20 pmJan. 31, 8:26 am

The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.

Lunar features prominent in low-power binoculars.

January begins and ends with a Full Moon. The first will likely ruin the Quadrantid meteor shower, but will also be the largest of the "supermoons" this year. The second Full Moon to occur in a given month is known as a "Blue Moon." The January Blue Moon will also qualify as a 2018 supermoon. While the descriptor "supermoon" meets with varying degrees of annoyance within the astronomical community, the closer-than-usual proximity of the Moon to the Earth on these occasions is interesting – and anyone with a camera and tripod can capture each Full Moon of the year and see these small differences in apparent size for themselves. You will also see reports of the first lunar eclipse of the year occurring on Jan. 31. For NY observers, this will begin near 6 a.m. Sadly, the eclipse for us ends too soon – Hawaii and much of Asia will see the total lunar eclipse, while those of us on the other side of the planet are instead treated to sunrise and a 7 a.m. moonset.

Observing Guides

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

The sky at 9 p.m. on Jan. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Evening Skies: It took until December, but the Summer Triangle is finally no more in our pre-midnight sky. Early morning observers now see Vega and Deneb rising after 3 a.m. this month. The Winter Triangle – Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Betelgeuse in Orion – shares an edge with the much larger Winter Hexagon – Sirius, Procyon, Pollux in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion.

With Orion and its cohort all above the horizon before midnight, learning eight constellations at once is as easy as following some lines within Orion's bowtie asterism.

Orion can guide you around its neighborhood. Red = belt stars to Sirius and Canis Major; Orange = Rigel and belt center to Castor and Pollux in Gemini; Yellow = Bellatrix and Betelgeuse to Canis Major; Green = Belt stars to Aldebaran and Taurus; Blue = Saiph and Orion's head to Capella in Auriga. Click for a larger view.

Morning Skies: There are no massive asterisms on the scale of the Winter Hexagon in the morning skies right now, but prominent and familiar shapes do abound. Moving from the Little Dipper to the Big Dipper, continue nearly the same distance to reach the hind end of Leo the Lion – look to the west for the backwards question mark that is its mane. In the same neck of the woods as the two Dippers is the Keystone asterism, marking the torso of the constellation Hercules.

The sky at 5 a.m. on Jan. 15, accurate all month except for the changing Moon position.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury: Mercury was easiest to see on Dec. 28th and is now rising a few minutes later each morning. Your best chances to see it are close to 6:30 a.m., very low on the southeast horizon, during the first two weeks of January. It will next be visible after sunset in early March, when it makes for an excellent pairing with Venus.

Venus: Venus is not easily, nor safely, observable until February, when it returns as an observing target soon after sunset.

Mars and Jupiter: Mars and Jupiter come as an unmissable pair in the early morning skies this month. Mars rises before Jupiter in Libra the Scales from the 1st to the 6th around 3:30 a.m., after which it slides past Jupiter and becomes the later arrival. Mars will move swiftly through Libra this month, just grazing the Libra/Scorpius border on Jan. 31. Jupiter and Mars will make for an excellent close pairing on the 6th and 7th, followed by a close grouping with the Moon on the 11th.

Mars and Jupiter this month, with the Moon position shown on the 11th.

Those with even poor-quality binoculars are able to see the four bright satellites of Jupiter – known as the "Galilean Moons" for their first observer – and the appearance of Jupiter as a disc of light instead of a simple pinpoint like all stars. Many websites, including the Jupiter's Moons webapp at Sky & Telescope, can provide you with the real-time and future positions of the fast-moving moons for any viewing opportunity you get this and every month.

When the weather doesn't cooperate, the NASA Juno mission (tw,fb) continues to impress with hard science and beautiful images.

Saturn: Saturn rises earlier each morning this month, making for an excellent observing target for morning observers with Mars and Jupiter after 6 a.m. after the 20th. Saturn will continue to rise earlier each morning and be visible at some point in the nighttime sky until October.

ISS And Other Bright Satellites

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays and six current occupants can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS is up in the morning before many of us until the 17th, when it disappears for a week before becoming an evening target on the 24th through the end of the month. There are six chances to see the ISS twice before starting your day, although you will have to start extra early all six times to catch these morning pairings.

ISS Flyovers

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart Direct.Approx. EndEnd Direct.
1/1somewhat4:59 AME/NE5:00 AME/NE
1/1very6:32 AMW/NW6:36 AMNE
1/2very5:42 AMN/NE5:44 AMNE
1/3very6:24 AMNW6:28 AMNE
1/4moderately5:34 AMN/NE5:35 AMNE
1/5moderately6:16 AMN/NW6:19 AMNE
1/6moderately5:26 AMN/NE5:27 AMNE
1/6very6:59 AMNW7:04 AME/NE
1/7moderately6:08 AMNNW6:11 AMNE
1/8moderately5:18 AMN/NE5:19 AMNE
1/8very6:51 AMNW6:57 AME
1/9very6:00 AMN6:04 AME/NE
1/10moderately5:10 AMNE5:11 AME/NE
1/10exceptionally6:42 AMNW6:48 AME/SE
1/11very5:52 AMN5:56 AME
1/12moderately5:02 AME/NE5:03 AME/NE
1/12exceptionally6:34 AMW/NW6:40 AMSE
1/13exceptionally5:44 AMN5:47 AME/SE
1/14somewhat4:54 AME4:55 AME
1/14very6:26 AMW6:31 AMS/SE
1/15exceptionally5:36 AMS5:39 AMSE

Predictions courtesy of Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit

Meteor Showers: Quadrantids, From Dec. 28 to Jan. 12, Peaking Jan. 3

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their orbits, they leave tiny bits behind, usually no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through these debris fields – this yearly periodicity is what let us identify and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The Quadrantids radiant near the Big and Little Dippers, with the location of Quadrans Muralis marked out as well. Click for a larger view.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. The Quadrantids are one of the few meteor showers named after a constellation that is no longer recognized by the professional astronomical community. Quadrans Muralis, the quadrant, was an addition to the nighttime sky by French astronomer Jerome Lalande back in 1795. While the quadrant, a wall-mounted instrument for measuring the angles of celestial objects, was a vital tool to astronomers of the day, the constellation never made it past the final vote at the 1922 Convention of the International Astronomical Union. For those who have never explored the history and politics of the constellations, let the quadrantids serve as a yearly reminder.

How to observe: Sadly, the Quadrantid peak this year will be washed out by the near-full Moon, making this otherwise reasonably active meteor shower a difficult one to enjoy. If you insist on braving the cold, lie as flat as possible with your feet pointed towards the radiant and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you.

Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Pisces

Pisces, with the Great Square of Pegasus marked to its side, and Uranus within a binocular field of view.

Those keeping track of the planetary descriptions in this series will note that, with the very rarest of exceptions, the planets you can see without any equipment are always within one of the twelve Zodiacal Constellations. This is not a coincidence!

If the Solar System were a dinner plate on a table, the eight planets would all be variously-sized morsels – peas, olives, meatballs – orbiting around a massive grapefruit at the center. As we moved once around the plate and scan the rest of the dining room, we might see a chair directly opposite the grapefruit, then a picture hanging on the wall, then an archway into the kitchen, then another chair, then other prominent objects in the distance until we'd made one complete revolution around the grapefruit – after which we'd see the same objects in the same positions during our second and future trips around the plate. Because we're all on the same plate, all of the other planetary morsels will appear between ourselves and the prominent objects we identified in our trip around the grapefruit, changing which prominent object they appear to be in front of based on how fast they – and we – are moving around the plate.

In keeping with the festive season and the foodie theme, we begin a survey of the Zodiacal Constellations at the western horizon this month with one of several Zodiac signs easily paired with wine. The prominent stars of Pisces the Fishes have been parts of constellations since Babylonian days, but were not solidly recorded in the Western astronomy tradition as fish until about 1,000 B.C.E. Its shape is roughly that of two fish tied together by a rope. Piscis Boreus, the Northern Fish, is the triangle close to the nearby Aries. Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, is a pentagon of stars that share a border with Aquarius. Depending on your light pollution, neither shape may be very prominent in your sky – the Great Square of Pegasus, close to the horizon in the early evening this month, may serve as a brighter guide.

We start with Pisces this month for a very good reason. If Pisces were a clam instead of a fish, binocular observers with steady hands and good optics are treated to a greenish-blue pearl close to the hinge of the clamshell. The distant planet Uranus, the fourth largest, seventh farthest from the Sun, and bitterly cold gas giant planet, was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel. This discovery is important for two reasons. First, Uranus can only been seen without binoculars or telescope under the absolute best of observing conditions – and some amateur astronomers would even say "that's nuts." For all of human history, only Mercury-to-Saturn were known as planets to astronomers, astrologers, and anyone else until Herschel's discovery. Second, Herschel knew where to limit his observations thanks to Isaac Newton, whose revolutionary physics of the time explained why the Solar System is a flat disc of planets – and why one would only reasonably expect to find planets in the same region of the sky as the known planets – that region defined by the stars of the Zodiac.

Uranus may serve to be a difficult catch even under good conditions, but seeing this planet with your own eyes is a great way to start your observing for 2018.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any NY astronomy clubs or events to promote, please contact the author.

Original Posts:


Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Orion

As first appeared in the April 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Much can be said about the old hunter Orion. To Central New York observers, it had (until very recently) been the case that Orion made his way across the Night Sky during the coldest and least hospitable (to most nighttime observers) months of the year. Conditions would keep observers in hiding from him (some of the best CNY observers I know would risk surgical strikes on the Orion Nebula with their fastest to set-up and tear-down equipment). The abbreviated winter of 2011/2012 and reasonably early start of the SAS observing season have provided us with excellent opportunities in the past few months to make Orion The Hunter now the hunted. The mid-April observing session will be the last "official" opportunity to observe Orion before he disappears behind the Western horizon until the most nocturnal of us can next see him in our Eastern sky before sunrise in late August. I then take this opportunity to discuss Orion, one many CNY/SAS members may know the best by sight but may know the least by observing attention.

One of the topics covered in the 2011 SAS lecturing series was how we observe. Not the discussion of optics or the physics of planetary motion along the ecliptic, but the visual and mental mechanisms we use to translate the photonic triggers in our retina into mental pictures of celestial objects. Orion was the astronomical example I used to describe Pareidolia, how we impose a kind of order on things we see despite that order not being present in the actual collection. When you look at a cloud, you may see a face, an animal, or something your mind triggers as being something it clearly is not. I often placed the infamous "Face On Mars" next to the Constellation Orion to show clearly how we see what we think we see despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary (or the two can be mangled together, as shown below). The clouds may look like an animal, the "Face On Mars" looks unmistakably like a shadowed face, and Orion, as it happens, has looked like a human figure to virtually all peoples for as long as we have record of Constellations, the same way Scorpius has appeared as a scorpion to every civilization for which this little monster was part of the local biosphere.

Pareidolia is not just for cognitive neuroscience! One of the keys to learning the sky I discussed last year was to let your mind wander while staring at the sky and see if certain things jump out at you. The constellations are, for the most part, made up of the most reasonably bright star groupings, but if you see any type of geometry that makes some part of the sky easy to identify, run with it. This same philosophy may be responsible for the rise of the asterism, or "non-Constellation star grouping," as the distillation of mythological complexity into more practical tools for everyday living. For instance, I suspect everyone reading this can find the asterism known as the Big Dipper, but how many know all of the stars of its proper Constellation Ursa Major? Our southern tree line and Cortland obscure some of the grandeur of Sagittarius, which means we at the hill identify the location of its core (and several galactic highlights) by the easy-to-see "teapot." The body of Orion is a similar case of reduction-to-apparent, as the four stars marking his corners (clockwise from upper left)…

Betelgeuse (pronounced "Betelgeuse Betelgeuse Betelgeuse!" – marking his right shoulder; a red supergiant of very orange-ish color even without binoculars)

Bellatrix – the left shoulder (so you now know the Constellation is facing us as originally defined) – a blue giant known also known as the "Amazon Star"

Rigel – the left foot; a blue supergiant and the star system within which the aliens that make the Rigel Quick Finder reside

Saiph – the right foot; a star dim in the visible but markedly brighter in the ultraviolet. Saiph and Rigel are about the same distance away (Saiph 50 light years closer at 724 light years, a point to consider as you observe them both)

… and the three stars marking his belt (from left)…

Alnitak – A triple-star system 800 light years away with a blue supergiant as its anchor star

Alnilam – the farthest star of the belt at 1359 light years, this young blue supergiant burns as brightly as the other two, making the belt appear equally bright "al across"

Mintaka – 900 light years away, this is an eclipsing binary star system, meaning one star passes between us and the main star in its orbit (about every 5.7 days)

… are obvious to all, while the head and club stars require a longer look to identify.

Sticking to Naked Eye observing for a moment, Orion is not only famous for its historical significance and apparent brightness. Orion is ideally oriented to serve as an order of alignment for several nearby Constellations and is surrounded by enough bright stars and significant Constellations that curiosity alone should have you familiar with this part of the sky in very short order. As an April focus, it is of benefit that all of the Constellations we'll focus on either hit the horizon at the same time as Orion or they rest above him.

I've color-coded the significant stars marking notable Constellations in the image below. If you're standing outside on any clear night, the marked stars should all be quite obvious (we're talking a hands' width or two at arm's length). From right and working our way counterclockwise…

(RED) Following the belt stars to the right will lead you to the orange-ish star Aldebaran, marking the eye of Taurus the Bull. This is a dense part of the sky, as Aldebaran marks both the head of the Bull and also marks the brightest star in the Hyades star cluster (a gravitationally-bound open cluster 150 light years away composed of over 100 stars). Just to the right of this cluster is the "Tiny Dipper" known as the Pleiades (Messier 45), another dense star cluster worth observing at all magnifications. Both of these clusters are simultaneously easier and harder to find at present, as Venus ("1") is resting just above them, providing an easy way to find both clusters but plenty of reflected light to dull the brilliance of the two open clusters.

(ORANGE) Auriga, featuring Capella (the third brightest star in the Night Sky), is an oddly-shaped hexagon featuring a small triangle at one corner. Auriga, like Ursa Minor in last month's discussion, is made easy to find by the fact that the five marked stars are in an otherwise nondescript part of the sky (relatively dim generally, but brighter than anything in the vicinity). Venus will dull Hassaleh (Auriga's closest star to Venus and the two open clusters below it) but Elnath and Capella will be easy finds.

(YELLOW) Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, are literally standing on Orion's club. Making an arrow from Mintaka (the right-most star of the belt) and Betelgeuse will lead you to Alhena (Pollux's left foot), after which a slow curve in a horseshoe shape will give you the remaining stars.

(GREEN) Canis Minor is two stars (which is boring), but is significant for containing Procyon, the 7th brightest star in the Night Sky (which means it will be an EASY find). But don't confuse it with Sirius, which is the big shimmering star in…

(BLUE) Canis Major is the larger of Orion's two dogs and contains Sirius ("The Dog Star"), a star so bright (magnitude −1.46) and so close (8.6 light years) that it appears not as a star but as a shimmering light. Some would say an airplane, others would say a hovering UFO. Part of my duties as president involve intermittently explaining that it is not the latter.

And, with respect, Monoceros is an old Constellation but not a particularly brilliant one. Having Canis Minor and Canis Major identified will make your identification of Monoceros quite straightforward.

We now turn to the other "stellar" objects in Orion, composed of three Messiers and one famous IC. M78 is a diffuse nebula almost one belt width above and perpendicular to Alnitak. You will know it when you see it. M43 and M42 (marked as "4" in the image below), on the other hand, are so bright and close that you can see their nebulosity in dark skies without aid of any optics.

M42 – The Orion Nebula is, in the right dark conditions, a Naked Eye sight in itself. For those of us between cities, even low-power binoculars bring out the wispy edges and cloudy core of this nebula. For higher-power observers, the resolving of Trapezium at M42's core serves as one of your best tests of astronomy binoculars (I consider the identification of four stars as THE proper test of a pair of 25×100's. Ideal conditions and a larger aperture will get you six stars total). You could spend all night just exploring the edges and depths of this nebula. You can take a look back at the Astro Bob article in the April 2012 edition of the Astronomical Chronicle (From My Driveway To Orion, Nature Works Wonders) for a more detailed discussion of this part of Orion.

M43 – de Mairan's Nebula is, truth be told, a lucky designation. M43 is, in fact, part of the M42 nebula that is itself a small part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex (not THAT'S a label). M43 owes its differentiation to a dark lane of dust that breaks M43 and M42, just as the lane of dust in our own Milky Way we know as the "Great Rift" splits what would otherwise be one continuous band of distant stars the same way a large rock in a stream causes the water to split in two and recombine on the other side.

Finally (and the one you'll work for), IC 434, the Horsehead Nebula, lies just to the lower-left of Alnitak (1). The Horsehead is itself a dark nebula, a region absorbing light to make it pronounced by its difference from the lighter regions around it. To put the whole area into perspective, The Horsehead is itself STILL within the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The sheath of Orion's Sword and nearly the entire belt is contained in this Complex, like dust being rattled off with each blow from Orion's club.

I close by taking a look at the perilously ignored club attempting to tear into Taurus. At present, asteroids surround Orion's Club like pieces of debris flying off after a hard impact. All are in the vicinity of 12th magnitude (so require a decent-sized mirror), and all are also moving at a sufficiently fast clip that their paths can be seen to change over several observing sessions (if, by miracle, enough clear days in a row can be had to make these measurements). I have highlighted the five prominent ones in the image below.

Is it an oddity to have Orion so full of asteroids? Certainly not! Orion is placed near the ecliptic, the apparent path of the planets in their motion around the Sun. Orion's club just barely grazes the ecliptic at the Gemini/Taurus border, two of the 12 Constellations of the Zodiac, the collection of Constellations that themselves mark the ecliptic. As nearly all of the objects in the Solar System lie near or within the disc of the Solar System, you expect to find all manner of smaller objects in the vicinity of the Zodiacal Constellations. In effect, Orion's club is kicking up different dust all year long as the asteroids orbit the Sun. You only have a few more weeks to watch the action happen before Orion's return in the very early early morning of the very late summer.

– Happy Hunting, Damian