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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Look North in January – an ‘Engagement Ring” points the way and ‘W” becomes an ‘M’

About one hour after sunset, look north and you should see a sky similar to the one shown in our chart – assuming you live at mid-northern latitudes. The height of Polaris, the North Star, will be the same as your latitude. Polaris stays put. Everything else appears to rotate about it, so our view of all else changes in the course of the evening – and from night to night. It’s a good idea to check the north sky every time you observe to get a sense of how things are changing and to orient yourself.

Click image for larger view. Chart derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart.

Of course, Polaris – the “North Star” – is really not exactly north. It’s just a very good approximation of north. True north in the sky is the North Celestial Pole – a project of the Earth’s north pole – and it would be too much to hope that a bright star would be parked on this exact spot. But if you have binoculars, point them at Polaris on a dark, clear night – one where there’s no interference from the Moon – and you should be able to see a neat little asterism called the “Engagement Ring,” a crude ring of 7th and 8th magnitude stars with Polaris forming the diamond. Look carefully and you’ll see this ring tells you the direction and distance to the true north celestial pole.

The North Celestial Pole is to the north of Polaris (arrow), and the Engagement Ring asterism extends to the south of it. You can use the diameter of the Engagement ring as a rough guide as to how far away – in the opposite direction – the North Celestial Pole is from Polaris. Field of view here is about 4.5 degrees as seen with 15X70 binoculars. Lower power binoculars will show a larger field. Click for larger image. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Of course, Polaris, as with the other stars, travels in a great circle around the pole. But, the relationship between the Engagement Ring, Polaris, and the true North Celestial Pole, remains the same, and south is defined as the direction away from the pole, north the direction towards the pole, and west is the direction the stars appear to rotate. For more on finding directions in the night sky, see this post. See the movie below, made with Starry Nights Pro software, to see how Polaris and the Engagement Ring rotate around the celestial north pole in the course of 24 hours.

High above Polaris the familiar “W” of Cassiopeia has completed its transition to an “M” as its stars roll around the pole. Off to the northwest we see two bright guidepost stars, Vega and Deneb. To the northeast we have brilliant Capella. Don’t be alarmed if you can’t pick out most of the Little Dipper stars – four of them are fourth magnitude or fainter and besides, they are below Polaris this month, making them even more difficult to see since you are looking through more atmosphere when stars are low. I see them only when it has become fully dark – about 90 minutes after sunset – and when my eyes have had 10-20 minutes to dark adapt.

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