Looking Up: The Northern Winter Night Sky

By Gary Boyle December 6, 2017

Author’s Note: Nights around new moon are the best time to enjoy a dark sky and occur: December 17, January 16, and February 15. Full moons will occur on: January 1, January 31, and March 1.

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The great outdoors never cease to amaze me – summer or winter. Now, flourishing trees, blooming plants, and flowers are replaced by bare branches and a blanket of snow. The nightly rhythm of crickets and frogs has been replaced by the sound of silence to the point you can almost hear your heart beat. Starry patterns also change over months, with the winter sky displaying a memorable scene on clear, moonless nights.

From the numerous lodges and resorts in Northeastern Ontario (keep scrolling for a full list), dark skies will allow you to glimpse the fainter outer edge of our Milky Way Galaxy. An hour after sunset, familiar constellations such as Cygnus the Swan sink in the north east, while iconic Orion the Hunter rises in the east.

Locating Stars in the Night Sky

The Double Cluster is located close to the familiar “W” of Cassiopeia.

Starting from the Swan, we move east and come across the “Double Cluster in Perseus” located close to the familiar “W” of Cassiopeia. At 7,700 light years away, this pair appears as ghostly eyes. Magnification reveals hundreds of brightly coloured stars appearing like diamonds on velvet.

Not far from the Double Cluster is our closest neighbouring galaxy. This is called the Andromeda Galaxy, or M31, some 2.5 million light years away. The galaxy appears as a faint patch of light to the unaided eye, but a moderate-sized telescope will show a couple of galactic arms and two satellite galaxies, catalogued M32 and M110.

Twice the size of our Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy contains an estimated one trillion stars. Before Edwin Hubble imaged Andromeda in October of 1923, astronomers thought we were the only galaxy. We now know there are about two trillion galaxies in the observable universe!

Next, locate the bright star named Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Listed as the third brightest star in the northern sky, Capella resides 43 light years from us and shines 170 times brighter than the Sun. Down in the lower section of Auriga are a string of three small open star clusters. They are catalogued as M37, M36, and M38. Barely detectable to the unaided eye, all three are located about 4,100 light years away. Binoculars will help you find this trio.

Taurus & Orion

We now end at Orion – the true sign of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The seven bright stars form the Hunter, as he is in battle mode against Taurus the Bull to the upper right. Located in the sword hanging from the line of three stars that form his belt is the magnificent Orion Nebula. Commonly referred as a stellar nursery, it lies 1,500 light years away. Over the next few million years, pockets of gas and dust will slowly condense and collapse to create an incredible star cluster of an estimated 2,000 stars.

As mentioned, Orion is battling Taurus the Bull with the Hyades star cluster depicting the bull’s “V” shaped head and horns. At 153 light years away the Hyades is the closest cluster to us. Off to the upper right we see the Pleiades Cluster, also known as the “Seven Sisters”. This amazing cluster is 450 light years away and represents the mythological “heart” of the bull.

Meteor Showers & Planet Gazing

One of the best meteor showers of the year, called the Geminids, peaks on the night of December 13 into the morning of 14. With a very thin waning crescent moon rising at 3:45 am, dark skies will allow you to see 120 meteors per hour, or one every 30 seconds on average. These are tiny particles from asteroid 3200 Phaethon entering our atmosphere at 35 km/sec producing long, slow streaks, vapourizing about 80 kilometres high.

Another highly active meteor shower in 2018 is the Quadrantids that peaks on the night of January 3 and 4. With the same rate of 120 meteors per hour, the (92%) waning gibbous moon will wash out the fainter ones.

With the planet Saturn perched on the western horizon, it disappears shortly after sunset, we shift our planet viewing to the early morning sky. Mars rises around 3:30 am locally on December 1 with brilliant Jupiter about an hour and a left later. As the sky brightens you might still glimpse Venus on the horizon, but it will be lost in the solar glare in a week or so.

Where To Enjoy the Best Stargazing

The Canadian Ecology Centre in Mattawa hosts winter weekends and start gazing events all winter long! Photo: 9Lives Designs

If you’re ready to enjoy the best winter star gazing and make the most of winter, we’ve done some of the homework for you — here’s our complete list of winter resorts and wilderness lodges that cater to winter adventurers!

Author’s Note: When buying a Christmas gift for that budding astronomer or for yourself, consider purchasing wide angle binoculars such as 7 x 35mm or telescope

Special Events

  • Canadian Ecology Centre – Stars & Songs – January 27, 2018
    Join the Canadian Ecology Centre for an evening of music with Canadian musician and adventurer, Ian Tamblyn. Stay for the night, or make it a weekend with telescope viewings and a winter campfire.

 

  • Friends of Killarney Park – Winter Weekend – February 17-18, 2018
    Experience the beauty of winter in Killarney Provincial Park firsthand. Try your hand at snowshoeing or cross country skiing, participate in stargazing activities, and join the Friends of Killarney Park for dinner at the Sportsman’s Inn.

Until next time, clear skies everyone.

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Look for the International Space Station passing near or over:

Chapleau – Cochrane – Elliot Lake – French River – Iroquois Falls – Kapuskasing – Killarney –Kirkland Lake – Manitoulin Island – Mattawa – Moosonee – North Bay – Sudbury – Temagami – Temiskaming Shores – Timmins – Wolf Lake

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