On occasion, the sky is exquisitely clear. Daytime’s rich turquoise sky often heralds a transparent window into the universe over backyards across the region.

Ever see the constellation of the Groundhog? Neither have I because there isn’t one. If there was, the holiday would be “Groundhog Night” but then he’d never see his shadow unless it was nearly a full moon. Then we would rarely get the joy (?!) of six more weeks of winter.

Winter nights are cold in this part of the world, but so worth bundling up and putting a couple of those hand warmer pouches in your gloves. What splendor awaits! 

On occasion, the sky is exquisitely clear. Daytime’s rich turquoise sky often heralds a transparent window into the universe over backyards across the region.

On a night like this, it can be so clear that light pollution does not stand as much of a chance to spoil. There is less dust and vapor to reflect and diffuse the bombardment of light from our streetlights, security lights, signs and parking lot lamps. The constellations become filled with sprinkling of faint stars, salted generously. Even the winter Milky Way stood out more plainly than it usually does.

This is tougher to appreciate if you live in or near a city, but your best view is likely straight overhead, in the  “zenith.” At this time of year, the constellation Auriga, the chariot driver (if you want, you can call him Louie the Taxicab Driver), passes overhead in the evening.

The Milky Way passes right through Auriga, and it is rich in star clusters easily spotted in binoculars. Marking Auriga’s “eye” is the bright yellow star Capella.

Winter evening’s portion of the Milky Way Band is not as easy to see as the summer section. The Milky Way Band completely encircles the sky, though we never see all of it at once. The sun is one of the 100 billion or so stars making up the Milky Way galaxy and is situated within the broad stellar arms that curve from the wider central hub of our wonderful galaxy.

When you see the Milky Way Band, you are looking at the neighboring spiral arms, which overlap one another from our viewpoint within. The summer Milky Way is wider and brighter because we are looking towards the central hub of the galaxy.

Scanning across the Milky Way Band with a telescope is like a portal view from some future starship. Even a small telescope reveals thousands of stars, bright and dim and everything between, filling the field of view with endless and curious arrangements.

With the random sprinkling of stars, it is no surprise they will group into geometric shapes, creating for our imagination all sorts of custom constellations technically called “asterisms.” Stars were seen in wonderful lines and arc, making corners of imaginary boxes and other shapes. It is easy to picture objects, not unlike we may have done as a child gazing at puffy fair-weather clouds.

Oh, to be so carefree again! We can be, if even for a few minutes to spare, to let your heart be filled. We are not robots limited to a cold intellect.
Orion’s Great Nebula (M42), visible as a fuzzy star to the unaided eyes just below the left side of the “Belt” stars, became a vivid, complex assembly of space dust, illuminated by stars, in the telescope eyepiece.

With 100 billion stars and vast cosmic clouds called nebulae filling much of the galaxy, one might think space is far from empty. You’re right. Although we speak of the vacuum of outer space and how very empty it is compared with our world, it is well populated with atoms of every element imaginable and energy of every frequency making waves as it passes by.

Atoms are so sparse beyond Earth or any planetary or stellar body that space can effectively be considered a “perfect vacuum.” Where space begins is also a relative question; the Earth’s atmosphere gradually thins as altitude increases. Even satellites in low Earth orbit will eventually fall because of friction with the atoms of the outer atmosphere. The United States sets the definition of an astronaut as one who travels 50 miles up and greater.

Astronomers, and particularly those who study the universe at large, who are called cosmologists, ponder an annoying missing component that has been termed “dark matter.” Pending a satisfied description, this hypothetical “stuff” is used to account for what seems to be missing mass needed to give galaxies and matter in general the gravity and physical forces they are observed to contain.

Clearly, there are enough questions to keep us going!

The most wonderful part of all this is you don’t even need to know all this to simply enjoy the beauty of the night sky, cherished ever since mankind looked up on the first clear night.

New moon is on Feb. 2, giving us dark nights this week. Watch for the crescent moon in the west during evening twilight later in the week. Keep looking up!

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