Here are some fun activities you can do as you stargaze at the winter sky:
- See the Earth's rotation by watching the starfield change positions in the sky. Find a bright star or planet near the eastern or western horizon and note its position in the sky, wait one hour, then view it again and notice the change in position. It also works well to find a landmark that doesn't move and compare a star's location in the sky to this landmark at different times of the night. Remember to stand in the exact same place each time.
- Find the Milky Way. It is a band of stars which looks cloudy and crosses the sky through the following constellations: Cassiopeia, Perseus, and between Gemini and Orion.
- Look for winter constellations:
Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Big Dipper or Ursa Major, Little Dipper or Ursa Minor. Find out where these and others are by looking at a January starchart and take it with you outdoors.
- Look for bright and colorful stars: Polaris (the North Star), Betelgeuse (beetle-juice) is orange in color, Rigel is a bluish-white colored star. A star's color is caused by its surface temperature, blue and white being the hottest, and red and orange being cooler.
- Find planets in the sky. Planets will look like stars, but you can actually see 5 planets without a telescope. In early January, Venus can be seen shining very brightly in the southwest after sunset, and will sink closer to the horizon as the month goes on. Mars and Jupiter can be seen higher and a little farther south, or to your left. Saturn will be even farther south (left) and even higher in the sky.
- Look for meteors.
- Look for northern lights (see below).
Special celestial events to watch for in the winter and year-round:
Wisconsin is a great place to see the "aurora borealis," especially if you are in the northern part of the state. Look for this event on the northern horizon late at night between 10 pm and 2 am. You may see a glow of light, bands, or even waves of white or colored (usually green and red, or blue and red) light move across the sky or shoot up from the horizon. It is an event of a lifetime that you'll never forget. Watch for the northern lights any time of year, however, fall (Sept.) and spring (March) seem to be the best times.
Have you every heard of "shooting stars?" Well, during certain times of the year, you can see anywhere from 15-50 "shooting stars" per hour. These are really light streaks caused by meteors which are tiny pieces of debris, the size of a pinhead or a grain of sand, which enter the Earth's atmosphere and cause the air to glow as it passes through. Meteors are heated and usually get destroyed by friction. Sometimes you can even see the meteor fade out as it disintegrates. Other times the meteoroid will survive the heat and wind up landing on Earth. They are then considered meteorites. Take a friend or two and lie in opposite directions so that you can each scan part of the sky for shooting "stars."
Meteor showers are created when the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet. Comets are just like large dirty snowballs and when they melt and turn to a gas, they leave behind a path of space dust. The Earth's gravity pulls the meteoroids, or dust, into our atmosphere, causing many more "shooting stars" or meteors than normally seen. The best time to see these is after midnight since this is when "our" side of the Earth is racing through the path of space dust. The following is a sample of major meteor showers to watch for during the year. We've listed the peak nights--these will be best for viewing. But, depending on the meteor shower, they can last from a few days to a month.
Meteors per Hour
||50 (most reliable of year)|
Lost your view of the nighttime sky? Learn about light pollution.