IT’S January; the beginning of another astronomical year, and although we are now in winter the Earth is actually at its closest point to the Sun. On January 2 the Earth is at ‘Perihelion’ or closest point to the Sun, when we will be 91,399,454 miles (147,093,163km) away. That’s in contrast to six months from now when Earth reaches ‘Aphelion’, its most distant point, on July 5 when we will be 94,510,635 miles (152,100,527km) from the Sun.

In January in the northern hemisphere we experience winter, so it can seem counter intuitive to learn that the Earth is now at its closest to the Sun. However, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun in January, while the southern hemisphere, which is tilted towards the Sun, has summer. In six months’ time of course the situation will be reversed.

I am often asked how to work out the four points of the compass: north; south; east and west, because I refer to them in the monthly sky notes. Here is a simple way of least looking in roughly the correct direction. We know that the Sun rises in the east. Stand in your garden or outside your house with your left shoulder pointing towards the part of the sky where you see the Sun rise every day. Your right shoulder will automatically be pointing to the west, where the Sun sets. South will be be directly ahead of you and north will be behind you.

If you look north east you will see the Plough with its handle pointing towards the horizon. The two stars furthest from the handle of the Plough are, as always, pointing to the North Star. The ‘W’ of Cassiopeia is now very high in the North West and because of its position is becoming a letter ‘M’. If you look directly overhead you will see the bright yellow star Capella in the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer and just to the right and below Capella you will notice a faint but distinctive triangle of stars known the Haedi or Kids. ‘Capella’ means the she-goat and where the she-goat goes, the kids will follow, meaning they are always easy to find.

If you look to the south you cannot fail to see the splendid constellation of Orion the Hunter. Seven bright stars make up this constellation; four that form a large rectangle and inside this the three stars that form the belt of Orion.

According to legend, Orion boasted that he could kill any living creature, but one day when he was boasting to a large crowd about all the animals he had killed he did not see a little Scorpion creeping up behind him.

The Scorpion stung Orion on the ankle and killed him. The gods, however, had been so impressed with the boasting of Orion that he was placed in the sky forever, and so was the clever Scorpion. To make sure they could never meet again Orion was placed in the winter sky while the Scorpion was placed in the summer sky.

It will quickly be seen that six of the seven stars that form Orion are blue/white in colour, while one is distinctly red. The red star in the top left hand star of the rectangle is called Betelgeux or as some people like to call it, Beetlejuice!

The colours of the stars tell astronomers which are the hottest. Stars that appear blue/white are much hotter than stars that are red. The blue stars are very young stars and can have surface temperatures of around 30,000 degrees centigrade, while the much older red stars have surface temperatures of only 3,000 degrees centigrade. Our Sun has a surface temperature of around 5,800 degrees centigrade and is, in stellar terms, rather middle aged.

Just below the stars of Orion’s Belt you will notice the fuzzy patch of the Orion Nebula. This is a stellar nursery: an area of space where as many as one thousand stars are actually being created out of a giant cloud of dust and gas at any moment.

If you use the belt stars and draw a line down and to the left you will arrive at Sirius the Dog Star; the brightest star in the sky in the constellation of Canis Major, the Great Dog. Using the belt stars and drawing a line up and to the right you will find the bright red star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus the Bull and if this line is continued you will reach a fuzzy or misty patch in the sky which is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, a cluster of stars moving through space together. Although called the Seven Sisters, I can usually only see five or six with the naked eye. People with much better eyesight than mine will see seven or more, but in fact there are hundreds of stars there.

Going back to Betelgeuse, a line drawn to the left and slightly curved will reach another bright star, Procyon, in the constellation of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. A line drawn from the middle star of the belt of Orion past Betelgeuse and curved slightly to the left will reach the two brightest stars in the constellation of Gemini the Twins; the stars Castor and Pollux.

By using Orion as a signpost it is possible to find the brightest stars in the winter sky and then to move around and find the fainter constellations and stars.

The planets in January:

After the great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn last month I am afraid the sky is going to be lacking some of the planets for a while. As we enter the new year both of these gas giants are now too close to the Sun in the sky to be seen, as is the planet Mercury. However all is not lost as we still have the red planet, Mars, which is high in the sky in the south west and will be with us throughout the month. The only other planet we can see is Venus in the morning sky which at the beginning of the month rise about two hours before the Sun. By the end of January it becomes more difficult to see Venus as it rises barely a half hour before sunrise.

Meteor Showers:

Following the spectacular Geminid meteor shower last month we have the Quadrantid meteor shower on the nights of January 2nd / 3rd and 3rd / 4th when around 40 to70 meteors per hour can be seen. The Quadrantids do have one very important claim to fame in that theirs is the only meteor shower named after a constellation that no longer exists. A meteor shower is named after the constellation the meteors appear to come from; in this case the Mural Quadrant. In 1930 when the modern constellation boundaries were defined, the Mural Quadrant was discarded as were many other old constellations. As this meteor shower was known during the nineteenth century we still recognise the defunct constellation in its name.

Phases of the Moon for January:Last Quarter 6; New Moon 13; First Quarter 20; Full Moon 28.The Full Moon in January is known as the Wolf Moon when, in ancient times, wolves were heard howling more often than normal while looking for food.

Due to the coronavirus, there will be no meetings of the Earby Astronomical Society until further notice.