The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, who faces both forward and backward at the same time. Janus is also known as the god of gates, doors, bridges, beginnings and endings, transitions, movement and even time itself. That is especially fitting now that we have survived the often forecasted end of the world and are ready to create new beginnings and transitions and an age of greater cooperation on Earth.
The days are already getting longer. By month’s end, the days will be a full hour longer than they were at the winter solstice.
Based on the namesake for January, this is a great time to become more aware of time and how you can see its effects written all over the sky and relate them to our limited history on Earth. Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, published in 1915, tells us that every time we look out into space we are also looking back into time. We may soon be able to go beyond relativity, but it will still be a correct explanation of what we continually observe at the larger scales of our universe.
To begin your armchair tour of connecting in a more meaningful way to what you see when you casually look up into the night sky, take the star named Sirius in Canis Major. It is the brightest star in the sky and it is easily visible now just to the left and below Orion by 8 p.m. Anyone who is 9 years old now was born when the light that we see now actually left that nearby star.
If you look farther into the winter sky, you will see deeper layers of history unfolding like the growth rings on trees. The Pleiades in Taurus are especially interesting for the history of astronomy because the light you see from this famous little star cluster actually left there when Galileo turned his first telescope toward the heavens in 1609.
Continuing deeper into the sky, find the closest stellar nursery, which is the Orion Nebula, just visible to the naked eye as the middle star in the sword of Orion. This is an incredibly active and rare region where many stars like our own sun, along with hundreds of planets, are being born right now. As seen through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope, this and other beautiful star-forming regions like the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula are true masterpieces of artwork in themselves, giving life to stars which in turn gave life to planets and animals, plants and humans on at least one planet.
At 1,500 light years away, the faint glow of light that you see from the Orion Nebula left there when the decline of the Western Roman Empire started and Attila the Hun was defeated. On the more peaceful side, the prophet Muhammad founded Islam and Buddhism was introduced to Japan at about this time.
Keep going farther out in space and farther back in time as you gaze at the wonderful double star cluster in Perseus, near Cassiopeia and right along one arm of our Milky Way galaxy. At about 7,000 light years away, the light from these few thousand relatively young stars left there when the very first written history was being created on Earth.
To finish your naked eye tour of the winter sky, consider the Andromeda Galaxy, a truly majestic, slowly rotating spiral of hundreds of billions of stars nearly twice the size of our own Milky Way, about 2.5 million light years away. The light you are now seeing from this great galaxy, which is the most distant object you can see without any optical aid, left there when cavemen were just beginning to develop the first stone tools on Earth.
We are now losing both of our next-door neighbors, Venus and Mars, the planets of love and war, into the twilight.
Jupiter is still high and bright and closer to us than usual. Watch the waxing gibbous moon pass just below Jupiter in Taurus on the evening of the 21st.
Saturn’s rings are now open at a 19 degree angle, which is the best view we had since 2006.
Jan. 1. On this day in 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and largest asteroid, Ceres, which was considered a planet for about 50 years.
Jan. 2. Earth passes through perihelion, which marks its closest annual approach to the sun. .
Jan. 3. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks this morning. The moon will interfere since it will be in the waning gibbous phase and rise at 11 p.m.
Jan. 5. Last quarter moon is at 10:58 p.m.
Jan. 6. The moon is near Saturn in the southern sky about one hour before sunrise.
Jan. 7. On this day in 1610, Galileo discovered three of the large moons of Jupiter: Callisto, Europa and Io. The largest of all the moons in our solar system, Ganymede at 3,200 miles in diameter, was probably in front of or behind Jupiter at the time, so he would not discover it until six days later.
Jan. 8. Stephen Hawking was born on this day in 1942.
Jan. 10. On this day in 1946, the U.S. Army bounced the first radar signal off the moon.
Jan. 11. New moon is at 2:45 p.m.
Jan. 12. On this day in 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft was launched.
Jan. 14. On this day in 2005, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.
Jan. 18. First quarter moon is at 6:46 p.m.
Jan. 21. Jupiter is less than 1 degree above the moon around 11 p.m tonight.
Jan. 22. On this day in 2003, Pioneer 10 sent its last signal to Earth. The Voyager missions are now about 10 billion miles out in space, which is about where the solar wind ends and the interstellar medium begins.
Jan. 26. Full moon is at 11:40 p.m.
Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.