Sunday, December 8, 2013
By BERNIE REIM
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.
This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during January. The stars are shown as they appear at 9:30 p.m. early in the month, at 8:30 p.m. at mid-month and at 7:30 p.m. at month’s end. Jupiter is shown in its mid-month position. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.
Sky Chart Prepared by George Ayers
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.
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