Each Monday I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy, eclipses and more.
What To Watch For In The Night Sky This Week: December 28, 2020 – January 3, 2021
This week’s sky highlight is surely the rise of the “Cold Moon.” Despite it taking place a couple of days before the end of 2020, it’s the first full Moon of the astronomical season of winter, which started on the solstice a week ago Monday.
As New Year begins on Friday most in the northern hemisphere are thinking about the cold months to come, but almost immediately Earth reaches the closest point to the Sun in its 365-day orbit. What’s going on?
All is explained below along with a preview of what you can expect from the Quadrantids, one of the year’s most reliable—and yet rarely talked-about—meteor showers.
Happy New Year stargazers!
Tuesday, December 29, 2020: Full ‘Cold Moon’
December’s full Moon—the “Cold Moon”—will occur tonight in North America, though technically it’s fully-lit at 03:28 Universal Time on Wednesday, December 30, 2020.
Also known as the “Long Nights Moon” and, by Anglo-Saxons, as the “Moon After Yule,” it will be best viewed on Tuesday evening at dusk. Check the moonrise time for your location and look east at sunset. If you’re up early on Tuesday, look west at sunrise for a beautiful full moonset.
Saturday, January 2, 2021: Earth gets closest to the Sun
Earth’s orbit of the Sun is not a perfect circle. Today at 13:50 Universal Time, Earth reaches its perihelion, the point at which our planet is closest to the Sun for the entire year. Confused as to why it’s so cold in the northern hemisphere?
It’s perihelion because Earth orbits the Sun in a slight ellipse, but it’s winter up north because the Earth rotates on a slanted axis and solstice—last week—marks the peak of when the North Pole is pointed away from the Sun.
Consequently, up north we’re getting less direct sunlight (for proof of this observe the low angle of the Sun during the day) and for less time (the days are currently the shortest they get in the northern hemisphere).
Sunday/Monday, January 3/4, 2021: Quadrantid meteor shower
Here comes the first major meteor shower of 2021. Peaking in the early morning hours of Monday, the Quadrantids will unleash about 40 “shooting stars,” which makes it much better than most. However, just a few nights past full Moon will mean our satellite will rise before midnight and likely bleach the sky of all the very brightest meteors.
Star of the week: Capella, the ‘Goat Star’
Go outside this week and you’ll easily notice Capella, the fourth-brightest star in the northern hemisphere’s night sky. Look in the southeast and you’ll see Orion, the Hunter, and above it, the Pleiades. Now look slightly to the east and higher-up—almost above you—and you’ll see Capella, a bright star in the constellation of Auriga, the charioteer.
Capella—which means “little goat” in Latin, should make a rough triangle with Orion’s Belt and the Pleiades. About 43 lightyears distant—which makes it one of our neighbours—Capella is actually a strange quadruple star system that has two pairs of stars; two massive yellow giant stars orbiting each other very closely, and two small red dwarfs doing the same.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.