Cold days, clear nights—why winter is for stargazing

Full-moon-in-the-night-sky Photo by Shutterstock

There’s a chill in the air but, as all Canadians can attest, a cooler temperature means a clearer sky. And with that comes one of the best shows on Earth.

Right now, if you look up at the night sky, you’ll see Comet Wirtanen, the brightest of its kind in 2018. Wirtanen was closest to Earth on Dec. 16, travelling around 10 kilometres per second, and now its continuing on its path that orbits the sun every five and half years (relatively frequently, in comet terms). It’s still visible with the naked eye in unfettered darkness but remember its light spreads so it’ll look more like a greenish blur than a single flare of light. If you’re an astrology buff, find Wirtanen passing close by the star Capella around Christmastime.

While the bright light of Venus is an easy find in a dark sky, both Jupiter and Mercury could be on display, and close neighbours, just above the horizon in the early morning sky on December 21. Track your eye just below Venus before sunrise, with the exact time depending on your vantage point—the farther North, the earlier it will be.

On December 22, we’ll see the final full moon of the year, also known as the Cold Moon, falling just after the winter solstice. And this full moon comes with a meteor shower to boot. The Ursids meteor shower is a minor one but should still offer up an array of ‘shooting stars’—some say up to 10 per hour—as long as they aren’t outshone by the moonlight.

To catch a few more glimpses of the wintery full moon in all its bright, glowing glory in the new year, step outside the evenings of January 6, February 4 and March 6. Hope for clear winter skies, and don’t forget a hat and scarf.

In the new year, prepare to stay up late and catch a glimpse of the Super Blood Moon over North America the night of January 20. Also known as a total lunar eclipse, this happens when the full moon passes through the Earth’s shadow. As sunlight hits the surface of the moon, it gives it a red hue—lending to the event’s ‘bloody’ name. What makes it ‘super’ is the full moon at its closest position to the earth. The eclipse will begin (in Eastern Standard Time) around 10:30 p.m., with the total eclipse occurring about an hour later.

Happy stargazing.

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