The Great Orion Nebula is the brightest diffuse nebula in the sky, easily visible to the unaided eye. photo courtesy nasa
The Great Orion Nebula is the brightest diffuse nebula in the sky, easily visible to the unaided eye. photo courtesy nasa
On New Year’s Eve the world will bid goodbye (and good riddance) to a very difficult year that saw a pandemic sicken and kill millions of people across the globe. And here in this country, extreme civil and political unrest made things even worse. But we will also ring in a brand-new year, one in which we all hope events will unfold that will bring COVID under control, restoring a greater sense of normalcy to our lives.

To symbolize this earnest optimism, the featured constellation for the first month of 2021 is none other than majestic Orion.

When it comes to brilliance and beauty, the celestial Hunter tops nearly everyone’s constellation list. Seven highly luminous stars form a distinct hourglass shape that simply can’t be overlooked. Rigel, a bluish-white supergiant which marks Orion’s left knee, and Betelgeuse, a red giant that denotes his right shoulder, are the brightest of these stellar beacons.

One of the most eye-catching features of the constellation is the Hunter’s belt, comprised of three evenly spaced second magnitude stars arranged in nearly a straight line. Below the belt hangs his sword, symbolized by three vertically spaced dimmer stars. Upon closer inspection though, the middle star doesn’t look quite right, appearing kind of fuzzy. That’s because it isn’t a star at all but a diffuse nebula, the brightest such object visible to the unaided eye in the entire sky. A diffuse nebula is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium, and other ionized gases that serves as a nursery where new stars are born.

While the Orion Nebula is the most stunning example of this class of celestial object, many other such nebulae are found in this part of the sky, including the Horsehead and Flame Nebulae, Barnard’s Loop, and M78, all part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.

To find Orion, venture out into a clear, moonless night away from nearby lights, fortified, perhaps by a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows, and look southeastward in the early evening. By about 10 p.m. he stands directly above the southern horizon.

According to a Greek myth, Orion boasted that he was the greatest hunter in the world. This angered Hera, Zeus’ wife, so she had a scorpion kill him. In pity, Zeus put Orion into the sky, along with his faithful hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. The scorpion (Scorpius) was also placed in the sky, but well away from Orion.

The Quadrantids meteor shower is forecasted to peak at around 6:30 a.m. on January 3. This shower is sometimes capable of producing up to 120 meteors per hour on a dark night. Unfortunately, this year light from a waning gibbous moon will likely keep the count much lower. For those willing to brave the cold temperatures of clear predawn January morning, the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the sky north of the kite-shaped constellation of Boötes (nearly overhead). The source of the meteors is debris shed from Comet 96P/Machholz.

Since their conjunction on December 21, the faster-moving Jupiter has passed up Saturn as both planets plod their way eastward across the sky. They are still visible low in the southwest about half an hour after sunset. On January 13 they will be joined by Mercury, leaving Venus as the only visible planet in the morning sky. Mars is still an evening object, standing high in the southern sky at dusk all month. On its continuing trek eastward, the Red Planet will move against the background stars from Pisces into Aries.

On January 13, the moon and sun will be located on the same side of the sky from Earth, resulting in a new moon which will not be visible in the night sky. Fifteen days later the moon will position itself on the opposite side of the sky from the sun giving rise to the Full Wolf Moon.