How to stargaze on the Winter Solstice

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online
The winter solstice, December 21, is known for being the longest night of the year and astronomers at the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) suggest that the extra darkness makes for some of the best skywatching in the entire year.
“The winter time is one of my favorite times to do astronomy, and I remember as a kid with my small telescope – going out in December and looking at all the beautiful things in the winter sky,” Pat McCarthy, director of the GMT, recently told RedOrbit. “It’s a lot of fun and I hope other people do it as well. It’s a nice thing to do over the holidays.”
After bundling up and heading out with the telescope or binoculars, the GMTO suggests looking for galaxies, meteor showers and popular winter constellations, like Orion, Pegasus and Taurus.
McCarthy said winter skywatching has two major advantages compared to the summer: a clearer atmosphere and the Earth facing away from the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
“When you look out in the summer at the center of the Milky Way, you see the bright stars, but there’s a lot of dust that obscures their light,” he said. “But this time of year, we can look out away from the Milky Way and there’s less dust and it’s a little clearer. While you see less stars, we can see really interesting parts of the galaxy in which young stars are being formed in large numbers.”
McCarthy suggested solstice skywatchers look eastward, at the constellation Orion. There, you can see a fuzzy spot just below Orion’s “belt” where thousands of stars are currently being formed. He added that this is the closest place to Earth where stars are currently being born and this can be seen with the naked eye on a cold, clear winter night. Using a pair of binoculars, skywatchers could even see some of the vibrant colors of these star-forming nebulas.
Just next to Orion in the constellation Taurus – another cluster of stars can easily been seen by amateur skywatchers. It’s a cluster that professional astronomers are intently focused on these days.
“It’s our nearest laboratory for stellar dynamics and measuring distances to stars,” McCarthy said.
He noted the team at the GTMO will also be focused on the areas around Orion and Taurus when the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which is set to be the world’s largest observatory, becomes operational in the 2020s. In addition to looking at those star-forming regions, the GMTO astronomers will also be looking at the remnants of the Big Bang to learn more about how the Universe got its start.
While Hubble and other space-based telescopes may grab a lot of headlines, McCarthy said cost, size and logistical concerns means it makes more sense to have the GMT be a ground-based observatory.
“Normally we’ll put a telescope in space if we want to use it for something we cannot do on the ground,” such as observe in ultra-violet or far infra-red wavelengths, McCarthy said. “If you want to do regular optical or near infra-red astronomy, the ground offers enormous advantages and you can build telescopes much larger than you could ever put into orbit.”
“There’s no plan that I know of to launch a telescope anything like the size of the GMT, even in very sketchy. So that’s just not going to happen,” he added.
The GMTO recently announced that it was given $20 million by entrepreneur Richard F. Caris to fund the University of Arizona’s participation in the creation of the massive telescope, which will be based in the highest elevations of Chile.
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