By Robert Lucke
Bleak mid-winter may be called that because of short days and long, long nights.
However, the skies at night can be a treasure chest for outdoor folks. In this part of the country they are an added treat because more often then not skies are clear offering excellent viewing.
As bleak and full of shadows the earth is this time of year, stars and plants in the sky shine with an intensity not seen any other part of the year. Not only that but they can be seen longer, giving the viewer ample opportunity either in the morning or evening for high quality viewing.
For the person interested in night winter skies, do not forget the northern light displays which typically can occur as often as several times a week. The only advice about seeing northern lights is to get far away from any city lights. Then look to the north. Huge moving displays of light cascading from far up in the sky can be seen from horizon to horizon east and west. These displays are far and away great to view and will give most viewers the desire to see them again and again.
Last week was the end of a large meteor shower that lasted quite long. Viewers in this part of the country were treated to many, many "shooting stars" all through the nights of last week.
Many good magazines are on the market detailing what people in this part of the country can look for in the sky this time of year. Unfortunately few are available in Havre except by subscription. The Internet, as well, is a treasure trove of information regarding skies over Montana this time of year. Just one small entry tells much about Christmas viewing.
"This season's gala activities begin with the evening sky, which decks out in holiday style -- stringing lights across the heavens as the winter constellations Orion, Taurus, Pisces, and Andromeda. The bright festivities run into the morning hours. A brilliant magnitude -4.1 Venus rises around 4 a.m. local time inn December. Venus lies four degrees northeast of Spica-a splectroscopic binary star in the constellation Virgo. Two days later, a slim crescent moon passes less then three degrees north-northeast of Venus, presenting a great opportunity for the photographers among you. Over the following few weeks Venus portrays a disk illuminated 67 percent and grows to 75 percent by month's end. At the same time, the apparent size of the disk shrinks from 17" to 15". The finest morning apparition of Mercury occurs this month -- fresh from its transit across the face of the sun last Nov. 15. Mercury stands high in the southeast before dawn, rising a full one hour forty minutes before the sun on Dec. 1. It shines at a brilliant magnitude -0.5, making it quite unmistakable.
People interested in finding out more about night skies this time of December and into January should consult with the Internet or subscribe to one of the many magazines on the market.
Folks who study the stars and planets this time of year tell of making long winter nights much shorter and that there are never enough to see all that they want to see.