For star gazers, winter offers lots to see, prime conditions

JMU Headlines

by Eric Gorton


Harrisonburg, Virginia — With the winter solstice arriving this week, it’s the perfect time to grab a pair of binoculars or a telescope and check out the stars and planets. 

Mars can now be seen rising in the east just after dark “and at the same time, super bright Jupiter can be seen high in the southern sky,” said Geary Albright, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University. 

Saturn also is visible about an arm’s length right of Jupiter in the southwest, he said, and if you find all three — Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — “and draw a line connecting the dots, you are tracing out the plane of the Solar System called the ecliptic plane.” 

Lacking the humidity of summertime, central Shenandoah Valley winters provide the clearest views of the stars, the moon and other celestial objects in the night sky, Albright said. 

For the best viewing inside the city limits, Albright recommends finding an open space such as a school playground. “If you get into an open area, your horizon is lower so you’re going to have less interference from trees and things like that,” he said. You also want to find a spot that is as dark as possible. 

With High Knob and Reddish Knob a short drive away, Valley star enthusiasts have some optimal vantage points. Reddish Knob is one of the darkest places on the East Coast, Albright said, and “the Milky Way goes right overhead in the wintertime and it’s a great place to watch a rising full moon.” 

In addition to longer periods of darkness and more transparent skies, wintertime features some of the brightest and most recognizable constellations, such as Canis Major, Gemini, Orion and Taurus. Orion is the brightest constellation and has the most stars, Albright said, and the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is nearly in line with Orion’s belt.  

When going out to find planets and other objects, Albright suggests taking along a planisphere, a small map of the sky. “It’s really best to have some kind of a little chart that you can set for the date and the time. That becomes an indispensable tool for actually finding things,” he said. 

Planispheres are relatively easy to make with materials and instructions that can be found on the internet. They can also be purchased. 

Albright said he enjoys watching the planets that show up in the winter sky. 

“The things that are usually really pretty are conjunctions, when the moon is near a planet or something like that so you see two things together,” Albright said. “Full moons are always nice to see.” 

And International Space Station flyovers too, which Albright lets people know about on the planetarium Facebook and Instagram pages. 


Contact: Eric Gorton,, 540-908-1760 

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Published: Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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