At 5.15pm tonight, for the only time this year, the Wolf Moon rises. The first full moon following the winter solstice, the so-called Wolf Moon is well-entrenched in folklore across the northern hemisphere, and with good reason.
From the darkest skies of the year it shines out a brilliant white orb. This moon has traditionally signified the hungry winter months still ahead and owes its name to the howls of starving packs of wolves on the fringes of human encampments.
Alternatively known as “old moon” and “ice moon”, the more romantic-sounding moniker dates back to medieval Europe and was also used by Native Americans.
Like the summer sun, it follows a high path across the sky as seen from the northern part of the globe, and a low path as seen from the southern hemisphere.
This year’s Wolf Moon coincides with the Earth reaching the closest point to the sun in its orbit, which is known as perihelion. With the Earth just 91.4 million miles from the sun, the full moon appears even brighter than usual.
The Wolf Moon has also come to mark the start of a long year of stargazing. January in particular is the best time to stare up into the night sky, says Dr Chris North from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University,
It is the one month of the year where it is possible to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn without a telescope. “Mercury – which only three per cent of the population has ever seen – and Venus are both visible in the winter sky at the moment,” says Dr North. “If you look close to sunset, towards a south westerly direction, you will see them.”
Mars is also on show to those looking south west at sunset. Jupiter, meanwhile, rises at around 8pm and is visible throughout the night. Saturn rises close to sunrise. Aside from the planets, the January skies also dazzle with breathtaking constellations.
“It is because of the long dark nights and the fact that the sky gets dark quicker,” explains Dr North. “The winter skies are rich with constellations such as Orion, the distinctive line of three stars. “There are a lot of bright stars in the sky.”
For the rest of 2015 as well, astronomers are rubbing their hands together with glee, for this is the year of the so-called dwarf planets.
These are much-like normal planets but not large enough to possess their own orbit. Little is known about them but in early spring a mission is heading to the dwarf planet of Ceres.
“It is very exciting,” says Dr North. “We’ve known about it for a few hundred years but all we have are grainy images from the Hubble telescope.”
Then, in July, another mission will pass by the dwarf planet of Pluto. There are of course other annual events already in the astronomy calendar, such as the Perseids meteor shower in August, which produces up to 60 meteors an hour at its peak.
But the main excitement this year remains, as ever, the eager anticipation of the unknown. “Who knows what we are going to discover this year. There are always things which take us by surprise,” says Dr North. “It is well worth just keeping an eye on the night sky.”