Still looking for a New Years resolution or lockdown hobby? Why not get into stargazing in 2021! Take a night off your current Netflix series; wrap up warm; step outside and gaze up at the wonders of the winter night sky. Winter is a great time to observe due to the long dark evenings (that’s one positive to the sun setting at 4.30pm!!).
Here’s what to look out for in January:
Dates for your Diary
10th January – Best time to see Jupiter and Saturn
After the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in December, these gas giants play less of a role in the night sky this month. Day by day, the twosome appears a bit lower in the sky at dusk, and sets sooner after sundown. For the best view of these worlds, find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunset, and seek them out about 45 to 60 minutes after the sun goes down with either the eye alone or binoculars. Both of these planets will disappear from the evening sky during the second half of January, as they transition out of the evening sky and into the morning sky. The best time for you to see them is on the 10th January, 30 minutes after sunset looking southwest.
20th/21st January – Mars and Moon close in the night sky
Mars is still visible throughout January but keep an eye out on the evening of Jan. 20 looking south-west, for the Red Planet glowing to the upper left of the first quarter moon. The next night, you should see Mars a similar distance from the moon, but to its upper right.
24th January – Greatest Elongation of Mercury
We are also treated to the chance to observe the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury. Mercury’s orbit lies closer to the Sun than the Earth’s, meaning it always appears close to the Sun and is lost in the Sun’s glare much of the time. It is observable for only a few weeks each time it reaches greatest separation from the Sun – moments referred to as greatest elongation. Mercury reaches greatest elongation on the 24th January, this is when you will get the best view of the rocky planet. Look southwest, low on the horizon around 30 mins after sunset.
Now for a look at some stars:
The Winter Circle
In January, we have a great view of the Winter Circle or Hexagon. It is a collection of some of the brightest winter stars in the Northern Hemisphere. This collection of stars forms an asterism rather than a constellation. Each of these stars belongs to its own constellation.
Last month we focused in on the famous constellation of Orion and how to find it in the southern part of sky, and this is where we will begin the Winter Circle. Find the bright bluish star at the lower right, this star is Rigel. It is the seventh brightest star in the night sky and this is where we will start the Winter Circle. Move upwards to the brightest star of Taurus the Bull, Aldebaran. This is a red giant star and the fourteenth brightest star in the sky.
Continue upwards in an anti-clockwise direction to find the next bright star capella in the constellation of Auriga. Moving further down to the west we run into two bright stars, the twins in Gemini. These two bright stars mark the heads of twins from Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux. The stars are named after the brothers. Pollux, the brighter of the two is the 4th star in our circle.
Our penultimate stop around the Winter Circle is the bright star below the twins, Procyon. Procyon is the brightest star in Canis Minor. For such a small constellation, Procyon shines brilliantly as the seventh brightest star in the sky. Lastly, we come down to the final star in the Winter Circle and the brightest of them all, Sirius. Sirius is only 8.6 light years away from us and is the brightest star, not only in the Winter Circle, but in the entire night sky!
So, there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of the brightest stars in the winter night sky. These will be visible for the next few months so make sure you get out on the next clear night and see if you can draw that hexagon/circle in the sky!