Stargazing in January

January is traditionally a great month for stargazing in the Northern Hemisphere. Although it is cold out in many nations, that’s nothing a warm flask and a couple of extra layers won’t fix – and it will all be well worth it for the majestic views of the heavens this month can provide.

The most obvious constellation in the sky, looking South, is almost certainly Orion. The mythical Hunter is resplendent in the centre of the sky throughout January and can be used a signpost to locate the other astrological features above our heads. For example, the famous Orion Nebula can be seen in between the four stars that make up Orion’s body, underneath the iconic triplet of stars that make up his ‘belt’. This massive, incandescent gas cloud is about 24 light years (or about 120 trillion miles) across and is often referred to as ‘Orion’s Sword’ in ancient mythology.

To the right and upwards of Orion, naked-eye viewers can see the Pleiades star cluster as one point of light. Those with especially good eyesight, under dark sky conditions free from light-pollution, may be able to make out a pattern of six distinct stars. Amateur astronomers with a small telescope can make out up to 30 different stars – depending on the size of your lens.

One of the key moments in the celestial sphere during January 2019 will be a lunar eclipse, occurring on the 21st. The moon will pass through the deepest point of Earth’s umbral shadow, enshrouding the otherwise full moon in darkness throughout the night. This moon will also be a supermoon. That is, it looks fullest to us at around the same time that it approaches perigee, which is the point of its orbit at which it is closest to Earth.

Using the Moon as a guide, several mornings in January will give easy sightings of the major planets in the South-Eastern sky. Both Venus and Jupiter will be crossing within four-or-five degrees to either side of the Moon on the early morning of January 31st. Around 6am, Saturn will also rise on the same ecliptic plane, and thus you should be able to see all three planets on one smooth line. Venus is by far the easiest to spot, as one of the brightest objects in the sky, and it will sit about two degrees to the left of the Moon throughout the night. Jupiter will be on the right, and Saturn will pop into view in the early morning – far below the other three, just above the horizon, but still on the same plane.

Lastly Uranus can be observed in the constellation Pisces throughout the month, although unless you live in a near perfect dark-sky area then you will need a small telescope or binoculars. Mars will also be easily viewed during January – in fact, the easiest you will see it in all 2019. At a peak magnitude of 0.48 in the beginning of the month, the Red Planet will not get brighter than that all year. You can find it low in the southwestern sky in the constellation Pisces, easily spotted with its distinctive red glow.

Happy stargazing!