January kicks off the New Year with wonderful sights for backyard astronomers to enjoy with friends and family. Don't forget to bundle up on clear, cold evenings as you explore the sparkling night sky. Here are a few of our top picks for January stargazers:
Meteor Madness — Bundle up and get outside on the night of January 3 and the morning of the 4th to see the Quadrantids meteor shower peak. Some meteors associated with the Quadrantids are expected to be visible from January 1st until the 6th, but the shower peaks on the night of January 3rd-4th, with up to 40 meteors per hour expected. Look for so-called "shooting stars" radiating from the constellation Bo÷tes. This year, the best time to see the Quadrantids will be after the first quarter Moon sets around 10:36pm on January 3rd. You don't need a telescope to enjoy the show, just a clear, dark sky and a comfy chair or blanket.
Venus after Sunset — The brightest planet in the sky will reach its greatest eastern elongation just after sunset on January 12th. Since it will reach its highest point above the western horizon, this will be the best time to see Venus in binoculars, or you can use a telescope to see the planet's phase.
Mercury before Sunrise — The planet closest to the Sun will reach its greatest western elongation just before sunrise on January 19th. This will be the best time to catch a glimpse of tiny Mercury in a telescope. Look above the eastern horizon before the Sun rises.
Hunting the Hunter — Our favorite constellation Orion continues to be high in the night sky providing backyard astronomers spectacular sights throughout January. Take a closer look at the middle star of Orion's sword with binoculars to reveal amazing views of the bright emission nebula M42. Use a telescope to resolve the system of four "newborn" stars that form a trapezoid at the center of M42, known as the Trapezium. If you'll be viewing in a light polluted area, use an Orion UltraBlock filter to boost contrast for better views.
Just above Alnitak, the easternmost star of Orion's belt, the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) can be found in larger telescopes. Dark lanes of dust give this emission nebula its fiery appearance. The picturesque absorption nebula Barnard 33, also called the Horsehead Nebula, can be found in large telescopes just south of Alnitak.
Scan the skies above and to the east of Alnitak to find reflection nebula M78. Since M78 is much fainter than M42, a 4.5" or larger telescope is recommended for the best views, and an Oxygen-III filter can help enhance contrast.
Hind's Crimson Star — Just South of Orion is the constellation Lepus, the Hare. In Lepus you can catch a glimpse of the rare winter globular cluster M79, as well as R Lepori — a well-known variable star that varies between magnitudes +5.5 (just visible to the naked eye) to +11.7 with a period of about 427 days. What's interesting about this star is that because it is a "carbon star" it is very red; when at its brightest, the red color is unmistakable.
New Moon — Take advantage of the dark New Moon phase on January 28th and break out your deep space gear to get great views of some deep sky objects. Since you don't have to worry about glaring moonlight during the New Moon phase, it's a great opportunity to obtain good views of fainter celestial objects from any location. For exceptional views, pack up your astronomy gear and head to a dark sky location away from city lights to really take advantage of the New Moon!
January Challenge Object — Just west of Rigel, the bright blue/white star that marks the western "knee" of Orion, lies the Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118), in the neighboring constellation Eridanus. The Witch-Head is a reflection nebula that shines from reflected light off of Rigel, like the reflection nebula in the Pleiades, M45. You don't need a big telescope; a wide field of view, low power and a dark sky are needed to see this challenging nebula. (Hint: Don't use filters). Can you see it? Let us know on Facebook!
Horsehead/Flame Nebulae by Barry E.
All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.