January kicks off the New Year with wonderful sights for backyard astronomers to enjoy. 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:
Quadrantid Meteor Shower
Bundle up and get outside on the night of January 2nd into the early morning hours of the 3rd to see the Quadrantids meteor shower peak. Some meteors associated with the Quadrantids are expected to be visible until January 12th, but the shower peaks after midnight on the night of January 2nd-3rd, with up to 120 meteors expected per hour. This year, the waning gibbous Moon will outshine fainter meteors, but you can still enjoy the brightest "shooting stars" as they appear to radiate from the constellation Bo÷tes. You don't need a telescope to enjoy the show, just a clear, dark sky and a comfy chair or blanket.
Hunting the Hunter
Our favorite constellation Orion continues to be high in the night sky in January, providing backyard astronomers spectacular sights throughout the month. 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. Use a Hydrogen-Beta filter to improve your chances of spotting the elusive Horsehead.
Scan the skies above and to the east of belt star 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.
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.
Take advantage of the dark New Moon phase on January 12th and break out your biggest telescope for great views of 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 dark conditions.
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).
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.