The night sky in January

Want to know what's up in the sky tonight? Our night sky chart will provide you with the information you need to locate the brightest planets, stars and deep-sky objects ...

Each and every New Year begins with the Quadrantid meteor shower, which is active during the first week in January. The best time to see this shower is very late at night, into the early hours of the morning – usually around 0200 or 0300.

january This month’s chart shows the night sky looking South in mid January at 2300. (click on image for larger view)

The Stars and Constellations

The sky map shows the brilliant constellation of Orion is seen in the south. Moving up and to the right – following the line of the three stars of Orion’s belt – brings you to Taurus; the head of the bull being outlined by the V-shaped cluster called the Hyades with its eye delineated by the orange red star Aldebaran. Further up to the right lies the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster. Towards the zenith from Taurus lies the constellation Auriga, whose brightest star Capella will be nearly overhead. To the upper left of Orion lie the heavenly twins, or Gemini, their heads indicated by the two bright stars Castor and Pollux. Down to the lower left of Orion lies the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. Finally, up and to the left of Sirius is the bright star Procyon in Canis Minor.

Orion, the Hunter – this month’s sky highlight

Orion, perhaps the most beautiful of constellations, will be seen directly due South at around 2130 during January. I’m not going to tell you how to locate it. Its distinctive, its abstract human stick-figure form can’t be missed!

Orion is the hunter holding up a club and a shield against the charge of Taurus the Bull up to his right. Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuse, seen at top left, is a red super giant star. Beta Orionis, or Rigel, lower right, is a blue super giant, which, at around 1000 light years distance is about twice as far away as Betelgeuse. It has a 7th magnitude companion only visible in telescopes of good quality. The three stars of Orion’s belt lie at a distance of around 1500 light years. They comprise of Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, which are equally spaced and nearly in a straight line. Just below the lower left hand star lies a strip of nebulosity against which can be seen a pillar of dust in the shape of the chessboard knight. It is thus called the Horsehead Nebula. It shows up very well photographically but is exceedingly difficult to see visually – even with relatively large telescope.

Beneath the central star of the belt lies Orion’s sword containing one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens – The Orion Nebula, M42. It is a region of star formation and the reddish colour seen in photographs comes from hydrogen excited by ultraviolet emitted from the hot, bright blue stars. The Hubble Space Telescope has found protoplanetary disks of gas and dust around some of these stars. These disks are about twice the size of our solar system, and may eventually condense to form extrasolar planets. M42 is a veritable catalog of different object types, including multiple stars and reflection plus emission nebulosity.

Try to view the nebula on every possible occasion with any type of optical instrument as well as with the naked eye. The wealth of detail visible in it is simply outstanding. Intricate wisps, shapes and the contrast between brighter and darker regions never ceases to amaze.

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© Macclesfield Astronomical Society 2017