Wrap up and get outside this month and you can see some fantastic things in the nightime sky. The winter months provide some of the best opportunity in the Northern hemisphere to see crystal clear views of the stars, planets and other things of astronomical interest! Why? Because the nights are longer (giving you more time to bask in the awesomeness of what’s going on overhead) and well, the cold, frosty nights are pretty invigorating too 🙂
So you’ve got your thermosflask of coffee and the woolly hat your gran knitted for you Christmas. Get ready to go outside by getting accustomed to low levels of light. Sit in a dark room for about 15 minutes before going outside. I know, it sounds wierd… but, by letting your eyes adapt to the darkness you’ll see so much more in the night sky, more quickly.
It’s a good idea, if you can, to schedule your stargazing with the phases of the Moon. Not because of werewolves or any nonesense like that… but because unless you are out to look at the Moon specifically, venturing out on the night of a full Moon will limit what you can see because so much light is reflected from its surface it drowns out the faint light from the stars and other things of interest.
Obviously, beggars can’t be choosers and the winter weather will in all likelihood influence when you get outside and when you don’t. In case you get lucky though here are the Moon phases for January 2012:
First Quarter : 1st January, 06:15
Full Moon : 9th January, 07:30
Last Quarter : 16th January, 09:08
New Moon : 23rd January, 07:39
First Quarter : 31st January, 04:10
(times above are in Universal Time, UT)
If you’re awake before sunrise you’ll stand the best chance of seeing Mercury. For the first couple of weeks of the year it’ll be visible before being lost to the brightness of the Sun.
Venus will be living up to the title of ‘evening star’ being a very bright point of light just after sunset.
You’ll find Mars in the Eastern sky around midnight.
Jupiter remains unmistakably bright in the evening sky through January. Around midnight it’ll be in the low to the Western horizon.
Saturn is close to the bright star Spica in the constellation of Virgo for the month of January. Rising about 2.00am it’s one for the night owls to spot.
Where’s Uranus and Neptune you ask. Well, neither of these gas giants is visible to the naked eye – you’ll need a telescope if you want to catch them. The blue-green world of Uranus is East of Venus which might help to pinpoint it; and the outermost of the planets, Neptune is just in front of Venus and so very difficult to find in the glare of our local star and you’ll definately not want to look through an ordinary telescope or set of eyes towards the Sun as you’ll blind yourself.
The view looking South around midnight on 23rd January
The view looking West around midnight on 23rd January
The view looking North around midnight on 23rd January
The view looking East around midnight on 23rd January
The constellation of Gemini is great to look for on a nice clear night. The twins are easily identified as two bright points of light close to each other. If you find Orion, use the reddish star Betelgeuse to travel up and to the left to find the brothers.
Castor and Pollux are the twins of Greek mythology who both ultimately were gifted immortality in the heavens by their father Zeus. Castor (to the right side of the constellation) is a second magnitude star, whilst Pollux (to the left) is a first magnitude star. The remaining stars go to make up the united bodies of the twins.
Although when looking at Gemini, you are looking away from the core of the Milky Way, there’s still interesting things to be found such as the Eskimo Nebula and the Medusa Nebula – both planetary nebulae. Despite not being visible to the naked eye, these faint objects do provide lot’s of pretty pictures for more powerful telescopes to take 🙂
Winter in general is a great time to spot things in the night time sky – here are some of my favourite things to look for over these chilly months.
And you might remember this time last year the BBC ran a 3 part series called Stargazing Live… well, Prof Brian Cox and Dara o Briain are back on the telly again on 16th, 17th and 18th January 2012 with BBC Stargazing Live. This year it’s even bigger and there are loads of events around the UK to take part in.
Whatever you do, just be sure to look up every now and again 🙂