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What's Up for January 2017

The stars are out. It can't be all that hard to learn the sky, can it? But then you get out there and the stars all look, well, all more or less the same. So what's the secret? Read on and find out.

But before you do anything these days you have to carry out a Risk Assessment. Being hit on the head by a shooting star? No chance. Being scared out of your wits by next door's cat suddenly jumping on you? That's more likely, assuming next door have a cat. Being frozen to the guts? Even more likely this weather, but at least you can do something about that one by putting on two of everything (within reason, of course). It is January, after all, and global warming doesn't seem to apply at night.

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here is our map for this month:

Sky for January 2016

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round. How you hold your computer above your head is up to you! Maybe you have one of those app thingies that tells you where the stars are, but read on to find out the important things to look for.

The map shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in the middle of the month at about 8 pm, at the start of the month at 9 pm, or by the end of the month at 7 pm.

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Where are the planets?

If you got a new telescope for Christmas and are keen to spot a planet or two, you are in luck because both Venus and Mars are in the evening sky. Venus hasn't made it onto our chart, because  it sets around the time showh, but earlier in the evening you can't miss it as a brilliant object over in the south-west after sunset. Through a telescope you can see that it currently looks like a tiny half Moon. This is because it is at its maximum separation from the Sun at the moment, so the Sun is sideways on to it. Over the next few months it will swing around its orbit closer to Earth, and become larger and more of a crescent, so do keep an eye on it week by week.

Look to the left and above Venus and you'll see Mars, looking like a fairly bright star but nothing like as bright as Venus. Right now, Earth is pulling away from it, as we are closer to the Sun than Mars and move faster in our orbit, so it's getting smaller and more distant all the time. Truth to tell, it's a bit of a disappointment through a telescope at the moment, because it is quite small and low in the sky, so you will probably see nothing more than a tiny smudge with no detail. Earth's turbulent atmosphere will make it shimmer quite a lot, but on a steady night you might just see a dark marking on the planet. 

Saturn is probably what you really want to see, but that's only around just before dawn, very low in the south-eastern sky just before sunrise. Mercury ios there at the start of the month as well, but even lower down, so probably not worth the effort of finding it.

So what planet haven't we mentioned? Jupiter. If you want to see the giant planet you'll have to be up in the early hours, because it rises about 1.30 am, though it's well up in the southern sky before dawn, close to but much brighter than the star Spica.

Find Orion

At this time of year one of the best constellations (star patterns) of all is in the sky – Orion. Look just to the left of your south point and you should spot three stars in a line, with four other stars forming a sort of box around them, as shown on the map below.

January 2015 sky looking south

Orion has more bright stars than any other constellation, so it shows up no matter how bad your light pollution is. You can't mistake it for anything else in the sky. As well as the three stars in a line there are two brighter stars, called Betelgeuse and Rigel, at top left and bottom right.

The three stars in a line are known as Orion's Belt. Orion is meant to represent a hunter, usually facing westwards towards Taurus, the Bull. Dangling from his belt is a sword, which is the line of fainter stars just below the belt where the map is marked M42. Check out our constellation guide to Orion to find out more about spotting the Orion Nebula.

You can follow the Belt stars up and to the right (the west) to the bright star Aldebaran, in Taurus, and beyond that to the best star cluster in the sky, the Pleiades (pronounced Ply-a-deez). Then following the Belt stars down and to the left you get to Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major, the Greater Dog.  Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky (note: smart-alecs love to point out that the brightest star in the sky is the Sun so you always have to be very careful to say the night sky to avoid giving them the satisfaction of doing so).

Other constellations to look for

Also look out for Auriga, some distance directly above Orion. Its brightest star, Capella, is almost overhead from the UK at this time of year. There is a little group of three fainter stars just to one side of it, and four other stars in a big pentagon making up the rest of the constellation.

Farther west from Taurus is Aries, whose brightest stars are a little group of three. The faintest of these, Gamma Arietis, is a rather pretty double star which you can see using a fairly small telescope. Worth a look, as the two stars are of different colours.

On the circular map at the top of the page you can pick out some other patterns. Look for the Winter Triangle of three bright stars, starting with Betelgeuse in Orion. The other two are Sirius and Procyon. This will be around well into the spring, so you can look for it later in the year as well.

Then look over to the west and see if you can spot the Square of Pegasus. It isn't as bright as the stars of Orion, but it's a good signpost to the other constellations in the area once you've found it, particularly Andromeda and the Andromeda GalaxyPerseus and Cassiopeia.

Shooting stars

A Quadrantid meteor photographed in January 2012

The annual Quadrantid meteors are one of the best displays of shooting stars of the year – and wouldn't you know it, they take place on 3–4 January so you will need a cast-iron will (and probably get cast-iron other parts of your anatomy as well) to observe them. But during the night of January 3 to 4 you may see quite a few of these fairly slow and bright meteors coming from the northern part of the sky, though you can look anywhere in the sky to see them. The later in the night you observe, the better the numbers are likely to be. 

You may hear that numbers will be over 80 an hour. While that's an official figure, it covers all meteors, bright or faint, under ideal conditions. You might be lucky enough to see one a minute. And of course they don't all come along evenly spread out, so you could see two or three in rapid succession and then equally you could get a long gap when nothing happens and you either fall asleep or get bored. But don't give up.

For more details of the Quadrantids, check out this page written by our Meteor Section Director, Tracie Heywood. And to find out how to make really useful observations of meteors, look at our online guide, Observing Meteors.

And even a comet

Don't get too excited. This is not a huge and spectacular whizzy thing with a long tail, but it's more of a run-of-the-mill typical comet. It looks like a faint circular fuzzy blur, and you'll need binoculars and a dark sky to see it, but at least you can say that you've seen a comet. It's called Comet 45P/ Honda-Mrkos-Padjusakova, but the least said about that the better. Friends call it 45P. If you are keen, look at our Comet Section news pages for details of how to find it.


What about the Moon, then?

It begins the month just after New Moon which was on 29 December, when it’s in the same part of sky as the Sun and isn’t visible.  You will see a beautiful crescent after sunset over in the west on the 1st, when it is just to the right of Venus. First quarter – that’s a half Moon – is on the 5th and then full Moon this month is on the 12th. Last quarter on the 19th, then the month ends with New Moon on the 28th.We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features, so check there to discover what features you can see with your telescope and to learn the names of the craters.

The full Moon in January is very high up and bright, so here are some full Moon facts (and one that isn't).

The village of Turville, Bucks, photographed by the light of the full Moon in January 2015. The village is famous as a location for The Vicar of Dibley and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, among others. Picture copyright Robin Scagell
  • When the Moon is really high up, like in that nursery rhyme that claims it is as bright as day, you can't see any colour in anything that's illuminated by the Moon only (that is, out in the country where there is no light pollution). This is because your eyes are not sensitive to colour in dim light.
  • The sky close to the Moon appears bluish, just as it does by day. This is what makes you think that moonlight is blue, and is why they use a blue filter in the movies when they want to pretend that the scene is lit by moonlight.
  • Actually, moonlight is slightly redder then sunlight.
  • If you take a time-exposure photo by moonlight, without any light pollution around, the colours appear just as they do by day. The camera can go on building up light and show the true colours, unlike your eye.
  • Those stories that there are more hospital emergencies and murders when the Moon is full are nonsense. The only reason people think this is that the Moon is more noticeable when it is full than at most other phases. And most people think it is full for two or three days on either side of the actual date, so there are several days in the month when it appears to be full. So that increases the chances of people linking anything with the full Moon.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer.
Text by Robin Scagell