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:
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!
It 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.|
...really bright star over in the south-east? Ignore anyone who tells you it's the North Star (what? the North star in the south-east?). It is the planet Jupiter, which is the brightest thing in the night sky, apart from the Moon of course, right now. Oh, and Venus, but that's only visible in the early evening for the towards the end of the month.
You can tell it's a planet because it doesn't usually twinkle like a star. If you look at it with binoculars you'll probably see some of its moons on either side of it. With a telescope you should be able to make out a couple of dark belts crossing its disc. Here's a picture of it taken with a Sky-Watcher130 mm reflector costing under £200. You don't need a huge telescope to see Jupiter well.
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.
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).
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 Galaxy, Perseus and Cassiopeia.
As well as Jupiter, mentioned above, Mars is in the evening sky at the moment, low in the south-west after sunset, so it has set by the time of our map. It is quite a long way from Earth right now, so appears as a tiny dot even through a large telescope. But it won't be in the evening sky again until 2016 so if you are desperate to see it, now's your chance.
Saturn is in the early morning sky, rising about 4.30 am in the south-east. It's not well placed for viewing right now. The other bright planets are too close to the Sun to be seen easily, though Venus is visible low in the south-west just after sunset, and Mercury is also visible in about the same place around the middle of the month. Around 12 January the two planets are very close as seen in the sky, so look really low down about 45 minutes after sunset. You might need binoculars to help you. Venus is the brighter by far, but Mercury is above and to the right of it.
|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. And to make things even more difficult, the Moon is very nearly full, making the meteors harder to see. 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.
To find out how to make really useful observations of meteors, look at our online guide, Observing Meteors.
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 circulat fully blur, and you'll probably need binoculars to see it, but at least you can say that you've seen it. It's called Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2, and is well placed in the evening sky, though the full Moon will tend to drown it out around the beginning of the month. See our finder charts if you want to look for it.
It begins the month just after first quarter (the evening half Moon), which was on 28 December. Full Moon is on the 5th. Next comes last quarter on the 13th. We have new Moon on the 20th, and first quarter is on the 27th.
There is a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.
The full Moon in January is very high up and bright, so here are some full Moon facts (and one that isn't).
Text by Robin Scagell