January Night Sky

The strange winter we have been having this year so far has been hopeless for observing. There is so much moisture around that the rare gaps between spells of wind and rain have been murky rather than clear, with the brighter stars showing faintly through. We can hope for clearer skies in the new month and year. Since they have been so absent, I thought I would focus on the major sights that can be enjoyed with binoculars in January, just to get re-acquainted with the winter sky.

The map below shows a broad aspect of the view south at about 9pm mid month. I have ringed in red the main items of interest, and they mainly run along the winter aspect of the Milky Way as it runs south from overhead. All of them are the remains of stellar nurseries; most are the open clusters that form as the offspring from these nurseries gradually disperse in the galaxy.

Starting overhead is the double cluster in Perseus. This can be seen with the naked eye as a patch of light between the wobbly “T” of Perseus and the distinctive “W” of Cassiopeia (off the map). Binoculars will show a double fuzzy patch in a rich field of stars.

Moving south and east takes you through Auriga to a trio of open clusters, M36,37 and 38, that form a pleasing arc leading up to Capella, its brightest star.

Go west now and you come to the distinctive little grouping of the Pleiades, like a tiny version of the Plough. This is a much nearer open cluster, and so can be seen as individual stars, even with the naked eye. It is at its best in binoculars. Now move south east to the distinctive “V” of the bull’s head in Taurus. Most of these stars are yet another open cluster, The Hyades, that is closer still, and quite dispersed. Aldebaran, the orange star that provides the bull’s eye, appears to be in the middle of the cluster, but is actually a much closer foreground star.

Finally, move south-east again to the distinctive shape of Orion, and the sword below the hunter’s belt. Binoculars will show a glowing patch of light with embedded stars. This is the famous Orion Nebula, where stars are being born as we watch.

The more distant objects repay a closer look in more powerful binoculars or a telescope. But they are still great sights in ordinary binoculars.

January Night Sky