January is the best month to go stargazing. Sure, it’s cold in the northern hemisphere, but there are just so many special celestial sights to see. That goes triple in 2020, with a three-way planetary conjunction—and a chance to see no less than five planets—as Orion dominates dark skies.
Here’s everything you need to know about enjoying the night sky in January 2021.
1. Quadrantid meteor shower
When: Sunday/Monday, January 3/4, 2021
Where to look: all-sky
The first major meteor shower of 2021 will peak in the early hours of Monday, January 4. However, the Moon will rise just before midnight so it’s worth getting outside at 1 p.m or thereabouts to try for some of the estimated 40 “shooting stars” per hour.
2. Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury in conjunction
When: Sunday, January 10, 2021
Where: low on the southwestern horizon
About an hour after sunset it will be possible to see—if you’re quick and have a good, low view of the southwestern horizon—Jupiter, Saturn and tiny Mercury form a triangle. You’ll likely need binoculars to see this one, as well as big dollop of patience as they reveal themselves, but for a short time before sinking. The three planets are set to be just 1.6° apart.
3. A crescent Moon meets Venus
When: Monday, January 11, 2021
Where: low on the southeastern horizon
Here’s a lovely sight that will reward anyone willing to get up early. Get up 45 minutes before sunrise and look low to the southeastern horizon and you may see a slim waning 3.6%-lit crescent Moon just 1.5° from the planet Venus. Finding the Moon might mean using binoculars, but the effort will be worth it.
4. Last chance for Mars
When: after dark all month
Where: south-southwest night sky
The red planet was shining brightly for the last few months of 2020, but this month see its finale before it rapidly dims. The brightest planet in the night sky during January, Mars in January will remain brighter than all the stars except Sirius—the brightest star in Earth’s night sky.
5. A crescent Moon meets three planets
When: Thursday, January 14, 2021
Where: just above the western horizon
Although you will need to have a low view to the southwest as soon as the Sun sets—and probably binoculars, too—the prize for keen eyes is a 3.6%-lit crescent Moon. Look lightly below and to its right and you’ll see Mercury, then Jupiter … and possibly even dim Saturn.
6. Orion, the hunter
When: dusk through dawn
Where: high in the southern night sky
A jewel of the winter night sky, Orion is a bright and obvious constellation at its best this month. Its most recognisable sight—Orion’s Belt—aren’t a constellation, but merely an asterism, a simple shape among the stars. The actual constellation includes an additional four corner stars that frame the belt stars; reddish Betelgeuse and blue Bellatrix above Orion;s Belt and Rigel and Saiph underneath it.
7. A chance to see the ‘Swift Planet’
When: Sunday, January 24, 2021
Where: just above the western horizon
If you’ve never seen Mercury then here’s a great chance. At its highest above the western horizon tonight, you’ll nevertheless need to have a view low to the southwestern horizon to see Mercury, which orbits the Sun in just 88 Earth-days. The tiny planet reaches its dichotomy on January 25, when it will be 50% illuminated by the Sun. You may need binoculars.
8. A full ‘Wolf Moon’
When: Thursday, January 28, 2021
Where: moonrise on the eastern horizon at sunset
January’s full Moon, the “Wolf Moon,” will be best seen at moonrise where you are. It will appear as an orange orb and swap to pale yellow as it rises, before becoming too bright and white to look at comfortably. The full “Wolf Moon” will be in the constellation of Cancer, the crab.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.