A flurry of amazing sky-watching events visible from around the world will usher in the new year. With a prolific meteor shower and the moon posing with planets, there are definitely plenty of reasons to look up at the night sky this month.
So if your holiday haul included new binoculars or a telescope, mark your January calendar and get ready to try out your stargazing gear!
New Year's Meteors—January 3
The Quadrantids, the first meteor shower of the year, will reach its maximum hourly numbers in the late night of January 2 and into the predawn hours of January 3.
For this shower, peak rates usually hover above 60 shooting stars an hour seen from dark locations. But with the waxing crescent moon setting by your local 10 p.m., ideal sky conditions may allow some observers under dark skies to witness an outburst of as many as 120 meteors an hour.
The Quadrantids get their name from the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis, which fell out of favor in the 1920s. Most of the stars from that constellation instead became part of the constellation Boötes, the herdsman. The meteors will therefore appear to radiate from the northern part of Boötes, in the northeast sky just off the Big Dipper’s handle.
No need for telescopes or binoculars for this celestial shower—our human eyes can act as the perfect wide-angle lenses to soak in all the shooting stars zipping overhead. Just make sure you dress for the nighttime weather, and don’t forget a lawn chair and some hot chocolate.
Venus at Prime Time—January 12
Catch the second planet from the sun during its best sky performance in about half a decade. On January 12, Venus reaches its greatest elongation, meaning the planet appears farthest away from the sun from our vantage point here on Earth and will be well outside of the solar glare.
From mid-northern latitudes, the “evening star” will appear to be hanging about 30 degrees above the western horizon after local sunset, which is equal to about three stacked fists held at arm’s length. Venus will be so high in the sky at sunset that it will take about four hours for it to follow the sun and sink below the horizon.
The planet’s bright disk will also offer impressive views through backyard telescopes. Just as the moon changes phase over the course of a month, Venus seen through a telescope will slowly change from being half lit to a thin crescent as the planet begins its trek back down the western evening sky in February.
Moon and Regulus—January 14
Face the eastern sky in the late evening of January 14 and check out the waning gibbous moon hanging just below the brilliant blue-white star Regulus. The celestial pair will appear to be dramatically close together—only a single degree apart, equal to the width of two full lunar disks.
Jupiter and Spica—January 19
Look toward the southeast in the early morning for a beautiful close encounter between the last-quarter moon with the giant planet Jupiter and the star Spica. The moon will appear to be less than three degrees from Jupiter, an apparent separation equal to the width of six full moon disks.
Moon and Saturn—January 24
Just before dawn on January 24, start looking for the thin crescent moon rising in the southeast with yellow-tinted Saturn positioned just below it. The dynamic duo will be just over two degrees apart, making for a beautiful photo opportunity. This will be great time to take a gander at Saturn with a telescope using high magnification, so you can marvel at its famous rings and even spot a few of its largest moons.
Moon Meets Mercury—January 25
Mercury will join Saturn in the morning skies, rising above the eastern horizon about an hour before local sunrise. While it’s usually quite a challenge to hunt down this faint starlike planet in the quickly brightening twilight, on January 25 it will be joined by the razor-thin waning crescent moon hanging about five degrees above Mercury, an apparent separation equal to the width of your three fingers held at arm’s length. With such close proximity in the sky, both Mercury and the moon should be easily visible simultaneously through binoculars.
Moon, Venus, Mars Trio —January 31
As darkness falls on January 31, look toward the high southwestern sky for the waxing crescent moon forming a stunning triangular formation with our closest neighboring worlds, Venus and Mars. The two planets will appear to be separated by about five degrees, while the moon will be just four degrees from Venus.
The proximity of these three worlds is simply an optical illusion, thanks to their alignment as seen from Earth. Venus actually sits about 214 times farther from us than the moon, while Mars is a whopping 739 times farther away. Still, the apparent cosmic meetup is a great way to finish off the first month of the new year.