What’s in the sky this January?
Constellations represent groupings of stars that have been given a name. For millennia they have been used as a tool to share significant cultural stories. Today, they also help astronomers delineate portions of the sky and are a navigational tool for locating astronomical objects. This month these constellations dominate the winter sky:
- The summer trio of the Bull, the Hunter and his Great Dog continues to dominate the sky this month – look north through to east from 8:30pm AEDT to see these constellations.
- Taurus – the Bull is due north, his head composed of an upside-down V-shaped star pattern. The yellow-orange star at the end of one arm of the V is Aldebaran, the Bull’s eye, and it is a nearby red-giant star. Taurus represents the Bull into which Zeus transformed himself to abduct the young and beautiful Europa. He carried her to Crete where he seduced her and gifted her a dog, Canis Major.
- Orion – the Hunter lies to the right of Taurus, the three stars of his belt are most easily spotted. Like all northern hemisphere constellations he is upside down from our southern perspective. Four bright stars surround his belt, below is bright reddish Betelgeuse, his shoulder, and above is bright white Rigel, Orion’s knee. The mythology of Orion is confused. No Greek myth links him to Taurus despite them facing off in the sky. However, in earlier Sumerian legends he is the equivalent of Heracles – who did battle the Bull of Crete. Homer describes him as a great hunter holding an unbreakable club of bronze and followed by dogs as he chases the Hare (constellation Lepus). Orion fell in love with the Pleiades, who he still chases westwards across the sky. He was killed when a giant scorpion (Scorpius) stung him, perhaps in the shoulder. Later in the night you will see Orion set timidly in the west to avoid the dangerous Scorpion rising in the east.
- Canis Major – the Great hunting Dog of Orion lies (on his back!) further to the east (right) where Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appears to mark his shoulder, but was traditionally seen as his mouth.
- Eridanus – the River in the sky meanders from Rigel in Orion, then high overhead and on to the southern star Achernar. Can you follow this river of stars across the sky using our star map?
This month Mercury, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn are our evening planets while brilliant Venus graces the morning sky. If you have trouble identifying planets from stars the Moon comes to your aid.
- Mercury – the innermost planet is low in the western sky for a short time each evening. It reaches its greatest separation from the Sun, and is most easily seen, on January 24. On the 14th a thin crescent Moon lies beside the planet – but this may be very difficult to see being so close to the horizon and in the twilight.
- Mars – the unmissable red planet is in the north-western sky all evening. On the 21st the first quarter Moon passes above it. On the same day the planet Uranus, although invisible to the eye, sits about halfway between Mars and the Moon.
- Jupiter & Saturn – the two gas giant planets are still just visible in the evenings very low in the west for the first week of the month. They are now separating after their close pass last month.
- Venus – is the brilliant white morning star low in the south east. On the 12th the thin crescent Moon passes close by.
For the monthly movements of the moon, check out our Moon Phase Calendar.
Explore the universe through your binoculars or telescope and take in some of the gems of the January sky. These look at their best with no Moon in the sky:
- Hyades – the V-shape of Taurus’ head is a cluster (or group) of stars about 150 light years distant. All were born from the same hydrogen gas cloud several million years ago. Surprisingly, Aldebaran is not part of the cluster but is a foreground star around 65 light years away. Through binoculars you can spot fainter members of the cluster scattered around the Bull’s head.
- Pleiades – another star cluster named after seven sisters born to Atlas and Pleione. This small group to the left of the Hyades catches the eye and is known worldwide. How many stars can you count by eye in this group? Stories from cultures across the planet refer to these stars, often referring to seven siblings of whom one goes missing for a variety of reasons. The Pleiades were used as a seasonal calendar to announce harvest time (when they rose at dawn) and when they were visible at night it was safe to sail on the Mediterranean sea. The Pleiades are about 440 light years away.
- Orion nebula – a huge star-birth cloud of gas and dust this nebula is just visible to the naked eye. It lies in the sword of Orion which hangs upwards from his belt. Through binoculars, or better still through a telescope, you see swirls of hydrogen gas, dark obscuring dust and many newly-born stars.
- The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC & SMC) – these cloud-like features in the southern sky are two small companion galaxies to the Milky Way. If you are away from city lights and if your eyes have had 10-15 minutes to adjust to the darkness look due south. High up are two hazy patches of ‘cloud’ the Large to the left and the Small to the right. The light you see today from their stars and gas left these galaxies 200,000 years ago.
On January 3rd at 00:51am AEDT Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun for the year, called perihelion. Earth is a little over 147-million kilometres from the Sun and travelling at its fastest along its orbit.
It’s January so let’s have a look ahead at the astronomical and space events coming this year.
In February the latest fleet of spacecraft from Earth (China, the UAE and the US) arrive at Mars. There are supermoons in March, April, May and June. A total lunar eclipse reddens the Moon in May. The new space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is set for launch in October. And a partial lunar eclipse occurs in November.
This year also marks the bicentenary of the establishment of Governor Brisbane’s observatory at Parramatta – the first permanent observatory in Australia. It’s 150 years since Henry Chamberlain Russell arranged for a time ball, much like the one atop his own Sydney Observatory, to be set up in Newcastle. And it’s a century since NSW Government Astronomer William Cooke took part in international experiments to test a new method of distributing time signals across the world – via radio signals transmitted from Lyon in France.
And finally, it is 500 years since death of Magellan in 1521, after whom the Magellanic Clouds are named.
- Purchase the 2021 Australasian Sky Guide by Dr Nick Lomb, featuring an annual report of what’s in the sky and the latest astronomical findings. Produced by MAAS Media.
- View the Star Map 01 January 2021, which shows the stars, constellations and planets visible in the night sky from anywhere in Australia
- Check out these resources for getting started