What’s in the sky this January?
Monthly sky maps from the 2022 Australasian Sky Guide published by MAAS Media.
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 dominates the sky this month – look north through to east from 9:00pm AEDT to see these constellations. Each is described below.
- 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, 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 but 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 Scorpion who rises 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, marks his shoulder.
- Eridanus – the River in the sky meanders from Rigel, high overhead to the southern star Achernar. Can you follow this river of stars across the sky using our star map (follow the link below in ‘Learn More’)?
This month Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn are our evening planets. Mercury moves to the morning sky to join Venus and Mars. If you have trouble identifying planets from stars the Moon comes to your aid.
- Mercury – the Messenger of the gods is true to form this month, announcing his presence briefly at dusk before dashing across the sky to appear at dawn. Early in the month look south-west at dusk. A thin crescent Moon on January 4 is above and right of the planet. By the end of the month Mercury is low in the east at dawn in Sagittarius.
- Jupiter & Saturn – the two gas giant planets are low in the west in the evening. The crescent Moon passes Saturn on the 5th and Jupiter on the 6the of the month. Saturn follows Mercury into the twilight by the middle of the month.
- Venus – returns to the role of Morning Star this month and is low in the east at dawn.
- Mars – the red planet is also low in the east before dawn. On January 1, just before sunrise, the thin crescent Moon occults (passes in front of) Mars if you are in Adelaide, Canberra or Melbourne or anywhere in the region between these cities. Elsewhere in Australia Mars skims past the edge of the Moon. You will need a clear view to the eastern horizon to see this.
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. 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. 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.
- 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.
Other Events This Month and the Year Ahead
On Monday January 3rd at 05:33am 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 for the rest of the year.
There are two supermoons, one in June & one in July (and another two in May & August if you use a broader definition of the term supermoon). There’s a total lunar eclipse in November – let’s hope this one is not clouded out like the last one. And in the first half of the year we’ll see a series of picturesque planetary meetings: at the end of March Venus, Mars & Saturn are close; in early April Mars meets Saturn; in early May Venus meets Jupiter; and in late May Mars and Jupiter are close.
This year marks the bicentenary of the beginning of astronomical work at Paramatta Observatory. It is also the centenary of eclipse observations (made in Australia) that confirmed earlier measurements made in 1919. This important confirmation convinced astronomers that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity was correct.
It’s a big year in space exploration too, particularly for the Moon. Over a dozen missions were scheduled when I last looked, although some will launch together on the same rocket. But that’s a clue to their nature – many are small & light missions. They include test flights (the first Artemis mission), orbiters (e.g. CAPSTONE) and landers (e.g. Intuitive Machines Nova-C). We’ll hear a lot about the Moon in 2022!
And, of course, look out for the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
- Purchase the 2022 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 January 2022 Star Map, which shows the stars, constellations and planets visible in the night sky from anywhere in Australia
- Check out these resources for getting started