Star Charts

After Sunset

As the sky darkens, look high in the south for the first bright point of light to appear - that will be mighty planet Jupiter. Once it gets darker, take a look through a telescope to see Jupiter’s cloud bands. Even a good steady pair of binoculars will reveal up to four of Jupiter’s largest moons.

Once the sky is darker, look lower in the southwest for Saturn. Saturn is fainter than Jupiter, but a telescope view will reveal the beautiful rings.

Both planets will set earlier with each passing day, and Saturn will be lost in the glow of sunset by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, brilliant Venus joins the evening sky late in the month. Look for Venus just above Saturn at dusk on January 23. As an added bonus, a thin crescent Moon will be not far above the pair of planets. On the 25th, the Moon will be near Jupiter.

High in the west is the asterism called the Great Square of Pegasus. Three of these four stars are part of autumn constellation Pegasus the Flying Horse. The remaining star marks the head of Andromeda the Princess.

High in the east is the red planet Mars. Earth passed Mars in its orbit just last month, so Mars is looking bright. Mars will be visible in the night sky through mid-summer, but as the distance between Earth and Mars grows, Mars will quickly grow fainter. Look for the Moon near Mars on January 3. On January 30, the Moon will just pass by Mars, with closest approach just before midnight from the Nashville area. Some locations in the Gulf states and southwestern US, along with Mexico and Central America, will see the Moon completely cover up Mars in a lunar occultation.

Near Mars you can find the bright stars of the winter evening sky. The most famous and easily found constellation is Orion the Hunter. Look for the three stars in a straight line that mark his belt, the two stars that mark his shoulders, and the two stars of his feet. Betelgeuse, one of this shoulder stars, is distinctly red in color.

Learn to find Orion and he can direct you to many other sights of the winter sky. This part of the sky contains some of the brightest stars throughout the year.

Follow Orion’s belt down and to the left for the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars up and to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull. Look just past Aldebaran and you may see a grouping of stars called M-45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster.

Other bright stars to look for are Capella in Auriga the CharioteerProcyon in Canis Minor the Small Dog, and Castor and Pollux which mark the heads of Gemini the Twins. All of these stars can be found using Orion as a guide.

Don’t mistake Mars with red-orange stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran. If you’re ever not sure if a point of light in the sky is a star or a planet, look to see if it’s twinkling. Stars twinkle; planets don’t!

For much of the year, we use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. However, the Big Dipper is harder to find in the early evening hours of winter. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude in Tennessee. You’ll have to wait until 10 or 11 at night to see it all.

Fortunately, another group of stars can help us find our way. Look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. When the Big Dipper is low to the horizon, Cassiopeia is high in the north. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape points you in the direction of Polaris.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as the constellation Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights. You can begin by looking for the fainter stars of the season’s constellations. Pegasus, Andromeda, and the stars of the Little Dipper all become easier to explore.

Winter evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from the southeast, through Canis Major, Orion and Auriga the Charioteer, on past Cassiopeia in the northwest. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

Look below Orion’s belt to find M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. This faint patch of light is a massive star-forming cloud of gas and dust over one thousand light years away. Take a look through steady binoculars to see a little more detail. A small telescope can reveal the overall shape of the nebula. A quartet of young stars near the center are called the Trapezium. These stars formed out of the gas and dust of the nebula.

To many people, the Pleiades star cluster looks like the Little Dipper, except it’s much smaller. If you have dark skies and good eyesight, you will see at least six, maybe even seven stars in this cluster. With binoculars, you’ll see dozens of stars!

Near Andromeda, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. This massive spiral galaxy is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, but to find it requires crisp, dark skies and a little patience. Binoculars or a small telescope can improve the view, but don’t expect to see more than a faint, fuzzy, oval-shaped blob. If you don’t feel impressed, just remind yourself you’re looking at the collected light of possibly one trillion stars, all at a distance of two million light years away. Now that’s impressive!

Our star chart looks a little empty to the south - there just aren’t many bright stars in that region of the sky this time of year. From very dark skies and with a more detailed chart you may be able to find Cetus the Sea Monster and Eridanus the River - but those can be real challenges to spot!

Early Morning

Throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the spring night sky.

Just before dawn, our winter constellations have set in the west. Compare the locations of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia from where you saw them in the early evening. These two star pictures stay on nearly opposite sides of Polaris. The Big Dipper is now nearly straight overhead and Cassiopeia is hidden near the northern horizon.

Imagine poking a hole in the bottom of the bowl of the Big Dipper - the water drips out onto the back of Leo the Lion.

Before you set your alarm for the wee hours of the morning, consider planning out your observing. Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects can be found on any date and time, and help you plan ahead.

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