What to See in the Winter Night Sky
The winter nights sparkle with some of the best celestial objects to observe from the northern hemisphere. By the end of December, the winter constellations are high in the southern sky at around 11 pm.
Taurus contains two glorious winter deep sky objects - the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. Both can bee seen with the naked eye and are wonderful sights in binoculars, and small telescopes will further reveal the glittering array of bright, blue stars that make up the Pleiades.
A short hop into neighbouring Auriga will bring you to the three exquisite open clusters - M36, M37 and M38 all of which can be spotted with binoculars and lie in the region between Beta Tauri and Delta Aurigae.
With dark skies, you should be able to spot the double cluster Perseus with the naked eye. It's another great target for small telescopes and consists of the clusters NGC 869 and NGC 884.
Not far away in Camelopardalis is the line of stars known as "Kemble's Cascade". You can find it with binoculars just over a third of the way between stars CS Camelopardalis and Alpha Camelopardalis.
The constellation of Monoceros looks fairly indistinct, but among its many attractions is single Messier object (M50). This mag. +5.9 open cluster is just visible to the naked eye under dark skies, in the form of a hazy patch, although a 4-inch telescope will show in excess of 50 - 200 member stars. The majority of its stars are blue-white in colour, although there is a smattering of yellow giants among them.
Finally, no winter deep sky objects observing guide would be complete without the great Orion Nebula (M42). It's easily viewable to the naked eye under dark skies, and the bright swirls of nebulosity are a spectacular sight in even a modest telescope. Through an 8 inch telescope, some wonderful fine details start to emerge, with tendrils of nebulosity rich in hydrogen alpha and OIII emissions. The bright code, known as the Trapezium because of the shape formed by the four very bright stars visible there, is best seen at high magnification.
While you're observing M42, don't forget the often overlooked Running Man Nebula, M43, immediately north of M42. Also, don't forget to check out Collinder 70 which you may already know as Orions Belt. Collinder 70 is an open cluster comprising of over 100 stars and spans an area 3° across.
Winter Meteor Showers
Winter is a busy time for meteors, with lots of activity during the long nights. Hot on the tail of the Orionids last month, are the Leonids, famous because their meteor showers, or storms, can be among the most spectacular. The outbursts of meteor activity are best seen when their parent object, comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, is near perihelion (closest approach to the sun). In 1999-2002, a deep crossing of Tempel-Tuttle's debris streams produced outbursts of more than 1000 meteors per hour. The Leonids are active from the 14th November through to the 21st November.
Following the Leonids are the Geminids which are usually the strongest meteor shower of the year. They start around 7th December and last until the 17th.
The final winter meteor shower is the Quanrantid meteor shower. The Quadrantids have the potential to be the strongest shower of the year but are usually marred by poor January weather and the short length of maximum activity of 6 hours. They are active from the 1st to 6th of January.
Click here for a visual guide to meteor showers.
Winter Time Constellations
Winter is an ideal time to observe the following constellations.