What to See in the Winter Night Sky

Last Updated September 13, 2019 by . First Published in 2013.

1,610 words, estimated reading time 6 minutes.

What to See in the Winter Night Sky

The winter night sky sparkles 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.

Winter Planets

Mercury will be visible in the evening sky from mid-February to early March, and in the morning from late March to early May. Mercury returns to the evening sky between early June and mid-July, then back to the morning sky between early August through to mid-August. Look for Mercury again in the evening sky between late September and early November. Mercury will be brightest in the evening sky between February and March.

Venus is always brilliant, shining with a steady, silvery light. Mornings in the eastern sky at dawn from early January through to mid-June. Then, because of its close proximity to the sun, it will be invisible all through the summer into the early fall. Venus will return to the evening, in the western sky at dusk from Early October through till the end of December.

Mars, The Red Planet is visible in the night sky from January to mid-July, then shifts to the morning sky from mid Oct to the end of December.

Jupiter is a splendid object visible in the southern sky as soon as darkness falls and does not set until early morning. Using higher magnifications you will see the yellowish flattened disc and as the four Galilean satellites. You should be able to follow the movement of these moons from night-to-night. It will be visible in the mornings from January to May, evenings from May to November, and mornings again from mid-December to the end of December.

Saturn shines like a yellowish-white "star" of moderate brightness. The famous rings are only visible in a telescope. Saturn is visible in the mornings from late January to early July, then in the evenings from July to December.

Winter Deep Sky Objects

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. Orion's belt stars point to the bright orange star Aldebaran, the "eye of the bull". Extending away from it are the stars of the Hyades cluster. They really are related, and binoculars show the cluster very well. Aldebaran is not a true member but lies halfway between the Hyades and ourselves.

To the west of the Hyades, we come to the most famous open cluster in the sky, the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. With the naked eye, most people can see seven or eight stars, but binoculars show many more, If you want to get the whole cluster into the same binocular field, do not use too high a magnification.

Hyades and Pleiades Star Clusters
Hyades and Pleiades Star Clusters

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.

How to find Kemble's Cascade Location
How to find Kemble's Cascade Location

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.

Location of M50 in Monoceros
Location of M50 in Monoceros

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.

Orion Nebula (M42) Location
Orion Nebula (M42) Location

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.

Moving downward, the stars of Orions Belt show the way to Sirius, the dog star, much the brightest star in the sky and only 8.6 lightyears away. It is a pure white star but because it is low down and its light has to compete with a thick layer of atmosphere, it seems to flash various colours of the rainbow.

M1 or the Andromeda galaxy is the nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. To find Andromeda, find the Great Square of Pegasus and train your binoculars or telescope on the top-left star. Now move to the upper left, star hopping past the two brightest stars. Next turn 90° to the right and move up two faint stars. WIthin your field of view should now be a roundish, fuzzy patch that is the Andromeda galaxy.

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 Quadrantids 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.

Winter Deep Space Objects

  • C5 - Camelopardalis (03h 46.8m +68° 06m)
  • C7 - Camelopardalis (07h 36.9m +65° 36m)
  • C8 - Cassiopeia (01h 29.5m +63° 18m)
  • C10 - Cassiopeia (01h 46.0m +61° 15m)
  • C11 The Bubble Nebula - Cassiopeia (23h 20.7m +61° 12m)
  • C13 Phi Cas Cluster - Cassiopeia (01h 19.1m +58° 20m)
  • C14 Sword Handle - Perseus (02h 20.0m +57° 08m)
  • C15 Blinking Eye Nebula - Cygnus (19h 44.8m +50° 31m)
  • C17 - Cassiopeia (00h 33.2m +48° 30m)
  • C18 - Cassiopeia (00h 39.0m +48° 20m)
  • C19 Cocoon Nebula - Cygnus (21h 53.5m +47° 16m)
  • C20 Nort American Nebula - Cygnus (20h 58.8m +44° 20m)
  • C22 - Andromeda (23h 25.9m +42° 33m)
  • C23 - Andromeda (02h 22.6m +42° 21m)
  • C24 Per A radio source - Perseus (03h 19.8m +41° 31m)
  • C25 - Lynx (07h 38.1m +38° 53m)
  • C27 Crescent Nebula - Cygnus (20h 12.0m +38° 21m)
  • C28 - Andromeda (01h 57.8m +37° 41m)
  • C30 - Pegasus (22h 37.1m +34° 25m)
  • C31 Flaming Star Nebula - Auriga (05h 16.2m +34° 16m)
  • C33 East Veil Nebula - Cygnus (20h 56.4m +31° 43m)
  • C34 West Veil Nebula - Cygnus (20h 45.7m +30° 43m)
  • C39 Eskimo Nebula - Gemini (07h 29.2m +20° 55m)
  • C41 Hyades - Taurus (04h 27m +16° 00m)
  • C43 - Pegasus (00h 03.3m +16° 09m)
  • C44 - Pegasus (23h 04.9m +12° 19m)
  • C46 Hubbles Variable Nebula - Monoceros (06h 39.2m +08° 44m)
  • C49 Rosette Nebula - Monoceros (06h 32.3m +05° 03m)
  • C50 - Monoceros (06h 32.4m +04° 52m)
  • C54 - Monoceros (08h 00.2m -10° 47m)
  • M1 The Crab Nebula - Taurus (05h 34.5m 22° 01m)
  • M2 - Aquarius (21h 33.5m -00° 49m)
  • M29 - Cygnus (20h 23.9m 38° 32m)
  • M31 The Andromeda Galaxy - Andromeda (00h 42.7m 41° 16m)
  • M32 - Andromeda (00h 42.7m 40° 52m)
  • M33 Triangulum Galaxy - Triangulum (01h 33.9m 30° 39m)
  • M34 - Perseus (02h 42.0m 42° 47m)
  • M35 - Gemini (06h 08.9m 24° 20m)
  • M36 - Auriga (05h 36.1m 34° 08m)
  • M37 - Auriga (05h 52.4m 32° 33m)
  • M38 - Auriga (05h 28.7m 35° 50m)
  • M39 - Cygnus (21h 32.2m 48° 26m)
  • M42 The Orion Nebula - Orion (05h 35.4m -05° 27m)
  • M43 de Mairan's Nebula - Orion (05h 35.6m -05° 16m)
  • M45 The Pleiades - Taurus (03h 47.0m 24° 07m)
  • M52 - Cassiopeia (23h 24.2m 61° 35m)
  • M74 - Pisces (01h 36.7m 15° 47m)
  • M76 The Little Dumbbell - Perseus (01h 42.4m 51° 34m)
  • M78 - Orion (05h 46.7m 00° 03m)
  • M79 - Lepus (05h 24.5m -24° 33m)
  • M103 - Cassiopeia (01h 33.2m 60° 42m)
  • M110 - Andromeda (00h 40.4m 41° 41m)


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