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The Astronomer’s Winter Bucket List

A month by month guide to winter's night sky.


With its longer nights and minimal light pollution, the winter season presents a prime opportunity to witness the night sky's vibrant constellations, radiant stars, and planets, which are frequently hidden from view during other parts of the year.

 

From October to March, the stable, cold air of the season brings unparalleled clarity to the night sky, delighting stargazers with optimal viewing opportunities. It's no coincidence that this period also aligns with our schedule of dark sky activities.

 

So, whether you're an experienced stargazer or just starting out, our guide aims to enhance your night sky observations during these prime months. Prepare to enjoy some of the best stargazing opportunities of the year, from October to March.


What to see in October


  • The Andromeda Galaxy (M31): Visible with the naked eye under dark skies, Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and is located in the constellation Andromeda. It's best observed with binoculars or a small telescope.

  • The Double Cluster in Perseus: This is a stunning pair of open star clusters, known as NGC 884 and NGC 869, which are close to each other in the sky within the constellation Perseus. They are easily seen through binoculars or a small telescope.

  • The Great Square of Pegasus: This asterism is easy to spot due to its large, square shape, making it a landmark of the autumn sky. The Great Square is part of the Pegasus constellation and acts as a doorway to finding other constellations and deep-sky objects.

  • Orionids Meteor Shower: Peaking around October 21st, this meteor shower is produced by debris left behind by Comet Halley. Observers can see up to 20 meteors per hour under dark skies away from city lights.

  • Jupiter and Saturn: Depending on their current positions in their orbits, these planets can be excellent targets for observation in October. They are visible to the naked eye and look spectacular through a telescope, revealing Jupiter's cloud bands and moons, and Saturn's rings.



Starry night over mountains


What to see in November


  • The Leonids Meteor Shower: This annual meteor shower peaks around November 17th and 18th. It's associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle and is known for producing a high number of meteors per hour at its peak under optimal conditions.

  • The Pleiades (M45): Continuing from October, the Pleiades star cluster is even more prominent in the November sky. Located in the constellation Taurus, this cluster is easily visible to the naked eye and is a breath taking sight through binoculars or a small telescope.

  • The Orion Nebula (M42): As the month progresses, the Orion Nebula becomes more accessible in the late evening to early morning sky. This stellar nursery is a favourite for both its brightness and the detail visible through telescopes.

  • Aldebaran and the Hyades: Aldebaran, the eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus, is part of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. This open cluster, less compact than the Pleiades, offers a beautiful view through binoculars.

  • The Double Cluster in Perseus (NGC 884 and NGC 869): This pair of open star clusters remains a splendid sight in November. It's easily observed with binoculars and provides a rich field of stars in a telescope.

  • Comet sightings: November can sometimes offer the opportunity to view comets. It's worth checking astronomical forecasts and news to see if any comets are predicted to be visible.

 


Stars over a lake with hills in the background and a glow behind the hills


What to see in December


  • Geminid Meteor Shower: Peaking around mid-December, the Geminids are one of the most reliable and prolific meteor showers, with up to 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. No equipment is needed, just a dark sky and some patience.

  • Great Square of Pegasus: This large asterism is composed of four stars marking the body of the winged horse Pegasus. It acts as a landmark to help find other celestial objects.

  • Aldebaran: This red giant star is the eye of the Taurus constellation and offers a warm, reddish hue to the naked eye. Through a telescope, you can also explore the Hyades star cluster surrounding Aldebaran.

  • Sirius: The brightest star in the night sky, located in the constellation Canis Major. It's a brilliant, twinkling object due to its brightness and relatively low position in the sky.

  • Winter Circle: An asterism that encompasses several bright stars in various constellations, forming a large circle in the sky. It includes stars like Sirius, Procyon, and Betelgeuse.

 


Man standing under a starry sky with a low sun on the horizon.


What to see in January


  • Mizar and Alcor - Located in the handle of the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major), this pair of stars can be seen with the naked eye. Mizar and Alcor are a famous double star system that has been used as a test of eyesight.

  • The Double Cluster (NGC 869 and NGC 884) - Located in the constellation Perseus, this stunning pair of open star clusters is a beautiful sight through binoculars or a small telescope, with hundreds of stars visible.

  • NGC 2244 (Rosette Nebula) - Situated in the constellation Monoceros, the Rosette Nebula is an emission nebula with an open cluster of stars at its centre. It's a challenging but rewarding target for small telescopes under dark skies.

  • NGC 2403 - This intermediate spiral galaxy in the constellation Camelopardalis is a member of the M81 Group and is similar in structure to the well-known M33 (Triangulum Galaxy). It's a good target for small to medium telescopes.

  • NGC 457 (ET Cluster or Owl Cluster) - Located in Cassiopeia, this open star cluster resembles an owl in shape, with two bright stars forming the "eyes." It's an excellent target for binoculars and small telescopes.

  • The Quadrantid meteor shower: The peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower is usually brief, often lasting only a few hours, and it typically occurs around January 3rd or 4th. The shower's radiant point (the point in the sky from which the meteors seem to originate) is in the former constellation Quadrans Muralis, which is why the shower is named "Quadrantids." This area is now part of the constellation Boötes, near the Big Dipper.

 


Milky Way with a lake and a mountain in the background and trees


What to see in February


  • Winter Hexagon: Also known as the Winter Circle, this asterism is composed of six bright stars from six different constellations, forming a large hexagon shape in the sky. The stars include Rigel (Orion), Aldebaran (Taurus), Capella (Auriga), Pollux (Gemini), Procyon (Canis Minor), and Sirius (Canis Major). The Winter Hexagon is best seen in the early evening and is a great way to identify multiple constellations at once.

  • The Zodiacal Light: For observers at mid-northern latitudes, the zodiacal light can be seen on moonless evenings just after twilight ends in the western sky. This faint, diffuse light is sunlight scattered by interplanetary dust in the solar system's plane. February offers one of the best times to see this phenomenon due to the angle of the ecliptic relative to the horizon.

  • NGC 2392 (Eskimo Nebula): Located in the constellation Gemini, the Eskimo Nebula is a planetary nebula that resembles a face surrounded by a fur-lined hood, especially when viewed through a telescope. This nebula is the result of a dying star shedding its outer layers, and it's a compelling sight for those with medium to large telescopes.

 

Man on a hill under a starry sky

 

What to see in March


  • Galaxies of the Leo Triplet: March is a great time to observe the Leo Triplet, a small group of galaxies that includes M65, M66, and NGC 3628. Located in the constellation Leo, these galaxies are close enough to each other to be seen in the same field of view through a small telescope, offering a fascinating glimpse into distant galactic structures.

  • Globular Cluster M3: Mid to late March is a good time to spot M3, one of the brightest globular clusters in the sky. Located in the constellation Canes Venatici, M3 contains around half a million stars and is visible with binoculars, through a telescope will reveal more of its stunning detail.

  • The Beehive Cluster (M44): The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe, is an open cluster in the constellation Cancer. It's one of the nearest and most prominent open clusters to Earth, visible to the naked eye under dark skies and a beautiful sight through binoculars or a small telescope.

  • Spring Equinox: While not a celestial object, the spring equinox occurs around March 20th, marking the astronomical first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, the length of day and night are nearly equal, and it's a key turning point in the astronomical calendar.

 


Sillouette of mountain with  grey mountains in the background and a starry sky

Photo by Chan Hoi on Unsplash


How to find objects in the night sky:


Astronomy apps harness the capabilities of your smartphone or tablet to transform it into a personal planetarium. With the help of these applications, you can identify constellations, track planets, and even locate distant galaxies by simply pointing your device towards the sky. They use augmented reality (AR) to superimpose celestial information over what you see through the camera, making it engaging and intuitive to explore the night sky.

 

Popular among stargazers is Stellarium, an app that offers a detailed and expansive view of the night sky, complete with stars, planets, and satellites. Its user-friendly interface enables easy navigation and exploration of celestial phenomena. Another widely used application is SkySafari, which not only maps out the stars but also includes rich descriptions and history, providing context to what you're observing.

 

For those interested in catching a glimpse of the International Space Station (ISS) or satellites orbiting around the planet, ISS Detector is an indispensable tool. It alerts you to upcoming flyovers, ensuring you never miss an opportunity to spot them. Meanwhile, Star Walk caters to both casual stargazers and avid astronomers by offering real-time tracking of celestial bodies and a comprehensive database of night sky objects.

 

These applications often come with features like night mode to preserve your night vision and customisable settings to tailor the app to your specific interests and observation conditions.

 


 

 

Writer Bio: Tom Urbain

From a tender age, Tom Urbain has harboured a deep-seated fascination with the cosmos. His passion isn't just confined to leisure; when he's not immersing himself in space documentaries, films, or series, you'll likely find him in his backyard, meticulously adjusting his telescope in anticipation of another night spent exploring the vast expanse of the universe. He uses Starlust.org as a platform to demystify the night sky for enthusiasts and novices alike.


Tom Urbain


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