- Cold winter air holds less moisture, making clear nights even clearer than those warm summer nights. But a very clear night can have the opposite effect, when the stars "twinkle" too much from atmospheric disturbance, or if it is windy, it will be hard to see stars clearly through a telescope or binoculars.
- Longer nights, and an earlier darkness, make for better and longer stargazing opportunities. Try to pick a moonless night.
- Introduce your kiddos to the wonders of the night sky without interrupting their bedtime routine...as much.
- If you happen to be up north, usually above the continental United States, you might see the Northern Lights (view the University of Alaska's Aurora Forecast, opens a new window to see projected geomagnetic activity).
- There are different stars visible in the winter than the summer, so make winter stargazing a new tradition!
Here are some celestial happenings you'll find in the night sky.
Look for Orion's iconic belt in the southwest sky. If you look off to the constellation's left shoulder, you'll notice a red star. That's Betelgeuse—visible in this photo—a supergiant star that's slowly nearing the end of its life (in the next 100,000 years, that is). If you have a telescope, focus on the cluster of stars below Orion's belt; that's the Orion Nebula. And then from Orion's belt, look to the left and down (about eight of Orion's "belt lengths") to find Sirius.
Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky
That's right, Sirius, or the dog star (hey Harry Potter fans, see what J.K. Rowling did there?), is the brightest star visible from Earth. It's part of the constellation Canis Major. The best time to see Sirius is in the southern skies from winter until mid-spring, particularly in February. Sirius is sometimes reported as a UFO because its colors change and flicker; all stars flicker because of how light passes through the Earth's atmosphere, but the effect is particularly noticeable because of Sirius's brightness. Sirius is the bright star in the lower left corner of this photo.
You'll find the Pleiades if you follow the stars in Orion's belt upward in a straight line. You'll see a bright star called Aldebaran, the eye of the bull Taurus, and then just a bit beyond that, you'll see the Pleiades, a small star cluster, shaped sort of like a dipper. The Greeks referred to these stars as the Seven Sisters. In Japanese, this cluster is called "Subaru" (next time you see a Subaru on the road, look at its logo). Also nearby is the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a star that exploded in 1054, and noted by Chinese, Korean, Arab and Japanese astronomers who recorded that the star's brightness was even visible during the day.
Meteors and Meteor Showers
If you wait long enough, you'll likely see a meteor or two pass by. These meteors are caused by the Earth passing through a comet's leftover space dust and debris. Check out the Leonids which peak the night of November 16, 2021, the Geminids which peak the night of December 13, 2020, the Ursids which peak the night of December 21, 2020, and the Quadrantids which peak the night of January 2, 2021. Visit the American Meteor Society's Meteor Shower Calendar, opens a new window for updated information year by year, as peak times can vary by a few days.
Do you know how to tell a planet apart from a star? A star will twinkle, a planet will not. Look for Mars soon after sunset in the east-northeast sky. Jupiter and Saturn rise later in the evening, in the southwest sky. With a pair of powerful binoculars or a telescope, you might be able to see Saturn's rings. Venus, the brightest planet, is visible during the predawn hours in the east-southeast.
The "Christmas Star"
In one good piece of news from 2020, this year the "Christmas Star, opens a new window" will be visible. The Christmas Star isn't actually a star at all, it's Jupiter and Saturn appearing in the night sky very close together. And by close, we mean that Jupiter is half a billion miles away, and Saturn is about double that distance. This year these two planets will be close enough to be seen in the same telescopic field of view, a mere 0.1 degrees apart, something that hasn't been seen since 1226.
What was happening way back in the 13th century?
- Genghis Khan was conquering Asia. He died in 1227.
- The Persian poet Rumi was born in 1207. Kubla Khan, the first non-Han emperor to unite China, was born in 1215, the same year the Magna Carta was signed. Explorer Marco Polo wouldn't be born until 1254.
- The Christmas Star was visible in between the Fifth Crusade (ended in 1219) and the Sixth Crusade (started in 1228).
- The Kingdom of Zimbabwe was founded in 1220, six years before the Christmas Star.
- Mesa Verde was beginning to thrive when the Christmas Star was visible, but the site was abandoned by 1300.
- Eyeglasses were probably invented by a man named Salvino D'Armate in 1285. Inventions like the mechanical clock were another century away, and the printing press, another century after that.
Cold Weather Tips
- Wear plenty of layers, especially taking care of your hands, feet and head with warm socks, mittens or gloves, and hats. If you have a telescope or binoculars, you might want a pair of thinner gloves when setting up to help manipulate your instruments.
- Wear waterproof clothing to protect against snow and ice, like a ski parka and ski pants and insulated boots.
- Bring warm blankets and heat pads, a must when you are standing still for long periods of time. Try to move around if you feel chilled or bring a hot beverage to drink.
- If you're standing on a snowy area, try to clear away as much snow as you can to keep your feet warmer and to prevent any slips or spills.
More to Explore
If you want more skywatching tips or sights to see, check out astronomy and stargazing books and movies for all things relating to the night sky.