Mittens and Meteors—A Guide to Winter Stargazing

By Rebekah Bartlett
President, Astronomical Society of Southern New England

Winter might seem like a chilly time to be out under the stars at night, but dry air and cool temperatures often make for crystal-clear skies—perfect for winter stargazing.

Once the sun goes down, bundle up and head outdoors for some alluring astronomical sights.

Magnificent Meteors

MiddleBoro Star Trails © Mike McCabe
MiddleBoro Star Trails © Mike McCabe
Jupiter © Andy Galasso
Jupiter © Andy Galasso
Orion Nebula © Andy Galasso
Orion Nebula © Andy Galasso
Andromeda Galaxy © Andy Galasso
Andromeda Galaxy © Andy Galasso

First up in January will be the Quadrantid meteor shower. A comfortable camp chair, a blanket, and some hot cocoa might be just the ticket for enjoying this show. The meteors from this shower are believed to be the dust trail of an extinct comet, known as 2003 EH1. The shower typically runs January 1-5, with the peak expected this year on the evening of January 3. Prime viewing time occurs after the moon sets (around midnight).

Planets on High

Venus will be at its highest point in the sky on January 12. It’s hard to miss it, since it’s the brightest object in the west after sunset. Venus won’t be this high again until August 2018. Also look for the red planet, Mars, which will be nearby and above Venus, although much less bright. If you are a (very) early riser, Jupiter and Saturn will be morning objects (visible before dawn) during the winter.

Exquisite Eclipse

Don’t miss the penumbral lunar eclipse on February 10. This is when the moon passes through the Earth’s outer shadow (the penumbra) causing it to darken, but not as completely as it does during a full eclipse. In Massachusetts, the eclipse will begin around 5:30 pm, reach its peak about 7:45 pm, and end close to 10:00 pm. The moon often changes color during a penumbral eclipse—it may look golden, pink, or red. A long zoom lens used for birding is ideal if you want to try taking photos. This will be the only lunar eclipse visible from New England this year.

The Stars Align

Various constellations make their appearance during the winter, including well-known Orion, the hunter. He’s not hard to find: look for a straight line of three equally spaced, equally bright stars—that’s his belt. Below this belt on the left side is Orion’s Nebula, an area where new stars are being born. His belt, shoulders, and feet form an hourglass in the sky. The twin forms of Gemini and the baleful red “eye” of Taurus, the bull, can be found nearby and are also easy to spot. 

Star Light, Star Bright

Several open star clusters (large groupings of bright stars) sparkle brilliantly this time of year. The best known among these are the Pleiades or “seven sisters,” the Beehive, and on a dark night, the Double Cluster between Cassiopeia and Perseus.

More Astronomy for Everyone

Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon offers a free monthly public astronomy night with local astronomers, who bring a variety of telescopes and binoculars and eagerly share their knowledge on what we can see in the night sky. Adults and families are welcome.

Additional Resources

This article is was featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Explore, Mass Audubon's quarterly member newsletter.