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Night Sky, January 2020: What You Can See This Month [Maps]

The night sky tonight and on any clear night offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects you can see, from stars and constellations to bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful, and a good beginner telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy accessories to make your observing easier, and use our Satellite Tracker page powered by N2YO.com to find out when to see the International Space Station and other satellites. Below, find out what's up in the night sky tonight (Planets Visible Now, Moon Phases, Observing Highlights This Month) plus other resources (Skywatching Terms, Night Sky Observing Tips and Further Reading).

The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look. (Image credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com)

Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Chris Vaughan of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing skywatching photo you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, you can send images and comments in to spacephotos@futurenet.com.

Night Sky Guides:

Calendar of Observing Highlights

Wednesday, January 1 evening — Vesta Stands Still

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Wednesday, January 1, the large main belt asteroid designated (4) Vesta will complete a retrograde loop that began in late September, and resume its regular eastward orbital motion (red path with dates). After dark, look for the magnitude 7.4 object halfway up the southeastern sky, within the circlet of stars that form the head of Cetus.

Friday, January 3 at 4:45 GMT — First Quarter Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

After the moon has completed the first quarter of its orbit around Earth, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see it half-illuminated — on its eastern side. At first quarter, the moon always rises around noon and sets around midnight local time, so it is conveniently positioned for observing before youngsters' bedtimes. The evenings around first quarter are excellent for looking at the lunar terrain while it is dramatically lit by low-angled sunlight.

Saturday, January 4 pre-dawn — Quadrantids Meteor Shower Peak

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Named for a now-defunct constellation near the north celestial pole called the Mural Quadrant, the annual Quadrantids meteor shower runs from December 30 to January 12 – but the shower's most intense period, when 50 to 100 meteors per hour can occur, lasts only about 6 hours surrounding the peak, which is predicted to occur on Saturday, January 4 at 09:00 GMT (or 4 a.m. Eastern time). At that time, the Earth will be traversing the thickest part of the debris field. Many Quadrantids are bright fireballs owing to the shower's source, an asteroid designated 2003EH. The best time for viewing Quadrantids will be before dawn on Saturday morning, when the shower's radiant, which is beyond the tip of the Big Dipper's handle, will be high in the northeastern sky. The half-illuminated moon will set after 1 a.m. local time on the shower's peak date, leaving the pre-dawn sky dark for meteor-watchers.

Sunday, January 5 at 8:00 GMT — Earth at Perihelion

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Sunday, January 5, the Earth will reach perihelion, its closest point to the sun for the year. On that date Earth's distance from the sun will shrink to 91.401 million miles (147.096 million km). As winter-chilled Northern Hemisphere dwellers will attest, daily temperatures on Earth are not controlled by our proximity to the sun, but by the number of hours of daylight we experience.

Tuesday, January 7 all night — Gibbous Moon meets Aldebaran

(Image credit: Starry Night)

As darkness falls in the Americas on the evening of Tuesday, January 7, the waxing gibbous moon will be positioned several finger widths to the left (or 2.5 degrees to the celestial north) of the bright orange star Aldebaran, which marks the southern eye of Taurus, the Bull. For the rest of the night, the moon will pull away from that star, and the motion of the sky due to Earth's diurnal rotation will lift the moon above Aldebaran. On that same date, Observers in Europe and Africa will see the moon pass through the triangular face of Taurus, and much closer to Aldebaran.

Friday, January 10 at 19:21 GMT — Full Wolf Moon and Penumbral Lunar Eclipse

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The January full moon, known as the Wolf Moon, Old Moon, and Moon after Yule, always shines in or near the stars of Gemini or Cancer. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, and the position of the ecliptic on winter nights causes January moons to culminate very high in the night sky. This full moon will occur while the moon is close to the ecliptic, producing a penumbral lunar eclipse which will begin when the moon contacts the Earth's shadow at 17:07:45 GMT. The moon will enter almost completely into the Earth's northern penumbral shadow, subtly darkening the moon's southern limb more than its northern limb. However, the effect will be visible only within about 30 minutes on either side of greatest eclipse, which will occur at 19:10:01 GMT. The penumbral eclipse will end at 21:12:24 GMT. The entire eclipse will be visible from Europe, eastern Africa, and Asia. In North and South America, Alaska and the Canadian Maritimes will be treated to only the beginning and final stages of the eclipse, respectively.

Saturday, January 11 evening — Uranus Stands Still

(Image credit: Starry Night)

On Saturday, January 11, the distant, blue-green planet Uranus will temporarily cease its motion through the distant stars of southwestern Aries — completing a westward retrograde loop that began in early August. After that date, the planet will resume its regular eastward orbital motion. Magnitude +5.77 Uranus can be seen in binoculars and backyard telescopes, and with unaided eyes under dark skies. Use the nearby naked-eye stars Omicron (o) Piscium and Eta (η) Piscium to guide you.

Saturday, January 11 evening — Bright Moon Buzzes the Beehive

(Image credit: Starry Night)

When the bright, gibbous moon rises in the northeastern evening sky on Saturday, January 11, it will be sitting very close to the left side of the large open star cluster known as the Beehive. The brightest deep sky object in Cancer, this cluster is also called Praesepe and Messier 44 (or M44). The moon and the cluster will both fit within the field of view of binoculars (orange circle), although the bright moonlight will obscure the cluster's dimmer stars. For best results, place the moon just outside of the left edge of your binoculars' field of view and look for the cluster's many stars.

Monday, January 13 pre-dawn — Bright Moon near Bright Regulus

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the western pre-dawn sky on Monday, January 13, the waning gibbous moon will sit within three finger widths to the upper right (or 3 degrees to the celestial north) of the bright, white star Regulus, which marks the heart of Leo, the Lion. Also designated Alpha Leonis, Regulus' position is less than one degree from the ecliptic (green line), and the star is occasionally occulted by the moon and planets.

Friday, January 17 at 12:58 GMT — Last Quarter Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

At its last quarter phase, the moon rises around midnight and remains visible in the southern sky all morning. At this phase, the moon is illuminated on its western side, towards the pre-dawn sun. Last quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3½ hours later, Earth will occupy that same location in space. After this phase, the waning moon will traverse the last quarter of its orbit around the earth, on the way to new moon.

Saturday, January 18 pre-dawn — Mars meets its Rival

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the pre-dawn southeastern sky on the mornings surrounding Saturday, January 18, the orbital motion of the Red Planet Mars will carry it within a palm's width to the upper left (or 4.5 degrees to the celestial north) of its rival, the bright, ruddy-colored star Antares. That star represents the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion. Antares' name translates to "Rival of Ares". The star and the planet will shine with similar colors, but Mars will be somewhat brighter during this encounter.

Sunday, January 19 at 8:21 p.m. EST — Algol at Minimum Brightness

(Image credit: Starry Night)

The "Demon Star" Algol in Perseus is among the most accessible variable stars for budding astronomers. Its naked-eye brightness dims noticeably for about 10 hours once every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes because a dim companion star orbiting nearly edge-on to Earth crosses in front of the much brighter main star, reducing the total light output we receive. On Sunday, January 19 at 8:21 p.m. EST (1:21 UT on Monday), Algol will reach its minimum brightness of magnitude 3.4. At that time, for observers in the Eastern time zone, the star will sit close to the zenith in the southwestern sky. Five hours later, at 1:21 a.m. EST, Algol will be over the northwestern horizon and will have brightened to its usual magnitude of 2.1.

Monday, January 20 pre-dawn — Old Moon near Mars

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the southeastern sky during the hours preceding dawn on Monday, January 20, the waning crescent moon will be positioned less than four finger widths to the upper right (or 4 degrees to the celestial northwest) of Mars. Both objects will fit into the field of view of binoculars (red circle).

Tuesday, January 21 all night — Comet C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS) passes the Heart and Soul Nebulas

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the northern sky on the nights surrounding Tuesday, January 21, the orbital motion of Comet C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS will carry it past the Heart and Soul Nebulas (also designated IC 1805 and IC 1848) in Cassiopeia, setting up a wonderful astro-imaging and observing opportunity in moonless skies. The comet, which should be readily visible during January in binoculars as a dim fuzzy patch, possibly with a tail, is predicted to reach peak visibility in late spring, 2020.

Wednesday, January 22 before sunrise — Old Moon over Jupiter 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Look just above the southeastern horizon before sunrise on Wednesday, January 22 for the very old, slim crescent moon sitting a generous palm's width to the upper right (or 7 degrees to the celestial west) of Jupiter. That bright planet will rise at about 6:30 a.m. local time. Appoximately fifteen hours later, the moon's eastward orbital motion will produce an occultation of Jupiter for observers in Madagascar, the Kerguelen Islands, southern and eastern Australia, New Zealand, southern and eastern Melanesia, and southwestern Polynesia.

Friday, January 24 at 21:42 GMT — New Moon

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During its new phase, the moon is travelling between Earth and the sun. Since sunlight can only reach the side of the moon that faces away from Earth, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, our natural satellite becomes completely hidden from view for about a day.

Saturday, January 25 after sunset — Young Moon near Mercury

Saturday, January 25 after sunset — Young Moon near Mercury

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Very low in the west-southwestern sky immediately after sunset on Saturday, January 25, the very thin crescent of the young moon will be positioned less than two finger widths to the left (or within 2 degrees to the celestial southeast) of Mercury. The best time to see the pair will be between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m. local time. But ensure that the sun has completely set before scanning the sky with binoculars (red circle) or a telescope.

Monday, January 27 early evening — Venus Kisses Neptune

Monday, January 27 early evening — Venus Kisses Neptune

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the western sky after dusk on Monday, January 27, the orbital motion of the very bright planet Venus (red path with dates and times indicated) will carry it very closely past the distant and far dimmer planet Neptune. Closest approach will occur at 20:00 GMT, when the two planets will be separated by only 4 arc-minutes! Observers in the Americas will have to wait until full darkness arrives a few hours later to see Neptune – by then sitting only 10 arc-minutes to the celestial north of Venus. Throughout the encounter, Venus and Neptune will appear together within the field of view of a backyard telescope (red circle), but Venus will far outshine Neptune's tiny blue disk. Note that your telescope's optics will likely flip and/or invert the arrangement shown here.

Tuesday, January 28 evening — Young Moon near Venus

Tuesday, January 28 evening — Young Moon near Venus

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the southwestern sky after sunset on Tuesday, January 28, the young moon's slim crescent will be positioned a binoculars' field width to the upper left (or 6 degrees to the celestial southeast) of very bright Venus. By the time Venus sets at about 8:45 p.m. local time, the moon's eastward orbital motion will have carried it a bit farther away from Venus.

Friday, January 31 evening — Moon and Uranus

Friday, January 31 evening — Moon and Uranus

(Image credit: Starry Night)

In the southwestern sky during the evening hours of Friday, January 31, the waxing crescent moon will be positioned a palm's width to the lower left (or 6 degrees to the celestial southwest) of Uranus. While bright moonlight will hamper views of far less bright Uranus, use the moon to identify Uranus' location and then look for that dim planet on a night when the moon is less intrusive.

Planets

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Mercury will reach superior conjunction with the sun on January 10, so the innermost planet will not become observable until about the final week of January, when it will commence a very good evening apparition for Northern Hemisphere observers and a poor one for those viewing it from south of the equator. Viewed in a telescope in late January, the planet will exhibit an 85% illuminated disk and an apparent disk diameter of 6 arc-seconds. On January 25, the very thin crescent of the young moon will be positioned less than two finger widths to the left (or under 2 degrees to the celestial southeast) of Mercury. 

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Venus will spend all of January swinging farther east of the sun while climbing up the western evening sky. This will be Venus' finest apparition for Northern Hemisphere observers since 2012, and a reasonably good one for those viewing Venus in the south, too. During the month, Venus will increase in brightness from magnitude -3.96 to -4.1. Viewed in a telescope, the planet's illuminated phase will wane from 82% to 73%. Meanwhile, its apparent disk diameter will increase by 20% as its orbit brings it closer to Earth. On January 27, the orbital motion of Venus will bring it within 4 arc-minutes of distant, dim, Neptune. The young crescent moon will sit 7 degrees from Venus on the evenings of January 27 and 28.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Mars will spend January in the eastern pre-dawn sky, rising at about 4:30 a.m. local time. On January 7, the red planet will leave Libra for Scorpius, and then move into Ophiuchus after mid-month. On the mornings around January 12, Mars will pass less than 2 degrees to the north of the globular cluster Messier 80. Days later on January 17, Mars will also pass less than 5 degrees to the north of its less-bright "rival", the star Antares. Mars will pass within 17 arc-minutes of another globular cluster, NGC 6235 on January 25, and the dimmer globular NGC 6287 on January 29. As Earth continues to close the distance from Mars during January, Mars will gradually increase in brightness (from magnitude 1.57 to 1.37) and grow slightly in apparent disk size. On January 20, the waning crescent moon will be positioned less than four finger widths to the upper right (or 4 degrees to the celestial northwest) of Mars. 

night sky image january 2020 jupiter

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Towards the end of January Jupiter will re-appear low in the eastern pre-dawn sky. At that time it will shine at magnitude -1.86 among the stars of Sagittarius. On January 22, after the bright planet rises at 6:30 a.m. local time, the very old crescent moon will be positioned 7 degrees to the celestial west of Jupiter. 

night sky image january 2020 saturn

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Saturn will reach conjunction with the sun on January 13, keeping the ringed planet out of view until it joins Jupiter in the pre-dawn eastern sky in February.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

Until January 10, blue-green Uranus will continue to move slowly retrograde westward among the stars of southwestern Aries. On that date, it will stand still, and then return to normal prograde motion. All month long, Uranus will be observable from dusk until almost midnight local time, shine at magnitude 5.8, and will exhibit an average apparent disk diameter of 3.6 arc-seconds. Uranus can be seen with unaided eyes on dark, moonless nights, and certainly with binoculars and telescopes of all sizes. To assist you in locating the planet, slow-moving Uranus can be found 4 degrees above (or to the celestial north) of the naked-eye star Xi (ξ) Ceti and 5 degrees to the left (or celestial east) of the similarly-bright star Torcular, also known as Omicron (o) Piscium. The bright waxing gibbous moon will land 5 degrees below Uranus on January 4 — but wait to observe the planet on a night when the bright moon has moved on.

(Image credit: Starry Night)

During January, blue Neptune will be positioned in the southwestern evening sky and moving slowly prograde eastward through the stars of northeastern Aquarius. At magnitude 7.9, Neptune will be visible in good-quality backyard telescopes. Look for it near the northern edge of the triangle formed by the naked-eye stars Phi (φ) and Psi (ψ) Aquarii, and the brighter star Hydor, or Lambda (λ) Aquarii. As January opens, Neptune will be observable as soon as full darkness arrives — but it will only be high enough in the sky for clear views until mid-evening. As we progress through the month, that window of opportunity will shorten.

Skywatching Terms

Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% illuminated.

Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.

Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It's easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.

Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer's scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.

Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.

Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.
 

Night Sky Observing Tips

Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.

Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you're stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you're in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.

Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it's not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.

Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you'll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it's unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.

Further Reading

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