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Friday, January 1, 2021

What's In The Sky - January 2021

January kicks off the New Year with wonderful sights for backyard astronomers to enjoy. Don't forget to bundle up on clear, cold evenings as you explore the sparkling night sky. Here are a few top picks for January stargazers from Orion Telescopes and Binoculars...

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Bundle up and get outside on the night of January 2nd into the early morning hours of the 3rd to see the Quadrantids meteor shower peak. Some meteors associated with the Quadrantids are expected to be visible until January 12th, but the shower peaks after midnight on the night of January 2nd-3rd, with up to 120 meteors expected per hour. This year, the waning gibbous Moon will outshine fainter meteors, but you can still enjoy the brightest "shooting stars" as they appear to radiate from the constellation Boötes. You don't need a telescope to enjoy the show, just a clear, dark sky and a comfy chair or blanket.

Stargazers pointing out the constellation Orion. Original image by Night Skygaze.
Stargazers pointing out the constellation Orion. Original image by Night Skygaze.

Hunting the Hunter

Our favorite constellation Orion continues to be high in the night sky in January, providing backyard astronomers spectacular sights throughout the month. Take a closer look at the middle star of Orion's sword with binoculars to reveal amazing views of the bright emission nebula M42. Use a telescope to resolve the system of four "newborn" stars that form a trapezoid at the center of M42, known as the Trapezium. If you'll be viewing in a light-polluted area, use an Orion UltraBlock filter to boost contrast for better views.

NGC 2024 -The Flame Nebula imaged by students from Barnstable High School, MA using remote telescope, ATEO-3 located in Chile (left) and Barnard 33 - The Horsehead Nebula processed by Insight Observatory Starbase subscriber, Daniel Nobre.
NGC 2024 -The Flame Nebula imaged by students from Barnstable High School, MA using remote telescope, ATEO-3 located in Chile (left) and Barnard 33 - The Horsehead Nebula processed by Insight Observatory Starbase subscriber, Daniel Nobre.

Just above Alnitak, the easternmost star of Orion's belt, the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) can be found in larger telescopes. Dark lanes of dust give this emission nebula its fiery appearance. The picturesque absorption nebula Barnard 33, also called the Horsehead Nebula, can be found in large telescopes just south of Alnitak. Use a Hydrogen-Beta filter to improve your chances of spotting the elusive Horsehead.

Reflection nebula, M78 in the constellation Orion imaged on ATEO-1 by Vincent M. using Insight Observatory's online Personal Image Request (PIR) application (left) and M42 - The Orion Nebula imaged on ATEO-3 by 5th-grade students from Plymouth South Elementary School, MA (right).
Reflection nebula, M78 in the constellation Orion imaged on ATEO-1 by Vincent M. using Insight Observatory's online Personal Image Request (PIR) application (left) and M42 - The Orion Nebula imaged on ATEO-3 by 5th-grade students from Plymouth South Elementary School, MA (right).

Scan the skies above and to the east of belt star Alnitak to find reflection nebula M78. Since M78 is much fainter than M42, a 4.5" or larger telescope is recommended for the best views.

Hind's Crimson Star

Just South of Orion is the constellation Lepus, the Hare. In the constellation Lepus, you can catch a glimpse of the rare winter globular cluster M79, as well as R Lepori, a well-known variable star that varies between magnitudes +5.5 (just visible to the naked eye) to +11.7 with a period of about 427 days. What's interesting about this star is that because it is a "carbon star" it is very red; when at its brightest, the red color is unmistakable.

January Challenge Object

Just west of Rigel, the bright blue/white star that marks the western "knee" of Orion, lies the Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118), in the neighboring constellation Eridanus. The Witch-Head is a reflection nebula that shines from reflected light off of Rigel, like the reflection nebula in the Pleiades, M45. You don't need a big telescope; a wide field of view, low power and a dark sky are needed to see this challenging nebula. (Hint: Don't use filters).

IC 2118 - The Witch Head Nebula imaged on ATEO-1
by Tom L. using Insight Observatory's online
Personal Image Request (PIR) application.

All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.

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