Night Sky Highlights for January-March 2018

Solar System

Quadrantid Meteor Shower
January 3-4
The full Moon will interfere with the Quadrantids this year, but the best chance to catch some meteors will be on the night of January 3-4.  The radiant is in Draco, low in the northern sky during the evening hours.

Lunar Eclipse
Morning of January 31
In Connecticut, we will catch just a little of the partial phase of this eclipse before the Moon sets on the morning of January 31. If you have a good view to the west, see whether you can spot the early portions of the Earth’s shadow covering the Moon before dawn.

Mercury will be visible in the eastern sky before dawn for a few days around New Year’s Day. Then in mid-March it will make an evening appearance in the western sky after sunset. It will be furthest from the Sun and easiest to see in the few days before and after March 15.

As February ends, brilliant Venus will start to appear low in the western sky after sunset. As spring approaches, it will slowly get a little higher in the evening sky. It will be coming from the far side of the Sun in its orbit, and its cloud-covered disk will be more than 95% illuminated.

Mars is far from Earth throughout the winter, and it will display only a small disk through a telescope. It will move through the constellations Libra, Scorpius, and Sagittarius. On the morning of January 7, Mars will be just 0.3 degrees from Jupiter.

In January, Jupiter will be the brightest object in the eastern sky before dawn, and it will get higher in the sky as the winter progresses.  In February and March, it will rise in the east around midnight.

Saturn is in Sagittarius, and it will be visible in the morning sky before dawn throughout the winter.  It will be quite close to the Sun in January, but by February and March it will be easy to observe in the predawn sky.

Uranus is in Pisces,and it will be possible to observe it in the early evening throughout the winter months.  On March 28, it will be just 4′ northwest of Venus, and this will be an excellent time to find this green planet. If you try to spot it on other nights, this article from the Sky & Telescope website includes finder charts for both Uranus and Neptune:


Neptune is in Aquarius.  In January it will be possible to observe it in the western sky after sunset. In February and March it will be too close to the Sun to observe.

Deep Sky Objects

Take a look at this NEW FEATURE: Online star-hop charts.

In past issues, when I recommended some deep-sky objects to observe, I would sometimes give verbal directions on how to find these targets. Beginning with this issue, I have decided to try a different approach. For each target, at the end of the description there is a link that takes you to printer-friendly star-hopping charts and instructions for tracking down the object. There are two charts for each object: a wide-field view to give the general sky location, and then a close-up chart for zeroing in on the target.  If you want to try finding some deep-sky objects that you might not have observed before, I hope these charts will be helpful. –Jim Mazur

Messier 1, the Crab Nebula
Supernova remnant in Taurus
This nebula is the product of a supernova explosion in the year 1054 A.D.  Its size is about 7’ by 4’, and it has irregular edges that give rise to its nickname. Although it is fairly dim and diffuse, it is still well worth tracking down.  Star-hop chart

Messier 35 and NGC 2158
Open clusters in Gemini
Messier 35 is a bright group of over 100 stars that is a beautiful sight through a telescope with a low power eyepiece.  But if you use higher power and move your telescope about ¼ degree to the southwest, you may be able to spot NGC 2158, which is another open cluster, five times farther away.  They make an interesting contrasting pair of objects.  Star-hop chart

Messier 36, 37, and 38
Open clusters in Auriga
These three open clusters are just a few degrees apart, and each can be easily seen in binoculars.  Through a telescope, it is not too hard to sweep from one cluster to the net.  Each has a distinctly different appearance.  Star-hop chart

Messier 46 and 47
Open clusters in Puppis
These two open clusters are just about a degree apart, and they both present nice views through a telescope.  M46 has the added attraction of including a small planetary nebula (NGC 2438) that can be seen with a medium-sized telescope.  The planetary nebula is actually a background object. Star-hop chart

Messier 78
Diffuse Nebula in Orion
At magnitude 8.3, this is a relatively bright reflection nebula, glowing by reflecting the light of two 10th magnitude stars that can be seen inside the nebula. It appears as an oval patch, 8’ by 6’.  You might also be able to spot a smaller nebula, NGC 2071, just a bit to the north of M78.  Star-hop chart

Messier 79
Globular cluster in Lepus
The winter sky does not feature many examples of globular clusters, but one is Messier 79.  It is not as bright as the better known globular clusters, but it can be spotted with just about any telescope, and some of its individual stars can be resolved with scopes of medium to large apertures.  Star-hop chart

Almach (Gamma Andromedae)
Double star in Andromeda
Almach is a pretty double star, about 390 light years away. The brighter of the pair is a yellow star of magnitude 2.2, and the dimmer is a blue star of magnitude 5.0. The two stars are separated by 9.8 arcseconds. This pair resembles the double star Albireo in Cygnus, except that the stars are closer together and require about 75x or more to get a good look. Star-hop chart

Beta Monoceros
Triple star in Monoceros
This is a nice system of three blue-white stars. The separation between the A and B components is 7.4 arcseconds, and the separation between the B and C components is only 2.8 arcseconds. This closer pair will require a magnification of at least 100x and possibly more to separate the two.  Star-hop chart

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