Night Sky Highlights for January-March 2019

Solar System

Total Lunar Eclipse
Night of Sunday, January 20
If the weather is clear, don’t miss this beautiful celestial event!  It will be a very good eclipse for everyone in the northern hemisphere.  Here are the times of the key events (EST):

Moon enters penumbra:  9:30pm
Partial eclipse begins: 10:33pm
Total eclipse begins: 11:41pm
Mid-eclipse: 12:12am
Total eclipse ends: 12:43am
Partial eclipse ends: 1:50am
Moon exits penumbra: 2:48am

If you want to observe Mercury this winter, the best time is during the last week of February through the first week of March, when it will be low in the western sky after sunset.  Find a place with a good view of the western horizon, and look about 45 minutes after sunset, just about straight up from where the Sun has set. 

Venus will be the brightest object in the eastern sky before dawn all winter.  Since sunrise is late at this time of year, if you are up by 6:00 or 6:30 you should be able the see this brilliant planet through an east-facing window.  Through a telescope Venus will have a gibbous shape.

The red planet will be visible in the southwest sky after sunset throughout the winter.  It will be a first-magnitude object, but it is getting further and further from the Earth, so its disk will be very small when viewed through a telescope (just about 5 or 6 arcseconds in diameter).  It will be difficult to see any surface detail.

After Venus, Jupiter will be the second-brightest object in the morning sky before dawn, shining at about magnitude -2.  Its oblong disk, cloud bands, and four bright moons should be visible through almost any telescope.

Saturn, in Sagittarius, will be too close to the Sun to be seen during most of the winter.  By mid-March, it will be rising in the southwest sky shortly before dawn.

Located in the constellation Pisces, Uranus will be in the southwest sky through much of the winter, but getting closer and closer to the Sun as the months go by.  On the evening of February 13, it will be just about 1 degree to the south of bright Mars, so this would be a good opportunity to observe Uranus through a telescope if you have never done so.  Its blue-green disk will be about 2/3 the apparent size of Mars.

To find Uranus at other times, you will need a finder chart such as the one in this article from the Sky & Telescope website:


The link above also has a finder chart for Neptune.  If you want to observe it, January would be best, because it will move closer to the Sun by mid-winter.

Deep Sky Objects

The winter sky contains many spectacular deep-sky objects, from the Orion Nebula to some distant galaxies.  On a clear night it is worth bundling up and taking out the binocular or telescope to view some great celestial treats.  Here are a few good targets.

Messier 41
Open cluster in Canis Major
At magnitude 4.5, Messier 41 is not too hard to spot with the naked eye as a hazy spot about 4 degrees below brilliant Sirius. Through binoculars or a telescope, M41 is one of the more impressive open clusters in the winter sky. See if you can detect the color variations among its stars. Star-hop chart

Messier 42 and 43, the Orion Nebula
Diffuse nebula in Orion
The Orion Nebula is one of the easiest nebulas to find, and it is visible to the naked eye as part of Orion’s sword. It is a wonderful sight in binoculars or any telescope.  With a small telescope, the brightest section of the nebula shows the Trapezium, a tight group of 4 bright stars. Star-hop chart

Messier 81 and 82
Pair of galaxies in Ursa Major
As winter progresses, Ursa Major rises higher in the northeastern sky, making this a good time to view these two galaxies, which can be seen together with a low-power eyepiece. M81 (Bode’s Galaxy) is a spiral that has a distinct oval shape through a telescope, whereas M82 (the Cigar Galaxy) has a much more elongated shape. Star-hop chart

Messier 97, the Owl Nebula
Planetary nebula in Ursa Major
This is a fairly large planetary nebula, but it is a little challenging to see because of its low surface brightness. But if Messier could see it through his very primitive telescope, you should be able to see it through a modern-day telescope if you have a clear dark sky. Star-hop chart

Messier 108
Spiral galaxy in Ursa Major
The nearly edge-on spiral galaxy is less than 1 degree to the north-north-west of the Owl Nebula. It is easier to spot because of its greater surface brightness. Its oblong shape is obvious through most telescopes. Star-hop chart

NGC 2392, the Eskimo Nebula
Planetary nebula in Gemini
This is a bright planetary nebula that looks something like a face surrounded by a parka hood, hence its nickname.  It is also sometimes called the Clown Face Nebula  With telescopes of medium or large aperture, the nebula has a distinct blue color, and its central star of magnitude 10.5 is easy to see. Star-hop chart

Messier 48
Open cluster in Hydra
This is a fairly bright open cluster, about the size of the full Moon, containing about 80 stars.  At magnitude 5.8, it is a good target for binoculars or any telescope at low power. Star-hop chart

Castor (Alpha Geminorum)
Double star in Gemini
Along with nearby Pollux, Castor is one of the brightest stars in the sky.  It is a nice telescopic double star, with its two components separated by about 5 arcseconds. Fairly high magnification, about 100x, will be needed to resolve the double clearly.

r Leporus, Hind’s Crimson Star
Red star in Lepus
The constellation Lepus, the hare, can be seen just south of Orion in the winter sky.  Hind’s Crimson Star is a very red variable star.  Its magnitude varies between about 5.5 and 11.7.

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