Night sky highlights - January 2021

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Discover what to see in the night sky in January 2021 including the Quadrantids meteor shower and the Winter Hexagon.

By Patricia Skelton, Astronomy Education Officer

(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK)

Top 3 things to see in the night sky in January:

  • Throughout the month - In the Northern Hemisphere, spot the stars of the Winter Hexagon.  In the Southern Hemisphere, explore the constellation Crux.
  • 2/3 Jan - It's the peak of the Quadrantids meteor shower.
  • 14 Jan - Look towards the West: Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon will be low above the horizon just after sunset.

Look Up! Podcast

Subscribe and listen to the Royal Observatory Greenwich's podcast - Look Up! As well as taking you through what to see in the night sky each month, Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers pick a topic to talk about.  For January, they're talking about the safe return of the Hayabusa 2 capsule which contains a sample from asteroid Ryugu, and we also pay tribute to the iconic Arecibo Radio Telescope.  Have a listen below, then cast your vote on our Twitter poll (@ROGAstronomers) during the first week of the month.

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Our podcast is available on iTunes and SoundCloud

Astronomy in January 2021: key events and what to see

Northern Hemisphere

Throughout the month - Asterisms and constellations

The Winter Hexagon

The Winter Hexagon is a giant asterism containing six of the brightest stars in the night sky.  The asterism is made up of the stars RigelAldebaranCapellaProcyonSirius, and Pollux.  The Winter Hexagon is easy to spot – begin your journey at the bright white/blue star Rigel in the constellation of Orion the Hunter and make your way anticlockwise around the sky, hopping from star to star. There are a number of deep sky objects inside the Winter Hexagon – wait until new moon on the 13th when the night sky will be nice and dark.  If you have a telescope, have a look at some of the hidden astronomical gems inside the Winter Hexagon including the Orion and Rosette nebulae as well as star clusters such as the interestingly named Salt and Pepper cluster as well as M38, the Starfish cluster. 

Auriga

Taurus is an easy winter constellation to spot and it can be used to find another prominent winter constellation – Auriga the Charioteer.  Find the distinctive V-shaped pattern of stars that form the head of Taurus the Bull and follow the northern horn of the bull up to the star Elnath, the star at the tip of the Bull’s horn.   Elnath forms part of a circular pattern of stars – this is the constellation Auriga.  Interestingly, Elnath used to have the designation of Gamma Aurigae but the star was reassigned to the constellation of Taurus and is now known as Beta Tauri.  The brightest star in Auriga, the star Capella, marks the left shoulder of the charioteer or the goat he carries.  Look nearby Capella to spot a tiny asterism consisting of a triangle of stars.  The asterism is known as 'The Kids' and represents the kids, or baby goats, the charioteer is carrying around.

2/3 January: The Quadrantids Meteor Shower

Quadrantids meteor shower

Kicking things off with a bang, the new year begins with a major meteor shower – the Quadrantids.  The peak of the meteor shower will occur late on the night of the 2nd and into dawn on the 3rd and although this shower has been known to produce around 50 – 100 meteors per hour on a clear and dark night, this year the moon is not in a favourable phase.  Light from the bright waning gibbous moon will unfortunately light up the sky meaning that some fainter meteors might get washed out by moonlight.  Most meteor showers are produced when the Earth moves through the dusty trail left behind by comets, but the Quadrantids meteor shower is produced by debris left behind by an asteroid called 2003 EH1 which takes 5.5 years to orbit the Sun.  Meteor showers are named after the constellation they appear to originate from.  In the case of the Quadrantids, the constellation they were named after, Quadrans Muralis, was left off of the list of constellations that were officially accepted by the International Astronomical Union in 1922.  The radiant for this meteor shower now lies in the constellation Boötes near the Big Dipper.

14 January - A trio of planets

A trio of planets and the Moon

After dominating the night sky for months, Jupiter and Saturn get lower above the western horizon each night.  For the best part of 2020, Saturn lay to the left of Jupiter in the night sky but now lies to its right.  Jupiter and Saturn are joined by another planet at the beginning of the month – the planet Mercury.  Mercury can be quite challenging to spot, but on the 14th, look after sunset and you’ll spot the three planets lying along a line on the sky which should make it easier to spot Mercury.  As an added bonus, the three planets will be joined by a waxing crescent moon however you will need a clear and unobstructed view towards the West as all three planets and the Moon will be quite low above the horizon.  Jupiter and Saturn are slowly making their way to conjunction, with Saturn reaching superior conjunction on the 24th and Jupiter reaching it on the 29th.  When a planet reaches superior conjunction, it means that the planet lies along a straight line joining the Sun and the Earth, but the planet is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun.   Both Jupiter and Saturn will then become morning sky objects, with the best views coming a bit later this year. The red planet Mars continues to shine brightly in the night sky and will be nice and high up in the sky at around 7:00 in the evening.  If you have a telescope, do have a look at Mars as you might be able to see some surface features.

Southern Hemisphere

Throughout the month - The Southern Cross

Crux

For those living in the Southern Hemisphere and enjoying the warm, summer weather, there are wonderful constellations up in the night sky that you can view.  Perhaps the most well-known constellation in the southern hemisphere is Crux, also known as the Southern Cross.  Even under light-polluted skies, the bright stars of Crux are easy to spot, especially if you make use of the handy pointer stars alpha and beta Centauri which are part of the constellation Centaurus.   Crux is the smallest of the 88 constellations, but what it lacks in size it certainly makes up for in terms of wonderful deep sky objects to look at.  The Kappa Crucis Cluster, also known as the Jewel Box or Herschel’s Jewel Box, is an open star cluster containing around a hundred stars with a bright red star mixed in with blue stars.  English astronomer John Herschel described the cluster as a “casket of variously coloured precious stones” which is how the cluster wound up with the name of Jewel Box.  The Coalsack nebula is a prominent dark nebula and is easy to spot by eye - it appears as a large dark patch in the Milky Way.  Although it creates the appearance that there is a lack of stars in that region of the sky, the Coalsack nebula is an interstellar cloud of gas and dust that is so thick it prevents most of the background starlight from reaching observers.

The Moon's phases this month

The Penumbral Lunar Eclipse and the New Born Rime © Hailong Qiu
The Penumbral Lunar Eclipse and the New Born Rime © Hailong Qiu
  • 6 January: last quarter moon (9:37am)
  • 13 January: new moon (5:00am)
  • 20 January: first quarter moon (9:02pm)
  • 28 January: full moon (7:16pm)

See our full moon calendar

See a selection of the amazing shortlisted photographs, including The Penumbral Lunar Eclipse and the New Born Rime © Hailong Qiu, from the 2020 Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition

Stargazing Tips

  • When looking at faint objects such as stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies it is important to allow your eyes to adapt to the dark – so that you can achieve better night vision.
  • Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to become sensitive in the dark and remember not to look at your mobile phone or any other bright device when stargazing.
  • If you're using a star app on your phone, switch on the red night vision mode.
  • Need a stargazing telescope or binoculars? Check out our range of high quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers.

See our range of observing equipment

Share your astronomy pictures

This month's banner image is one of the winning images, 'Lone Tree under a Scandinavian Aurora © Tom Archer', of the Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

Would you like the chance to have your image of the night sky used for our banner image? If so, share your photos via our Royal Observatory Astrophotography Facebook group

You can also connect with us on Twitter: @ROGAstronomers

Subscribe to our brand new YouTube channel and join us on a journey through time and space as we explore our wonderful Universe.

Solar System Discovery - Online Planetarium Show

Solar System Discovery
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Join us for Solar System Discovery, a live online planetarium show presented by an astronomer from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.  The Universe is a vast and intriguing place, and this show explores our own little corner of it: the Solar System. Starting from our home planet, the Earth, we’ll travel through our celestial neighbourhood, visiting objects like planets, moons and asteroids, and ending with a fly-out to view our galaxy, the Milky Way. 

Observatory Online

Observatory Online

In our new Observatory Online sessions, we will answer your questions about Astronomy.  Simply tweet your question to our twitter account, @ROGAstronomers, and we will do our best to answer them.  Be sure to add #ObservatoryOnline, #Museumfromhome and #sciencefromhome to your tweet!

Central image: © Tom Archer

Resources for teachers and students

ROG Video 'Seeing the Invisible'
ROG Video 'Seeing the Invisible'

The Royal Observatory Greenwich's learning team has also created

  • Free animated videos that answer the biggest questions in astronomy and free resources to go alongside them.
  • A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK universities.
  • A 'Learning at home' hub which contains a suite of resources for you to use at home.