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The 10 Best Things to See in the Winter Night Sky

There are, perhaps, only a few people for whom winter is their favorite season. Some might say they love to ski, or they love the holiday season. Ask an astronomer and they’ll tell you they love the stars. Astronomers don’t care about the cold. They love the long nights of winter, and with plenty of night sky sights to occupy the evening hours, most astronomers need to be persuaded to stay inside.

Winter doesn’t have to be a time of staying inside and keeping warm by the fire. There’s a cool brilliance in the stars above our heads that mirrors the icy white of the snow below our feet that is, of course, unique to the season. Long nights, crispy clear skies and the crunch of snow underfoot. The fireplace can wait while you hunt for the most impressive celestial sights that the winter night sky has to offer.

Image credit: Brian Davis

Orion, Birthplace of the Stars

Let’s start with the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. It’s impossible to look up at the winter sky and miss the seven brightest stars that outline his form. He’s so well known that even non-astronomers can easily identify him. The three bright stars of his belt, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak, point the way to other constellations and form a convenient marker for two of the objects on our top ten list.

No list, of course, would be complete without the Orion Nebula. Easily seen with the naked eye, even under suburban skies, it’s a treat through binoculars and simply stunning in a small telescope. You’re looking at a huge cloud of gas and dust in space, 1,300 light years away and some 24 light years across.

This is where stars are born; with the naked eye you might just see one at the center of the misty patch. Binoculars will reveal a few more, but the view through a telescope will easily show four tiny stars twinkling brightly from the nebula’s heart. These stars, collectively known as the Trapezium, are about 300,000 years old and - on a cosmic scale - are relatively young.

Image credit: ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2

Sigma Orionis, A Below-the-Belt Double

The Orion Nebula is pretty easy to find but our second object can also be found nearby. Look back to Alnitak, the easternmost star in Orion’s belt. Just to the south-west is a magnitude four star known as Sigma Orionis. It doesn’t look like much to the naked eye, or even through binoculars, but a low powered eyepiece of only 35x will start to reveal more.

At that magnification, you’ll see a row of three stars similar to Orion’s belt (or even the constellation of Sagitta, the Arrow) with a bright white star close to the middle star. Look very carefully and you might also see a blue star between the two. Over to the west is a wide double, with the southerly star also split. This star is made up of two components of equal brightness.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble

M79, The Sky Below Orion’s Feet

If you’re a fan of globular clusters, you’ll know that summer skies provide a multitude of options for you. Unfortunately, that’s not true of winter, but there’s still one reasonably bright cluster that might catch your eye. Orion may be a hunter, but sometimes his prey eludes him, and if we look below his feet we’ll find the constellation of Lepus, the Hare.

Nestled among its stars is M79, a magnitude 7.7 globular cluster. True, it’s not quite on the same level as M13, the Great Hercules Cluster, but if you’re a globular fan this is probably your best bet for the season. If you have excellent viewing conditions, you might be able to spot the cluster with binoculars, but otherwise you’ll need a telescope to properly observe it.

At 35x it appears roughly midway between two magnitude nine stars. It has a bright core, but if you want to resolve the cluster into its individual stars, you’ll need to up the magnification to at least 100x.

Image credit: Martin Pugh

R Leporis, The Crimson Star of Winter

While we’re in the area, let’s stop by the variable star R Leporis. Also known as Hind’s Crimson Star, this red giant has a strong orange-red color that’s quite apparent through binoculars or a telescope. A variable star, it changes in brightness from magnitude 5.5 to 11.7 over a period of roughly 430 days and should be easily seen through binoculars when at its brightest.

Image credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

M41, South of Sirius

Orion is accompanied by two faithful hunting hounds; Canis Major, the Greater Dog, and Canis Minor, the Lesser Dog. Many people know you can find Sirius, the brightest star in Canis Major and, indeed, the entire night sky, by following the three stars of Orion’s belt toward the south.

Almost directly to the south of that star is M41, a fine open cluster that’s an easy target for binoculars or even keen-sighted naked eye observers. M41 appears on the favorites list of a lot of observers and it’s not hard to see why. Unlike many other clusters, M41 appears quite large in binoculars and has a definite shape to it. There’s a circular hole on the western edge that almost gives the cluster the appearance of a lobster. Other shapes, such as a man with his hands up, an angel or a dove, can also present themselves.

Through a telescope you’ll see that many of the stars are blue-white and of similar brightness; however, there is a pair of stars just a little brighter than the others, with one of the pair shining with an orange hue.

Image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

NGC 2362, The Canine’s Other Cluster

M41 isn’t the only stellar cluster to be found in Canis Major. Over to the east is a magnitude four star, Tau Canis Majoris, that hides an underrated cluster from naked eye observers. Point a telescope toward the star and you’ll see it embedded within a triangular cluster of stars.

Known as NGC 2362, or the Tau Canis Majoris cluster, the star itself appears just off-center as a brilliant white star surrounded by a multitude of much fainter stars. The spring cluster M44 may be known as the Beehive Cluster, but NGC 2362 certainly looks like a swarm of bees fussing around a queen.

Image credit: Greg Parker

Castor and Pollux, Gemini’s Famous Twin Star

Looking now to the north-east of Orion and we come to another famous constellation, Gemini the Twins. The two brightest stars, known as Castor and Pollux, can be seen throughout the winter months and won’t disappear from view until late spring.

Castor is the fainter of the pair, but whereas Pollux has little to appeal to the amateur astronomer, Castor is a famous multiple star. It can barely be split at around 55x, but you may need to use a higher magnification first and then work your way down. At about 90x you’ll probably notice a definite split, but a magnification of 100x or more is best to enjoy this fine pair.

Both stars are white and of almost equal brightness. The secondary star appears a little fainter and could show pale blue and violet flashes, whereas the primary may show hints of pale green.

Image credit: NASA

NGC 2392, Winter’s Best Known Planetary Nebula

Moving south-west from Castor we can follow the stars that outline the bodies of the twins. Wasat, or Delta Geminorun, is a magnitude 3.5 star that provides a convenient marker for our next target. NGC 2392 appears within the same binocular or finderscope field of view as Wasat, but you’ll need a telescope to see it.

A planetary nebula, it’s the shell of gas and dust thrown off by a star as it convulses in its death throes. You can see the star in question at the center of a pale blue, face-shaped nebula. You’ll also notice a secondary ring of faint nebulosity that forms a circle about the brighter, central nebula. It gives the appearance of a parka jacket snugly surrounding the face, but you’ll need a medium sized scope to clearly see it.

Image credit: Wikisky

M35, At the Feet of the Twins

Down toward the feet of the twins we have another fine star cluster, M35. Easily seen with binoculars, you might be able to resolve some of its member stars with a regular set of 10x50’s. A small telescope at low magnification will provide a fine view; it appears larger than M41 but less condensed. As with many clusters, its stars are blue-white, but you’ll notice a coppery colored star on its northerly edge.

Image credit: Tom Carrico

M36, M37 and M38, X Marks the Spot

Our last object is really the best of three. To the north of Gemini is Auriga, the Charioteer, and the constellation is home to a trio of star clusters that are favorites with amateurs. M36, M37 and M38 all appear within the same area of sky and are quite similar to one another, but M38 is arguably the finest of the three.

All three clusters are easily seen with binoculars, but at magnitude 6.8, M38 is the faintest. It appears more densely populated than the others, with the brightest stars forming a clear X or K pattern. Fainter stars appear to radiate out from the center, giving it the appearance of a large asterisk.