Stargazing Through the Year

Stargazing is a great family and group activity. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Stargazing is a year-round activity that rewards you with wonderful sky sights. If you watch the night sky over the course of a year, you'll notice that what's up changes slowly from month to month. The same objects that are up early in the evening in January are more easily visible later at night a few months later. One fun pursuit is to figure out just how long you can see any given object in the sky during the year. This includes doing early morning and late-night stargazing.

Eventually, however, things disappear into the glow of the Sun during the day and others become visible to you in the evenings. So, the sky truly is an ever-changing carousel of celestial delights. 

Plan Your Stargazing

This month-by-month tour of the sky is tailored for sky gazing a couple of hours after sunset and keyed to objects that can be seen from many places on Earth. There are hundreds of objects to observe, so we've chosen the highlights for each month.

As you plan your gazing expeditions, remember to dress for the weather. Evenings can get chilly, even if you live in a warm-weather climate. Also, bring along star charts, a stargazing app, or a book with star maps in it. They will help you find many fascinating objects and help keep you up to date on which planets are in the sky. 

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January's Stargazing Treasures

the Winter Hexagon
The Winter Hexagon is made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Orion, Gemini, Auriga, Taurus, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Carolyn Collins Petersen

January is in the dead of winter for the northern hemisphere and mid-summer for southern hemisphere observers. Its night-time skies are among the loveliest of any time of year, and well worth exploring. Just dress warmly if you live in a cold climate.

You've probably heard of Ursa Major and Orion and all the 86 other constellations in the sky. Those are "official" ones. However, there are other patterns (often called "asterisms") that aren't official but are nonetheless very recognizable. The Winter Hexagon is one that takes its brightest stars from five constellations. It's a roughly hexagon-shaped pattern of the brightest stars in the sky from late November through late March. This is what your sky will look like (without the lines and labels, of course).

The stars are Sirius (Canis Major), Procyon (Canis Minor), Castor and Pollux (Gemini), Capella (Auriga), and Aldebaran (Taurus). The bright star Betelgeuse is roughly centered and is the shoulder of Orion the Hunter.

As you gaze around the Hexagon, you might come across some deep-sky objects that require the use of binoculars or a telescope. Among them are the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades cluster, and the Hyades star cluster. These are also visible beginning in November each year through to March.

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February and the Hunt for Orion

The constellation Orion and the Orion Nebula -- a starbirth region that can be spotted just below the Belt of Orion. Carolyn Collins Petersen

The constellation Orion is visible in December in the eastern part of the sky. It continues to get higher in the evening sky through January. By February it's high in the western sky for your stargazing pleasure. Orion is a box-shaped pattern of stars with three bright stars that make up a belt. This chart shows you what it looks like a few hours after sunset. The Belt will be the easiest part to find, and then you should be able to make out the stars that make up his shoulder (Betelgeuse and Bellatrix), and his knees (Saiph and Rigel). Spend a little time exploring this area of the sky to learn the pattern. It's one of the most beautiful sets of stars in the sky.

Exploring a Star-Birth Créche

If you have a good dark-sky site for viewing, you can just about make out a greenish-gray smudge of light not far from the three belt stars. This is the Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born. It lies about 1,500 light-years away from Earth. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year.)

Using a backyard-type telescope, take a look at it with some magnification. You'll see a few details, including a quartet of stars at the heart of the nebula. These are hot, young stars called the Trapezium.

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March Stargazing Delights

The constellation Leo is visible an hour or two after sunset, rising in the east. Check out the bright star Regulus, the heart of the Lion. Nearby are are two constellations with star clusters: Coma Berenices and Cancer. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Leo the Lion

March heralds the beginning of spring for the northern hemisphere and autumn for the folks south of the equator. The brilliant stars of Orion, Taurus, and Gemini are giving way to the stately shape of Leo, the Lion. You can see him on March evenings in the eastern part of the sky. Look for a backwards question mark (the mane of Leo), attached to a rectangular body and a triangular rear end. Leo comes to us as a lion from very ancient stories told by the Greeks and their predecessors. Many cultures have seen a lion in this part of the sky, and it usually represents strength, lordliness, and kingship.

The Heart of the Lion

Let's look at Regulus. That's the bright star at the heart of Leo. It's actually more than one star: two pairs of stars orbiting in a complex dance. They lie about 80 light-years away from us. With the unaided eye you really only see the brightest of the four, called Regulus A. It is paired with a very dim white dwarf star. The other two stars are dim, too, although they CAN be spotted with a good-sized backyard telescope. 

Leo's Celestial Friends

Leo is accompanied on either side by the dim constellation Cancer (the Crab) and Coma Berenices (the Hair of Berenice). They're almost always associated with the coming of northern hemisphere spring and southern hemisphere autumn. If you have a pair of binoculars, see if you can find a star cluster at the heart of Cancer. It's called the ​Beehive Cluster and reminded ancients of a swarm of bees. There's also a cluster in Coma Berenices called Melotte 111. It’s an open cluster of about 50 stars that you can probably see with your naked eye. Try looking at it with binoculars, too.

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April and the Big Dipper

Use the Big Dipper to help you find two other stars in the sky. Carolyn Collins Petersen

The most familiar stars in the northern part of the sky are those of the asterism called the Big Dipper. It's part of a constellation called Ursa Major. Four stars make up the cup of the Dipper, while three make up the handle. It's visible nearly year-round for many northern hemisphere observers.

Once you have the Big Dipper firmly in your view, use the two end stars of the cup to help you draw an imaginary line to a star that we call the North Star or the Pole Star. It has that distinction because the north pole of our planet appears to point right at it. It's also called Polaris, and its formal name is Alpha Ursae Minoris (the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, or the Smaller Bear).

Finding North 

When you look at Polaris, you're looking north, and that makes it a handy compass point if you ever get lost somewhere. Just remember: Polaris=North.

The handle of the Dipper seems to make a shallow arc. If you draw an imaginary line from that arc and extend it out to the next brightest star, you'll have found Arcturus (the brightest star in the constellation Bootes).  You simply "arc to Arcturus".

While you're stargazing this month, check out Coma Berenices in more detail. It’s an open cluster of about 50 stars that you can probably see with your naked eye. Try looking at it with binoculars, too. The March star chart will show you where it is.

Finding South

For southern hemisphere viewers, the North Star is largely not visible or is not always above the horizon. For them, the Southern Cross (Crux) points the way to the southern celestial pole. You can read more about Crux and its companion objects in the May installment.

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Dipping Below the Equator for Southern Delights in May

A star chart showing the southern cross and a nearby star cluster. Carolyn Collins Petersen

While Northern Hemisphere stargazers are busy gazing at Coma Berenices, Virgo, and Ursa Major, folks below the equator have some gorgeous sky sights of their own. The first is the famous Southern Cross. a favorite of travelers for millennia. It's the most recognizable constellation for southern hemisphere observers. It lies in the Milky Way, the band of light that stretches across the sky. It's our home galaxy, although we're seeing it from the inside.

The Crux of the Matter

The Latin name for the Southern Cross is Crux, and its stars are Alpha Crucis at the bottom tip, Gamma Crucis at the top. Delta Crucis is at the west end of the crossbar, and on the east is Beta Crucis, also known as Mimosa.

Just east and a bit south of Mimosa is a beautiful open ​star cluster called the Kappa Crucis cluster. Its more familiar name is “The Jewelbox.” Explore it with your binoculars or telescope. If conditions are good, you can also see it with the naked eye.

This is a fairly young cluster with about a hundred stars that formed about the same time from the same cloud of gas and dust about 7-10  million years ago. They are about 6,500 light-years away from Earth.

Not far away are the two stars Alpha and Beta Centaurus. Alpha is actually a three-star system and its member Proxima is the closest star to the Sun. It lies some 4.1 light-years away from us.

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A June Trip to Scorpius

A detail view of the constellation Scorpius. Carolyn Collins Petersen

This month we begin an exploration of objects in the band of the Milky Way — our home galaxy.

One fascinating constellation that you can see from June into autumn is Scorpius. It's in the southern-ish part of the sky for those of us in the northern hemisphere and is easily visible from the southern hemisphere. It's an S-shaped pattern of stars, and it has many treasures to seek out. The first is the bright star Antares. It's the "heart" of the mythical scorpion that ancient stargazers made up stories about. The "claw" of the scorpion seems to radiate out above the heart, ending in three bright stars.

Not too far from Antares is a star cluster called M4. It's a globular cluster that lies about 7,200 light-years away. It has very old stars, some as old or slightly older than the Milky Way Galaxy.

Cluster Hunting

If you look east of Scorpius, you might be able to make out two other globular clusters called M19 and M62. These are great little binocular objects. You can also spot a pair of open clusters called M6 and M7. They're not too far from the two stars called "the Stingers".

When you look at this region of the Milky Way, you're looking in the direction of the center of our galaxy. It's much more populated with star clusters, which makes it a great place to explore. Explore it with a pair of binoculars and just let your gaze wander. Then, when you find something you want to investigate at higher magnification, that's when you can get out the telescope (or your friend's telescope) to see more detail.

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July's Exploration of the Milky Way's Core

star charts for july
July's view of Sagittarius and Scorpius not long after sunset. Later in the evening they will be higher in the sky. Carolyn Collins Petersen

In June we began an exploration of the heart of the Milky Way. That region is higher in the evening sky in July and August, so it's a great place to keep observing!

The constellation Sagittarius contains a huge number of star clusters and nebulae (clouds of gas and dust). It's supposed to be a great and mighty hunter in the sky, but most of us really see a teapot-shaped pattern of stars. The Milky Way runs right between Scorpius and Sagittarius, and if you have a decent dark-sky viewing area, you can make out this faint band of light. It's glowing from the light of millions of stars. The dark areas (if you can see them) are actually dust lanes in our galaxy — giant clouds of gas and dust that keep us from seeing beyond them.

One of the things they hide is the center of our own Milky Way. It lies about 26,000 light-years  away and is crowded with stars and more clouds of gas and dust. It also has a black hole which is bright in x-rays and radio signals. It's called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "sadge-it-TARE-ee-us A-star"), and it's gobbling up material at the heart of the galaxy. The ​Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories frequently study Sagittarius A* to learn more about its activity. The radio image shown here was taken with the Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico.

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Another Great July Object

Finding Hercules and seeing what it looks like
The constellation Hercules contains the globular cluster M13, the Great Hercules Cluster. This chart gives hints on how to find it and what it looks like through good binoculars or a small telescope. Carolyn Collins Petersen/Rawastrodata CC-by-.4.0

After you explore the heart of our galaxy, check out one of the oldest known constellations. It's called Hercules, and it's high overhead for northern hemisphere viewers on July evenings and visible from many areas south of the equator in the northern part of the sky. The boxy center of the constellation is called the "Keystone of Hercules". If you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, see if you can find the globular cluster in Hercules called, appropriately enough, the Hercules Cluster. Not far away, you can also find another one called M92. They're both made up of very ancient stars bound together by their mutual gravitational pull.

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August and the Perseid Meteor Shower

A Perseid meteor over the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. ESO / Stephane Guisard

In addition to seeing the familiar patterns of stars such as the Big Dipper, Bootes, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Centaurus, Hercules, and others that grace the August skies, stargazers have another treat. It's the Perseid meteor shower, one of several meteor showers visible throughout the year.

It usually peaks in the early morning hours of around August 12th. The best times to watch are around midnight through 3 or 4 a.m. However, you can actually start to see meteors from this stream a week or more before and after the peak, beginning in the late evening hours.

The Perseids occur because Earth's orbit goes through a stream of material left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle as it makes its orbit around the Sun once every 133 years. Many small particles get swept up into our atmosphere, where they get heated up. As that happens, they glow, and those are what we see as Perseid meteors. All of the known showers happen for this same reason, as Earth passes through a "tunnel" of debris from a comet or asteroid.

Observing the Perseids is pretty easy. First, get dark adapted by going outside and keeping away from bright lights. Second, look in the direction of the constellation Perseus; the meteors will appear to "radiate" from that region of the sky. Third, settle back and wait. Over a period of an hour or two, you could see dozens of meteors flaring across the sky. These are little bits of solar system history, burning up before your eyes!

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A September Deep-Sky Delight

How to find the globular cluster M15. Carolyn Collins Petersen

September brings another change of seasons. Northern hemisphere viewers are moving into autumn, while southern hemisphere observers are anticipating spring. For the folks in the north, the Summer Triangle (which consists of three bright stars: Vega — in the constellation of Lyra the Harp, Deneb — in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, and Altair — in the constellation of Aquila, the Eagle. Together, they form a familiar shape in the sky — a giant triangle.

Because they're high in the sky throughout most of  Northern hemisphere summer, they're often called the Summer Triangle. However, they can be seen by many people in the southern hemisphere, too, and are visible together until late autumn.

Finding M15

Not only can you find the Andromeda Galaxy and the Perseus Double cluster (a pair of star clusters), but there's also a lovely little globular cluster for you to search out.

This celestial treasure is the globular cluster M15. To find it, look for the Great Square of Pegasus (shown here in grey lettering). It's part of the constellation Pegasus, the Flying Horse. You can find the Perseus Double Cluster and Andromeda Galaxy not far from the Square. They're shown here noted by circles. If you live in a dark viewing area, you can probably see both of these with the naked eye. If not, then your binoculars will come in very handy!

Now, turn your attention to the other end of the Square. The head and neck of Pegasus point roughly west. Right off the horse's nose (denoted by a bright star), use your binoculars to search out the star cluster M15 denoted by a gray circle. It will look like a dim glow of stars.

M15 is a favorite among amateur stargazers. Depending on what you use to view the cluster, it will look like a dim glow in binoculars, or you can make out some individual stars with a good backyard-type instrument.

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October and the Andromeda Galaxy

Perseus chart with andromeda
The Andromeda Galaxy lies between Cassiopeia and stars that make up the constellation Andromeda. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Did you know you live inside a galaxy? It's called the Milky Way, which you can see arching across the sky during parts of the year. It's a fascinating place to study, complete with a black hole at its core.

But, there's another one out there you can spot with the naked eye (from a good dark sky site), and it's called the Andromeda Galaxy. At 2.5 million light-years away, it's the most distant thing you can see with your naked eye. To find it, you need to locate two constellations — Cassiopeia and Pegasus (see chart). Cassiopeia looks like a squashed number 3, and Pegasus is marked by a giant box shape of stars. There is a line of stars coming from one corner of the square of Pegasus. Those mark the constellation Andromeda. Follow that line out past one dim star and then a bright one. At the bright one, turn to the north past two little stars. Andromeda Galaxy should show up as a faint smudge of light between those two stars and Cassiopeia.

If you live in a city or near bright lights, this one is quite a bit more difficult to find. But, give it a try. And, if you can't find it, type "Andromeda Galaxy" into your favorite search engine to find great images of it online!

Another Great Meteor Shower!

October is the month when the Orionid meteors come out to play. This meteor shower peaks around the 21st of the month but actually occurs from October 2 to November 7. Meteor showers happen when Earth happens to pass through the stream of material left along a comet (or asteroid's) orbit. The Orionids are associated with the most famous comet of all, Comet 1P/Halley. The actual meteors are the flashes of light that occur when a tiny piece of cometary or asteroid debris streaks down from space and is vaporized by friction as it passes through gases in our atmosphere.

The radiant of the meteor shower — that is, the point in the sky from where the meteors appear to come — is in the constellation Orion, and that's why this shower is called the Orionids. The shower can peak at around 20 meteors per hour and some years there are more. The best time to see them is between midnight and dawn.

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November's Stargazing Targets

november sky objects
Check out the constellations Perseus, Taurus, and Auriga to see the Pleiades, Hyades, Algol, and Capella. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Stargazing in November brings up visions of shivering out in the cold (for folks in northern climes) and snowy weather. That may be true, but it can also bring some startlingly clear skies and gorgeous objects to observe.

The Little Eyes of the Heavens

The Pleiades are one of the loveliest little star clusters to be seen in the night sky. They're part of the constellation Taurus.The stars of the Pleiades are an open cluster that lies about 400 light-years away. It makes its best appearance in the night skies from late November to through March each year. In November, they're up from dusk to dawn and have been observed by every culture around the world.

The Eye of the Medusa

Not far away in the sky is the constellation Perseus. In mythology,  Perseus was a hero in ancient Greek mythology and he rescued the gorgeous Andromeda from the clutches of a sea monster. He did this by waving around the severed head of a monster called the Medusa, which caused the monster to turn to stone. The Medusa had a glowing red eye which the Greeks associated with the star Algol in Perseus.

What Algol Really Is

Algol seems to "wink" in brightness every 2.86 days. It turns out there are two stars there. They revolve around each other every 2.86 days. When one star "eclipses" the other, it makes Algol look dimmer. Then, as that star moves across and away from the face of the brighter one, it brightens up. This makes Algol a type of variable star.

To find Algol, look for W-shaped Cassiopeia (indicated with a little up arrow in the image) and then look right below it. Algol is on a curved "arm" swooping away from the main body of the constellation.

What Else Is There?  

While you're in the neighborhood of Algol and the Pleiades, check out the Hyades. It's another star cluster not far from the Pleiades. They're both in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Taurus itself seems to connect to another star pattern called Auriga, which is roughly rectangular-shaped. The bright star Capella is its brightest member.

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December's Celestial Hunter

The constellation Orion and the Orion Nebula -- a starbirth region that can be spotted just below the Belt of Orion. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Each December stargazers around the world are treated to the evening appearance of several fascinating deep-sky objects. The first is in the constellation Orion, the Hunter, which brings us back around full circle from our viewing in February. It's visible starting in mid-to-late November for easy spotting and tops every list of observing targets — from stargazing beginners to experienced pros.

Nearly every culture on Earth has a story about this box-shaped pattern with an angled line of three stars across its center. Most stories tell of it as a strong hero in the sky, sometimes chasing monsters, other times frolicking among the stars with his faithful dog, denoted by the bright star Sirius (part of the constellation Canis Major).

Exploring the Nebula

The main object of interest in Orion is the Orion Nebula. It's a star birth region containing many hot, young stars, plus hundreds of brown dwarfs. These are objects that are too hot to be planets but too cold to be stars. They are sometimes thought of as the leftovers of star formation since they didn't quite get to be stars. Check out the nebula with your binoculars or small telescope. It lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth and is the nearest star birth nursery in our part of the galaxy.

Betelgeuse: the Giant Aging Star

The bright star in Orion's shoulder called Betelgeuse is an aging star just waiting to blow up as a supernova. It's very massive and unstable, and when it does go into its final death throes, the resulting cataclysm will light up the sky for weeks. The name "Betelgeuse" comes from the Arabic "Yad al-Jawza" which means "shoulder (or armpit) of the mighty one".

The Eye of the Bull

Not far from Betelgeuse, and right next door to Orion is the constellation Taurus, the Bull. The bright star Aldebaran is the eye of the bull and looks like it's part of a V-shaped pattern of stars called the Hyades. In reality, the Hyades is an open star cluster. Aldebaran is not part of the cluster but lies along the line of sight between us and the Hyades.  Check out the Hyades with binoculars or a telescope to see more stars in this cluster.

The objects in this set of stargazing explorations are just a few of the many deep-sky objects you can see throughout the year. These will get you started, and in time, you'll branch out to look for other nebulae, double stars, and galaxies. Have fun and keep looking up!

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Stargazing Through the Year." ThoughtCo, Jan. 25, 2018, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2018, January 25). Stargazing Through the Year. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Stargazing Through the Year." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).