What to See in the Sky in January: Meteor Showers, Planets and Comets

From the Quadrantids to a “swarm of stars,” here are the celestial spectacles you won’t want to miss this month

a quadrantid meteor
A Quadrantid meteor flies through the sky, as captured by NASA's All Sky cameras. NASA

Sky watching in the winter can be frigid, but anyone who braves the chilly night hours may be well rewarded—after all, cold air makes for better star gazing. Since cool air doesn’t hold as much moisture as warm air does, the sky is less hazy in winter, making the cosmos appear clearer.

As such, January can offer some excellent celestial sights. The month regularly hosts one of the best meteor showers, the Quadrantids, and this year, observers can spot multiple planets and comets, too.

Here’s a guide to the astronomical events in January that can make for prime sky watching.

Quadrantid meteor shower peak, January 3 to 4

a meteor streaks across the sky
The Quadrantid meteor shower brightens night skies each year in early January. NASA

The Quadrantid meteor shower will dazzle night owls and early risers between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. local time on January 4. Under a dark sky with no moon, the shower can produce more than 100 meteors per hour—however, with the half-full moon this year, that rate may be closer to 25. While these shooting stars can be prolific, this shower is known for its short peak—the best period of viewing time for the Quadrantids lasts only a few hours.

This shower gets its name from an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis, where its meteors appear to come from. While this constellation isn’t formally recognized anymore, the Quadrantids’ meteors now seemingly emanate from the northern part of the constellation Boötes, the herdsman.

New moon, January 11

One side of the moon is always completely illuminated by the sun, but we experience phases of the moon based on how much of that side we see. During the new moon, our natural satellite is between Earth and the sun, with its illuminated area facing away from us.

Since the new moon doesn’t reflect any sunlight in the night sky, this phase allows stars to shine brightly without interference from moonlight, making for peak sky watching.

Saturn and the moon, January 13 and 14

On two nights, the waxing crescent moon and the iconic, ringed planet will be very close to each other in the sky. On the evening of January 13, the moon will appear above Saturn—then, by the following night, Saturn will be on top. The duo will be visible to the naked eye, but to make out Saturn’s rings, you’ll need a telescope or really good binoculars with a magnification of at least 40x.

Jupiter and the moon, January 17 and 18

Not to be outdone by Saturn, the king of planets will also appear to make a close pass by the moon in the middle of the month. With the moon in a waxing gibbous phase, Jupiter will sit to the left of our natural satellite on January 17 and below it on January 18. The bright gas giant will be visible throughout the month, rising in the southeastern sky at its onset and gradually appearing more to the south.

Gamma-Ursae Minorids meteor shower peak, January 19

This second meteor shower of January is lesser-known and less spectacular than the Quadrantids. At its peak, the Gamma-Ursae Minorids may produce only three meteors per hour. The radiant, or the point in the sky where the meteors appear to emanate from, is the constellation Ursa Minor, the smaller celestial bear that contains the Little Dipper.

Comet 144P/Kushida’s closest point to the sun, January 25

With strong binoculars or a telescope, sky watchers could start the year by spotting 144P/Kushida, a short-period comet that takes just 7.6 years to orbit the sun. Its closest approach to the sun will occur on January 25, however, the best time for viewing will be between January 8 and 18 or after the 28, according to BBC Sky at Night magazine’s Pete Lawrence. In between these dates, a bright moon will pass through the area where the comet is located, making it difficult to see. The comet will appear in the southern part of Aries at the start of the month, then move toward Taurus.

Full moon, January 25

the full moon against a black backdrop of space
The moon, as seen from the Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969 as it returned to Earth. NASA

January’s full moon, the first of the year, is known traditionally as the “wolf moon.” On January 25, the completely illuminated moon will rise in the northeast around sunset.

Wolves have been associated with the moon in traditional stories across cultures, including Native American, German and Scandinavian mythology. Though the animals’ howling is just a way to communicate—not an expression of hunger or a reaction to the moon, as once thought—January is a time when wolves generally become more vocal.

Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan’s closest point to Earth, January 29

Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan has been nicknamed the “Christmas comet” because it reached its closest point to the sun on December 25. While the view in January may not be as good as in December, when the short-period comet appeared brighter in the sky, it will likely still be visible with medium-sized binoculars at its closest approach to Earth.

Other celestial sights

The first month of the year is an excellent time to spot Orion, the celestial hunter whose three-star belt shines brightly in the winter sky. At the hunter’s foot is the brightest star in the constellation: a blue supergiant named Rigel. On the other side of the belt, at Orion’s shoulder, is Betelgeuse, a volatile star that appears red, and Bellatrix forms the other shoulder. Much fainter is another row of stars in the constellation—the hunter’s sword, which hangs from his belt. At the middle of the sword, visible with the naked eye, is the Orion nebula, the closest star-forming region to Earth. But through a telescope, the stellar nursery really shines.

Also in the January sky is the Beehive Cluster, a “swarm of stars” that number roughly 1,000. The cluster lies in the constellation Cancer, about halfway between Leo’s star Regulus and Gemini’s Castor and Pollux. Though it can be seen all month long, the Beehive Cluster will reach its highest point in the sky on January 31—prime placement for viewing with a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

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