However, there are still a few good opportunities to get out and see different objects in our solar system. In particular, the January night sky offers the chance to see several neighboring (and more distant) planets, as well as some meteors and even an asteroid.
If you need a telescope to help enjoy this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
Here’s what you can see in the January night sky this year. If you want to learn more about what’s in the night sky in 2020, check out our brand new eBook, The Night Sky in 2020: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long.
January 4 – Peak of the Quadrantids Meteor Shower
As if three days of stargazing wasn’t exciting enough – there’s a meteor shower to look for, peaking on January 4th. The Quadrantids, the first meteor shower of the year, is expected to peak on January 4th. On that night, look for a maximum of 80 meteors per hour radiating from a point in the northern sky. It’s important to note that the Quadrantids, while an active shower, may see maximum activity for only a few hours on the peak night.
As a tip, you don’t need to look at the northern sky to see the meteors. Instead, scan the whole northern half of the sky to try and see these somewhat faint meteors as they appear.
January 10 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse Across Europe, Africa & Asia
On the night of January 10th, major parts of the planet will have the opportunity to see a penumbral lunar eclipse. In this eclipse, the diffuse part of the earth’s shadow, the penumbra, will cover part of the moon for over four hours. Those in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa and Australia will be able to see this dimming of the moon.
Penumbral lunar eclipses are not as impressive as other lunar eclipse types; the moon will not turn red as it does when in the earth’s more dense ‘umbra’ shadow. However, those with a keen eye will be able to spot the moon’s dimness.
January 19 – Peak of the γ-Ursae Minorid Meteor Shower
If the full moon or cloudy skies cause an issue with spotting the Quadrantids earlier in the month, you might try to spot the less impressive γ-Ursae Minorids. The Gamma Ursae Minorids appear to radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, near the bright north star of Polaris.
This meteor shower runs from January 15-25 in 2020, and is expected to peak on the night of January 19th. On this night you might spot as many as 3 meteors per hour. Obviously this isn’t very many, but the sky will be dark as the moon is in its waning crescent phase; it’ll be a nice night for stargazing anyway even if the meteors aren’t as frequent as other night of the year.
January 20 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
Mars is always easy to spot in the night sky. But, there’s nothing quite like seeing it make a close visual approach with another celestial body. In the pre-dawn morning of of January 20th, you can see Mars move within 2°11′ of a sliver of waning crescent moon. They’ll appear together around 4:00am local time, before the sun rises on this mid-winter morning.
These two will appear too far apart to fit within the single view of a telescope or binoculars. However, you’ll be able to spot both easily and jump between them easily to admire them both.
January 21 – Asteroid Astraea at Opposition
Throughout 2020, there are several nights where you can see asteroids at opposition. What this means is that the asteroid will be opposite from the sun with the earth in the middle; it also means the asteroid will appear at its brightest of the year.
On the night of January 21st, the first asteroid of the year to look for is 5 Astraea, also just called Astraea. Astraea was discovered in 1845 by an amateur German astronomer. It is one of the largest asteroids in the main asteroid belt. Astraea is likely made of nickel-iron, making it highly reflective and easy to spot. On the night of the 21st, look for Astraea in the constellation Cancer.
January 22 – Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
As the moon approaches its new phase on the 24th, there are a few good opportunities to try and spot other solar system objects in close visual approach with the moon. On January 22nd, Jupiter and the moon will make just such a close approach, passing within 0°21′ of each other from our perspective. At this close proximity, you’ll be able to see both within the view of a telescope or binoculars – but they’ll also be easy to spot and admire with your un-aided eyes.
January 27 – Close Approach of Venus & Neptune
Did you know that technically Neptune is the only planet in our solar system we can’t see without magnification? (Some eagle-eyed astronomers have been able to spot distant Uranus on occasion!) Therefore, it’s especially helpful to use other planets to ‘hop’ to Neptune on certain nights throughout the year.
One night that is ideal for this is on January 27th, when Venus and Neptune will make a close visual approach. As the two will pass within 0°04′ of each other, it will be easy to use binoculars or a telescope to try and see blue Neptune in the far reaches of our solar system on this night.
January 28 – Close Approach of the Moon & Venus
Lovely Venus is always so bright, and when it appears near the moon, it’s a great night to go out and look up. As January winds to a close, the moon and Venus will have a close approach.
On January 28th, the moon and Venus will appear within 3°49′ of each other in the southern sky just after sundown. This is too far apart to fit within a single telescope view, but a great pair of astronomical binoculars will give you a close up view. As the moon will be a waxing crescent on this night, you won’t have too much light from the moon obstructing your view.
Do you have questions about these January night sky events? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr