The night sky in January 2016

posted 4 Jan 2016, 06:39 by Pete Collins
by Anne Holt

Sunset   -  1 Jan 16.00, 31 Jan  16.49

Highlights this month

Comet Catalina becomes circumpolar at our latitude,  a short sharp meteor shower and all 5 naked eye planets visible together for the first time in over 10 years.  I'm sure our astrologer friends will have something to say about that! And Earth is at perihelion on January 2nd.


There isn't much change in the prominent constellations since December,  just that everything rises, or sets, a couple of hours earlier. Orion is now well above the horizon by 8pm at the start of the month, with Sirius rising at this time.  By month end, Sirius will rise at about 6pm.  Auriga, Gemini and Cassiopeia are all high in the sky. The Summer Triangle is now setting earlier as the Winter Hexagon rises. Taurus and the Pleiades are still very prominent and Leo, with Jupiter in residence, is above the south eastern horizon by 9pm. 


Mercury is in Sagittarius, mag -0.3. It may be spotted very low in the SW, about an hour after sunset, at the start of the month but is then lost in the twilight as it approaches inferior conjunction on 14th. Towards the end of the month it will become visible in the SE just before sunrise.  On 31st it will be 7.5 degrees east of Venus. From 20 January to 20 February all 5 naked eye planets will be visible (weather permitting) in the morning sky.

is in Scorpio, mag -4.0. Rising 3 hours before the sun at the start of January but still very low in the sky.  By month end this will have reduced to 2 hours.

Mars is in Virgo, mag 1.2. Rising at 1.30 at the start of January and about half an hour earlier by month end, by which time it will have moved into Libra and brightened slightly to mag 0.8. Its disc still appears quite small but is improving so some of the larger features might be visible in a decent telescope.

Jupiter is in Leo, mag -2.1. Rising around 10.30 at the start of the month, 7.30 by month end, so we'll have a bright planet in the evening skies at last. From the 8th its motion will be retrograde - meaning that it will appear to move across the sky from east to west.

Saturn is in Ophiuchus, mag 0.7. Rising not long before the sun in early January but by 4.30am at month end. On 8th it will appear very close to Venus, separated by only 6.5 arcminutes as they rise.  By 7am the gap will have increased to 9 minutes.

Uranus is in Pisces, mag 5.8. Slightly higher than Neptune, so might still be worth viewing through a telescope, even though the blue green disc shows hardly any features. On 1st it sets around midnight and by 10pm on 31st.

is  in Aquarius, mag 8. Past its best for observing now, at the start of January it sets at about 10pm, by month end it will be very low in the SW as the sky darkens and setting by 8pm.

Comet Catalina

Dimming slightly during January but its position is improving. 
At the start of January it is just 1 degree from Arcturus, then moves northwards along the western edge of Bootes' kite agterism.
On 6th, it passes 1 degree east of globular cluster NGC 5466 and 6 degrees east of M3
On 11th it becomes circumpolar.
On 14th it will pass 5 degrees east of the Whirlpool galaxy.
On 16th it passes 2 degrees west of the Pinwheel galaxy.
By month end it will be just west of Polaris but will have faded slightly.

For the exact position, at any time, check

theskylive website also gives current positions of all visible planets, minor planets, asteroids and comets.

Meteor Showers

One major shower this month, The Quadrantids, named after the now defunct constellation Quadrans Muralas, which was left out of the official list of constellations drawn up by the IAU in 1922.  I was unable to find out whether this was deliberate or accidental.   The area of the sky which it occupied is now part of Bootes.
Active 28th December to 12th Jan.
Peak 3rd/4th Jan
ZHR 80 - 120, but is very variable, sometimes much lower, occasionally as high as 600 for a short time.  Unlike other showers the peak lasts for only a few hours.
It isn't known for sure where these meteors originate, could be comet 67p/Macholz or asteroid 2003EHI,  which is thought to be the remains of the nucleus of comet C1490/Y1