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The northern hemisphere night sky: the stars, planets and galaxies to look out for this winter

northern hemisphere night sky
Even casual viewers can marvel at the cosmos (Image credit: Getty)

Viewing the Northern hemisphere night sky, like many outdoor activities, becomes more challenging in the winter. With all those extra hours of darkness, amateur astronomers are in their element – assuming, of course, that the clouds stay away.

There’s plenty in the northern hemisphere night sky to enjoy. With loads of interesting stars, planets, moons, nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and other astronomical phenomena to view, even the casual observer can experience the wonders of the cosmos.

You don’t need fancy equipment, either. If you know where to look, you can see loads with the naked eye – though if you want to explore further, even a simple pair of binoculars will reveal objects (like the moons of Jupiter) that would otherwise remain hidden.

A tripod (or other mount) is handy for keeping your binoculars stable, while there are numerous apps available (like Star Walk 2, Sky Map and Sky Safari) to help you get your celestial bearings.

But otherwise it’s about wrapping up warm, looking towards the heavens and seeing what you can see. Here’s 12 things to look out for in the northern hemisphere night sky this winter.

1. The Moon

It’s easy to take the most prominent object in the northern hemisphere night sky for granted – Earth’s nearest neighbour is so much brighter than everything else that you can’t really miss it. But taking a closer look at the Moon can be a rewarding experience, and a decent pair of binoculars reveals plenty of surface features invisible to the naked eye.

The numerous ‘seas’ and craters give you a sense of the Moon’s beautiful but barren landscape. And you don’t have to wait for the Moon to be ‘full’ before you can observe it at its best. Crescent and gibbous phases highlight some of the detail that’s obscured by the glare of the full Moon. The shadows you see as it waxes and wanes can be just as intriguing as the geography that creates them.

2. Jupiter and Saturn

northern hemisphere night sky

A pair of binoculars can bring the planets to life (Image credit: Getty)

Pioneering renaissance scientist Galileo transformed astronomy when he pointed his rudimentary telescope towards Jupiter, and saw four tiny dots of light in its vicinity. Centuries later, directing a pair of binoculars at the biggest planet in the Solar System is also enough to reveal the Galilean moons Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io. It’s one of the most wonderful sights in the northern hemisphere night sky, the sort of view that can kickstart a lifelong love of astronomy.

Jupiter and fellow gas giant Saturn made news headlines in December 2020 because of the conjunction that saw them come closer together than they had since the Middle Ages. They’re now moving apart again, but are still briefly visible around sunset.

Saturn itself is viewable with the naked eye. You’ll need a telescope to resolve its famous rings, but eagle-eyed viewers with binoculars may see the planet as an ellipse.

3. Venus

Thanks to its relative proximity to Earth and incredibly reflective atmosphere, Venus is the brightest planet in the northern hemisphere night sky. The fact that it’s so close to the Sun means it’s generally best sighted in the morning before sunrise, or the evening after sunset – it’s currently visible around dawn.

Looking at Venus through binoculars reveals that it has phases, just like the Moon’s – albeit on a significantly smaller scale.

4. Mars

Has any body in the night sky inspired more stories than the red planet? While you won’t see any alien invasion forces – or even the supposed ‘canals’ that 19th century astronomers believed confirmed the existence of Martian life – it’s still well worth a look. Currently visible in the evening sky, it’s unmistakable as a planet, moving across the background stars more quickly than the gas giants beyond it. Binoculars enhance the characteristic red colour that led to Mars being named after the Roman god of war.

5. The Big Dipper/Plough and Polaris (the North Star)

northern hemisphere night sky

The North Star is easy to spot if you follow the pointers (Image credit: Getty)

Whatever you want to call it, this famous constellation is one of the most recognisable in the northern hemisphere night sky, visible all year round in the UK thanks to its high latitude.

It’s also one of the most useful for navigation, thanks to the fact that the ‘Pointers’ (Merak and Dubhe, the two stars furthest away from the Dipper’s handle) show the way to Polaris, known to explorers for centuries as the North Star. Simply trace a line from the horizon through the Pointers, and you’ll reach Polaris, a handy indicator of north. Becaue it’s positioned near enough exactly over the North Pole, it remains a relatively fixed point in the night sky, instead of appearing to move as the Earth spins beneath the stellar tapestry. If you want to capture an image of star trails using long-exposure photography, aim your camera at Polaris, which will form the center point of the seemingly circling stars around it.

The Big Dipper has another astronomicl treat in its tail – a double star. Mizar and its fainter neighbor, Alcor, orbit each other, and are both visible with the naked eye. They become significantly clearer with binoculars.

6. Orion

This giant of the northern hemisphere night sky is visible throughout the winter, and is one of the most prominent constellations. This representation of a legendary hunter boasts two of the brightest stars in the sky in Rigel and Betelgeuse, while Orion’s sword contains the famous Orion Nebula. New stars are being born in this vast cloud of dust and gas, and even binoculars are able to reveal some of its misty form.

The three stars of Orion’s belt are also useful pointers to finding the brightest star in the night sky. Simply follow them to the west (left) and you’ll see Sirius in the constellation of Canis Major (the Great Dog).

northern hemisphere night sky

Some of these stars are visible to the naked eye (Image credit: Getty)

7. The Pleiades

Follow Orion’s belt in the other direction from Sirius and you’ll find yourself in Taurus, the sign of the Zodiac representing the bull. Above the characteristic V shape, you’ll see the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. Looking like a fainter, smaller version of the Big Dipper, this famous cluster is a group of young (by astronomical standards, at least) stars. While a few (more than seven!) are usually visible with the naked eye, binoculars reveal more of a vast group of stars that actually covers way more of the sky than you’ll see without a powerful telescope.

8. The Milky Way

If you live in a town or city, you may have forgotten the Milky Way is even there – as soon as light pollution comes into the equation, the bulk of stars that form the plane of our galaxy are incredibly difficult to spot. Find suitably dark skies, however (check out our guide to the best spots for dark sky stargazing in the US) and this is one of the most beautiful sights of the night sky, a cascade of light cutting through the heavens like a river. Binoculars can’t improve your view of the Milky Way, so just lie back and enjoy one of the most spectacular views in nature.

9. The Andromeda Galaxy

It’s neither the brightest nor most spectacular object in the northern hemisphere night sky, but when you think about what you’re actually looking at, the Andromeda Galaxy is truly awe-inspiring. Visible in a dark sky as a large, fuzzy patch of light bigger than a full moon (it’s slightly clearer with binoculars) the Andromeda Galaxy can be found just below the distinctive and ever-present W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. It’s one of our own galaxy’s nearest neighbours. That doesn’t mean it’s close by, however – it’s the most distant celestial object visible with the naked eye, so far away that the light we’re seeing left it over two million years ago. That’s many millennia before the first humans walked on Earth.

northern hemisphere night sky

Lucky stargazers can spot meteors (Image credit: Getty)

10. Meteors

The most fleeting visitors to the northern hemisphere night sky are also among the most spectacular. When small pieces of rock and ice burn up in the atmosphere, they create a short-lived trail of light, visible for seconds at most, colloquially (but incorrectly) known to most of us as ‘shooting stars’. You can’t plan where or when you’ll see them – they’re most often spotted out of the corner of your eye – though you can improve your chances of a sighting during meteor showers. This guide explains where and when you can see some of the best.

11. The Aurora Borealis

Winters may get colder and darker the further north you go, but surely the Aurora Borealis is the consolation that makes it all worthwhile. These spectacular light shows – caused by charged particles from the Sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field – are one of the true wonders of planet Earth. There’s a reason many people spend thousands on trips to see the northern lights.

12. Man-made objects

Not everything worth seeing in the northern hemisphere night sky is a natural object. The most impressive (and prominent) artificial body visible is undoubtedly the International Space Station, and Nasa has a handy Spot The Station site to tell you when the ISS will be arcing its way over your location. You can also see numerous satellites working their way across the night sky. Particularly impressive are Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which appear as trains of lights working across the sky – they look like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.