Get the hunter and his dogs in your sights

In a wintry back garden Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest train their binoculars on Orion

If you are keen on making a start in stargazing, there is no better time of year to kick off. The nights are long and dark, and on this sector of the Earth's orbit round the Sun we look out towards some of the most brilliant and fascinating stars that are on offer.

A few hints even before you step outside: wrap up warm, and allow time for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Lots of loose layers of clothing trap heat close to the body; gloves and a hat are also essential. And you need at least 20 minutes for the pupils of your eyes to open fully so that you are properly dark-adapted.

Even with the unaided eye there is a lot to see at the moment. You can start by using the prominent figure of Orion the hunter - centre-stage in the south - to lead the way to less obvious constellations. Extend the line of his "belt" upwards, and you hit the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. This is the "head" of Taurus the bull, distinguished by the bright red star Aldebaran - the bull's baleful "eye". Two enormous horns protrude from the bull's head. If you extend the line of the belt downwards, you reach the constellation of Canis Major, the great dog - and Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. From these latitudes it is always low in the sky, and we see it through many layers of our shifting atmosphere. Like hundreds of moving prisms, the restless air cells constantly bend and focus the light of Sirius, making it flash all the colours of the rainbow.

If Christmas delivered a small telescope or binoculars to your door, the winter sky can be even more of a treat. Go back to Orion's belt again and look below at his "sword". You will immediately notice that one of the stars there is fuzzy. In fact, it isn't a star at all - it is the Orion Nebula, a glowing cloud of gas that is part of a huge star factory. It has already given birth to a clutch of baby stars which make it glow like the gas in a neon tube.

Humble binoculars, having a wider field of view than a telescope, are great for sweeping the winter skies. You will pick out countless groups and clusters of stars, strewn and scattered across every inch - especially towards the band of the Milky Way. But the sky-sight for binoculars has to be the Pleiades, just above the head of Taurus. Tennyson described the "seven sisters" as looking like "fireflies tangled in a silver braid", and through binoculars the compact star cluster - comprising more than 300 stars - is a gem to behold.

You can use binoculars or a telescope on the next celestial sight - the furthest object you can see with the unaided eye from the British Isles. The Andromeda galaxy is an independent city of stars like our own Milky Way - but is more than 2 million light years away. Look between the square of Pegasus and the W-shape of Cassiopeia to find the misty oval, bigger in extent than the full moon. A telescope or binoculars will show a brighter concentration of stars towards its centre, but only the biggest telescopes in the world can reveal individual stars - and then only the brightest of the 400,000 million that make up the galaxy.

From the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, we finally go to the closest - the Moon. Only 385,000km away, our nearest neighbour in space is sensational when viewed through binoculars or a telescope. But do not be misled into looking when the Moon is close to full early in the month. That is when sunlight falls almost flat on the Moon's disc and there are no shadows to pick out the relief. Towards the end of January, when the Moon is between a crescent phase and first quarter, the light falls sideways on, creating a dramatic landscape of stark light and shade. Binoculars will show countless craters and the vast, lava-filled plains that make up the face of the Man in the Moon. But the view through a telescope, even at the lowest magnification, is more spectacular still. With huge craters filling the whole field of view, looking through a telescope at the Moon feels almost like being there.

What's Up?

In the early hours of 4 January, look out for more shooting stars than usual - possibly up to 100 an hour. It is the time of year when the earth encounters the stream of debris making up the Quadrantids meteor shower, and there have been good displays in recent years. Unfortunately, the Moon is full on 5 January, and so its light will interfere with the shower.

Venus, newcomer to the sky last month, is now a beautiful sight in the south-western sky, and by the end of January it sets three hours after the Sun. A telescope will show a gibbous phase, like an almost-full Moon. Mercury, too, puts in an appearance this month. During the first 10 days of January, it sets more than one-and-a-half hours after sunset. On 13 January, it is six moonwidths to the south of the red planet Mars. The only other planet worth looking for is Saturn, which is visible to the left of Venus this month, below the Square of Pegasus.

January Diary (all times GMT)

4 Earth at closest to Sun

4 4am: Maximum of Quadrantids meteor shower

5 8.51pm Full Moon

13 8.45pm Moon at Last Quarter

20 12.50pm New Moon

27 11.13am Moon at First Quarter

Heather Couper is also presenting 'Starwatch', a six-part series on Radio 4, every Saturday from 13 January. Between 5.40pm and 5.50pm, she will describe the view of the night sky from her rear terrace in Buckinghamshire, and then link live to an astronomical observatory somewhere else in the world. Destinations scheduled so far include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Anglo-Australian Observatory, and the SETI Institute in California - where scientists are searching for signals from extraterrestrial life.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
Voices
A mother and her child
voices
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee