Andromeda galaxy, orange and blue spiral

Minnesota Skies: January 2021

Your local guide to observing celestial objects and events

Published12/21/2020 , by Sarah Komperud and Thaddeus LaCoursiere

When you hear the name Aries, you might think of Ares—the Greek god of war with a similar sounding name (aka Mars)—or the horoscope sign associated with the birth dates March 20–April 19. In astronomy, Aries the ram is one of the 13 constellations of the zodiac, and is found along the ecliptic, the Sun’s annual path across the sky. While the nonscientific horoscope dates might lead you to go searching for this constellation in the sky during the spring, this constellation is only visible at night in the fall and winter months.

Sun's path with 13 constellations of the zodiac

The 13 constellations of the zodiac

To find Aries in the winter sky, you can starhop by tracing an imaginary line from the North Star through Segin at the end of Cassiopeia to the star Bharani at the eastern end of Aries. From Bharani, look westward in a low arch to find Hamal, the “head of the ram” and the brightest star in Aries; Sheratan; and Mesarthim. Aries is often depicted looking over its shoulder back towards the Pleiades as if it’s admiring them.

Constellation of Aries

Constellation of Aries 

Constellation of Aries with ram image

Constellation of Aries with ram image

This winter we also have Mars to help guide us to Aries. Mars will start the year off in Pisces, then over the course of a few weeks it will travel just below Aries into the constellation of Taurus by the end of February.

Star map for January. Mars' position is very different in January than it is in February.

Star map for January

Aries is one of the constellations on our Constellation Hunter sketching list. It’s a project that teaches us how to find the constellations, and then uses sketching to help build our observation skills. You can find out more information about this project on our website including video tutorials for the constellations. And to learn more about how sketching can help improve your observation skills, Jerry Jones from the Minnesota Astronomical Society helps us find the cosmic smiley face in the constellation of Auriga.

January Deep Sky Objects

M42, The Great Orion Nebula—Orion—star forming region

How to see it: Unaided eye under dark skies, binoculars, telescope

In the constellation of Orion is one of the most impressive sights in the night sky. M42, also known as the Orion Nebula, is a gigantic cloud of gas and dust over 30 light years in diameter. Located about 1,500 light years from the Earth, M42 is a star forming region, and the new stars within this nebula cause it to shine brightly enough to be seen with the unaided eye. The most famous of these stars is the small Trapezium Cluster. You can find the Trapezium with a small telescope, and even a pair of binoculars will show the dusty structure of this nebula.

M45, The Pleiades, The Seven Sisters—Taurus—open cluster

How to see it: Unaided eye under dark skies, binoculars, telescope

Commonly known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, M45 is an open cluster of around 1000 young stars located within the constellation of Taurus. Less than 100 million years old, and just 440 light years away, this cluster is easy to spot with the unaided eye. Photographs of the cluster reveal a gas cloud that the cluster is moving through (not the original nebula that formed the stars). Binoculars will show much more than the seven brightest stars, and a large telescope will reveal some of the nebulous material surrounding the stars.

M44, The Beehive Cluster, Praesepe—Cancer—open cluster

How to see it: Unaided eye under dark skies,
binoculars, telescope

One away from M45, but much further away in the sky, is M44 aka Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster. Located in the constellation of Cancer, the stars in this open cluster resemble a swarm of bees (to some). M44 consists of about 350 stars, dozens of which can be seen in a small telescope. This cluster is about 570 light years from Earth and is thought to be approximately 600 million years old.

M31, The Andromeda Galaxy—Andromeda—galaxy

How to see it: Unaided eye under dark skies, binoculars, telescope

Located in the constellation Andromeda is M31, the famous Andromeda Galaxy. This spectacular object is a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, but the Andromeda Galaxy has over a trillion stars in it—twice the number of stars as the Milky Way! At a distance of only 2.5 million light years, it is one of the closest galaxies to our own. Its enormous diameter of 200,000 light years helps make it the brightest galaxy in the northern sky and the only galaxy visible to the naked eye in the northern hemisphere (other than the Milky Way). It can easily be seen with binoculars, and telescopes will bring out some of the galaxy’s detail.