A very happy New Year and welcome to 2023! January is typically pretty light on exciting night sky reasons to get outside—and for those of us in parts of the Northern Hemisphere under a deep freeze, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Luckily, the first month of this year is spoiling us with a slate of celestial wonders ranging from a potentially naked-eye comet to a meteor shower prone to slinging spectacular fireballs. Wishing you clear skies!
Cold Nights Bring Exceptional Viewing Conditions (All Month)
While plunging temperatures may not inspire motivation to get outside and look up, I’m going to recommend you drag yourself away from your warm abode and do it anyway. Why? Because these cold temperatures actually help to create the absolute best skywatching conditions of the year. Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, resulting in crystal clear conditions in winter. Summer nights on the contrary are generally heavy with moisture and haze. Combine this with long nights and you’ve got some great opportunities for you (or the whole family) to enjoy the night sky well before bedtime. Just don’t forget the hot cocoa.
Catch the (Mysterious) Quadrantids Meteor Shower (Jan. 3-4)
Named after a now-extinct constellation called Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids are an annual meteor shower that appears to radiate from the more-enjoyable-to-pronounce constellation Boötes. While other meteor showers throughout the year have peak viewing conditions that last one to two days, the peak of the Quadrantids lasts only a few hours. That’s because the stream of debris Earth passes through is not only thin (the suspected remnants of an ancient comet), but also intersected at a perpendicular angle. This year, that peak is expected to arrive around 10 p.m. EST on January 3.
Despite this small window, the Quadrantids is still considered one of the best meteor showers of the year, with dark, clear skies showing off as many as 60-200 shooting stars per hour. According to NASA, because the debris is also larger than other streams, extremely bright and long-lasting fireballs of various colors are possible.
To view the Quadrantids, bundle up, get away from any light pollution, and get cozy in a spot with as large a swath of the night sky visible as possible. A nearly full moon will do its best to spoil dim shooting stars, but you should be able to pick out some of the more spectacular fireballs produced by this New Year wonder.
Earth Makes Its Closest Approach to the Sun (Jan. 4)
OK, so this isn’t something you can actually see, but maybe just knowing it will make your day feel a bit warmer. On January 4 at approximately 11 a.m. EST, the sun and Earth will reach the closest point in their annual orbital dance. Called “perihelion,” Earth will be about 3 million miles closer to the sun than it is at its furthest point in June (called aphelion). It also reaches its fastest orbital speed—roughly 19 miles per second, according to EarthSky.
So why don’t we actually feel warmer as we move closer to the sun? That’s because it’s actually the tilt of the Earth that influences our season and not its proximity. Right now, in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re tilted sharply away from the sun. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s full-on summer with a tilt towards the sun.
Fun fact: For billions of years, the Earth has actually been spiraling away from the sun at a rate estimated to be about 1.5 centimeters per year. While that might give you cause for alarm over the eventual uncoupling of these two celestial bodies, don’t worry. Astronomers say that eventually the Earth will either lose its orbital energy and spiral into the sun, or be engulfed by its red giant phase. These two are in it together until the fiery end.
Howl at the Full 'Wolf' Moon (Jan. 6)
While the Old Farmer's Almanac refers to January's big lunar event as the Full Wolf Moon, native people of North America have also called it the Cold Moon, Frost Exploding Moon, Freeze Up Moon, and the Severe Moon. Owing to more pleasant conditions in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s known down under as Thunder Moon, Mead Moon, and Hay Moon.
View the Wolf Moon in all its full-phase glory around 6:09 p.m. EDT on the evening of Jan. 6.
A Potential Naked-Eye Comet Begins to Brighten (All Month)
Discovered in early March 2022, C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is a long period comet that will make its closest approach to the sun (perihelion) on January 12, 2023. If it survives that encounter, it will pass by Earth on its way outbound (by a comfortable 26 million miles) around Feb. 1. Early estimates is that C/2022 E3 may brighten to magnitude 6.0 or, as Starlust describes, slightly brighter than the stars of the Big Dipper. Regardless, it could make this the first naked-eye comet since Comet NEOWISE graced our skies in the summer of 2020.
A New Moon Ushers in Pristine Night Skies (Jan. 21)
There’s no better way to enjoy the crystal clear viewing conditions of January than with an early new moon keeping light pollution (at least from the heavens) to a minimum. If you want a dark sky target, try finding the Orion Nebula. Located only 1,350 light-years from Earth, it’s our closest large star-forming region and relatively easy under dark skies to spot with the naked eye. To locate it, according to Space.com, look for the bright stars that make up Orion’s Belt. From there, look to the three nearby dimmer sides that constitute Orion’s Sword. The nebula is located in the center of the sword.
Venus and Saturn Have a Close Encounter (Jan. 22)
Perfect for those who prefer not to be night owls, Venus and Saturn will put on a dinnertime show on the evening of Jan. 22. Looking west-southwest around 6 p.m. EST, you’ll see the two planets slide past each other by less than a half degree apart. According to EarthSky, that difference is less than the diameter of a full moon!
The Moon and Mars Get Cozy (Jan. 30-31)
Our final close encounter for January comes from Mars and the moon. On the evening of Jan. 30-31, the moon and the red planet will come extremely close, with some locations on Earth (including much of the southern U.S.) witnessing an occultation (or eclipse) of Mars by the moon. This last happened in December 2022 and the pictures captured by some astrophotographers of Mars “rising” behind the moon were nothing short of stunning. Look for this one to kick off in the early morning hours of the 30th.