National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

5 Sky Events This Week: A Cosmic Blooming Flower and a New Year’s Shower

Credit:  Lying within its namesake constellation - the Gret Orion Nebula can be glimsped as a fuzzy patch with thenaked eye and as a downturned flower-shaped cloud of gas and dust through backyard telescopes.  Long-exposure photographs reveal the true beauty of this stellar nursery which sits 1400 light years away.  Credit: Bill Schoening/NOAO/AURA/NSF
The Great Orion Nebula can be glimpsed as a fuzzy patch with the naked eye, and seen as a down-turned, flower-shaped cloud of gas and dust through backyard telescopes. Credit: Bill Schoening/NOAO/AURA/NSF

As festivities kick off the New Year, sky-watchers will revel in nights filled with shooting stars, the king of planets shining like a beacon, and grand planetary spectacles blooming in the heavens.

Great Orion Nebula. With the moon reaching a new phase for New Year’s Eve, December 31, the dark skies are perfect for hunting down one of the most famous deep-sky treasures—the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42. This grand star factory, located some 1,400 light-years from Earth, is nestled within the bright constellation Orion the Hunter, visible in the southern sky on late evenings this week.

Look for a line of three bright stars—this is the belt of Orion. At a right angle below the belt is the sword, made up of a fainter line of three stars. With the naked eye (or binoculars), the center star in the sword appears fuzzy. But even the smallest telescope will reveal that this fuzzy star is the Great Orion Nebula, a flower-shaped, glowing cloud of fluorescent gas and dust that stretches some 40 light-years across. The nebula shines thanks to intense radiation bellowing out of four massive baby stars, each one no more than a million years old (our sun is nearly 5 billion years old), embedded within the center of the cloud.

Te constellation Orion is easily found thanks to a line of 3 stars. Below the trio is the sword with the Orion Nebula. Credit: Starry Night Software/ A.Fazekas
The constellation Orion is easily found thanks to a line of 3 stars as seen in this sky chart. Below the trio is the sword with the Orion Nebula. Credit: Starry Night Software/ A.Fazekas

Recent observations with the Hubble Space Telescope have shown that Orion is also home to hundreds of other smaller infant stars, ones waiting to form solar systems much like our own.

Moon and Venus. Soon after sunset on Wednesday, January 2, a thin crescent moon pokes over the southwestern horizon while perched above a bright, starlike Venus.

Through a backyard telescope, the goddess of love will resemble Earth’s lunar companion, appearing as a tiny, thin crescent. Look carefully and you will notice that both crescents are oriented the same way, toward the sun.

Mars at Aphelion. At 7 p.m. EST on Thursday, January 2, the red planet reaches its farthest point in its orbit from the sun, 154.9 million miles (249 million kilometers) away. Sky-watchers can get a glimpse of ruddy-colored Mars rising in the east after midnight, local time, and see it climbing high in the south by dawn.

New Year’s Shower. In the predawn hours of Friday, January 3, the first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantids, reach their peak. Peak rates that morning will range from 60 to 120 shooting stars per hour, when viewed from a dark location.

The Quadrantids get their name from an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis. They appear to radiate out from the northeast sky, just off the Big Dipper’s handle.

Jupiter Opposition. The largest planet in the solar system reaches official opposition on Sunday, January 5, rising opposite in the sky from the setting sun, and offering its biggest and brightest viewing opportunity to astronomers.

Once Venus sets in the early evening, Jupiter becomes the brightest starlike object of the night. Jove can’t be missed, as it rises in the east soon after sunset and rides high in the southern sky by midnight.

Tell us—what amazing sky phenomena have you seen lately?

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Abby
    January 27, 4:53 am

    Oh!!I love flowers,this reminds me of home.

  2. Jamie Arnold
    January 6, 10:48 pm

    This is how God showed his love among us,he sent his one and only son,into the world,that we might live through him.

  3. Sarah Arnold
    January 3, 12:05 pm

    Thanks,Appiah!

  4. Mounir ZEGHIDI
    Algeria
    January 3, 11:20 am

    It’s very amazing.

  5. Nora Lee
    United States
    January 2, 12:04 pm

    We are really fortunate for companies like the Schott Glass Company that has developed optics to make it possible for us to enjoy images like this. With each passing year, the optic development is putting us light years (pun intended) ahead. Can’t wait to see and learn more about the vastness beyond our imagination.

  6. Sarah Arnold
    January 2, 7:35 am

    Wow!I am looking out my window and I see a beautiful,big,very bright star.

  7. Appiah Gabriel
    GHANA
    January 2, 2:04 am

    AMAZING

  8. Sarah Arnold
    Hattiesburg,Ms
    January 1, 6:59 pm

    It’s so amazing what God has created for us to experience.

  9. Otter Spayce
    Sector 7 and beyond
    January 1, 11:43 am

    As always, this is based entirely on the view from earth, and the other 99.9% of the cosmos is completely ignored.

  10. Joaquim de Almeida Lopes
    Cataguses-MG Brazil
    January 1, 9:17 am

    It’s wonderful! I love Astronomy. I know, Orion Constellation is the address of the Planet Earth. Our Solar Sistem is on the outskirts of the Milk Way, exactly on the Orion Arm.
    A huge hug from Brazil to all.

  11. Gouranga Kar
    Bhadrak, Odisha.
    January 1, 2:20 am

    Its A glimpse of beauty of our great, beautiful and mysterious universe.

  12. Darlene Krystal
    Victoria, BC Canada
    December 31, 2013, 6:49 pm

    On December 28, 2013 My husband and I decided to go to the store for ice cream….at 2:30 in the morning…..on the way back from the store I saw what is called a shooting star….it was very long….and very bright….We both realized that I was the only one of the two of us that had seen it…I thought it was extremely bright and very beautiful…being the last few days of the year…..Have a very Happy New Year….

  13. Oscar Gomez
    Evansville, IN
    December 31, 2013, 11:31 am

    On November 23rd, some friends and I headed to a rural area and made a Bonfire. While there in the darkest place we could find we gazed at some stars. The most beautiful and amazing shooting star I have ever seen crossed the sky from side to side with a width of about 2 or 3 inches, it was simply sublime. Sometimes, when I remember it, it feels so surreal that I wonder if I dreamed about such majesty, but luckily I was not the only one to see it. Anyone here would know if there was any shooting star or comet or something that particular night?

  14. Miriam Santa Maria
    Buenos Aires, Argentina,Sudamérica.
    December 31, 2013, 11:19 am

    Podrían poner alguna vez lo que ocurre en el cielo del hemisferio sur.Muchas Gracias.

  15. allison mackenzie
    Auchterarder Perthshire Scotland
    December 31, 2013, 5:30 am

    What a beautiful photograph. The stars and planets never fail to amaze me so thank you..

  16. Ash
    7811 E Vernon Ave
    December 31, 2013, 4:22 am

    Create!

  17. Southern hemisphere
    Cape Town, South Africa
    December 31, 2013, 3:42 am

    As always, this is based entirely on the view from the northern hemisphere, and the other half of the earth is completely ignored.

  18. Ima Ryma
    December 30, 2013, 2:54 pm

    Orion was a hunter great.
    Goddess, Diana, loved him most.
    Her brother, Apollo, did hate
    Orion for his mortal boast.
    So he tricked Diana to shoot
    Her arrow at a target far,
    Not knowing that its fatal route
    Would pierce Orion in death’s scar.
    When Diana saw what she’d done,
    In grief, she gave Orion to
    The heavens as the hunter one,
    For all the world his hunt to view.

    Watch Orion in the stars where
    Forever Orion hunts there.