12 “Poinsettias” and what to aim for a new telescope

The night sky was a sight for sore eyes in 2020, but it is never more impressive than at Christmas.

Interest in the night sky has exploded in 2020, but anyone in the Northern Hemisphere who thinks they’ve already seen it all needs to just take a look south-east after dark to get an eye full of some of the most impressive star clusters stars and even planets in this festive season.

Whether you’re stargazing alone at home or want to know exactly what to point your new binoculars or telescope on, here are some easy – and extremely impressive – lenses ideal for a mid-winter walk among the stars.

Here is a star map with all the places marked on it and many details below.

MORE FROM FORBESHow, when and where you can see the planets of the “Christmas star” and then the shooting stars on this week’s solstice

1. Jupiter and Saturn as “Christmas Star”

When: 45 minutes after sunset

Where: low on the southwest horizon

Their very photogenic and extremely rare “great conjunction” took place on December 21, 2020, but you can still get a glimpse of Jupiter and Saturn if you’re quick. Still within 1º of each other until the end of the month, the gas giant planets must appear relatively quickly after sunset.

Start looking down at the southwest horizon about 45 minutes after sunset where you are. If you have binoculars or a telescope you will be able to see the rings of Saturn and the four giant moons of Jupiter: Io, Callisto, Ganymeade and Europa.

2. Pleiades star cluster (M45)

When: from two hours after sunset

Where: high in the southern night sky

Pronounced “Player-deeze”, this open cluster of stars is definitely the jewel of the winter night sky and impossible to lose forever once you’ve seen them.

This famous open cluster of about 100 hot young blue stars about 445 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus.

The stars are arranged in the shape of a small “Big Dipper”, but the Pleiades have seven or eight very bright stars. This then gives the name “Seven Sisters”, but you can see many more through binoculars.

Take a look at December 26, 2020 and you will see the Moon near the Pleiades.

3. The 7 stars of Orion

When: from two hours after sunset

Where: high in the southern night sky

Here is an absolute classic sight, strictly for naked eye astronomers. Orion the Hunter is now suspended high in the southern night sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere

First look for the Orion belt. It is made up of three bright stars – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – and is probably the most recognized shape in the night sky between October and March.

Now locate the four stars in the corner: reddish Betelgeuse in the upper left corner, Bellatrix in the upper right and below the belt, Saiph on the left and Rigel on the right.

Between the belt and those two stars there is a “blurry spot” that deserves a long and persistent look …

3. Orion Nebula (M42)

When: from two hours after sunset

Where: high in the southern night sky

Are the Pleiades the jewel of the winter night sky? The Orion Nebula, the region of our Milky Way closest to us where stars are being born, runs very close for that title. It is the brightest nebula and is easily visible to the naked eye in the night sky.

Also known as M42 and part of the “Sword of Orion” that hangs from the Orion Belt, the Orion Nebula is a diffuse cloud of gas and dust about 1,300 light years away. They look great with binoculars or a small telescope, but look slightly to the side to appreciate their brightness with your more sensitive peripheral vision.

5. Double cluster (NGC 869 and NGC 884)

When: from two hours after sunset

Where: high in the night sky

Here is one for owners of a new telescope. Almost immune to light pollution, this is one of the best attractions to see through any new telescope. NGC 869 and NGC 884 are both open clusters – very similar to the Pleiades, but further away – with about 30-40 stars visible in each through a small telescope.

Found in the constellation of Perseus, both NGC 869 and NGC 884 are approximately 7,500 light-years apart. A wide field view using a low power eyepiece (25mm or similar) is the best way to treat the “Double Cluster” through a telescope.

6. Andromeda Galaxy (M31)

When: from two hours after sunset

Where: high in the night sky

The large galaxy closest to our Milky Way is also the most distant object you can see with the naked eye. A spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31) is about 2.5 million light years away.

Although difficult to find with the naked eye in all places except the darkest places, M31 can be found quite easily in binoculars or a small telescope. It contains about a trillion stars and is a member of the Local Group of galaxies, which includes our own Milky Way and about 30 others.

How to observe the stars

Before you go out to gaze at the stars, put on a warm coat, check that the sky is clear and find a dark place, i.e. without direct light in your peripheral vision. Spend at least 20 minutes outdoors in the dark to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness (although you can start looking for these places immediately) and you will notice your night vision improves.

I wish you clear skies and eyes wide open.

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