Guide to winter stargazing

Updated July 11, 2018

Winter may be bitterly cold, but it’s widely considered the best time to look up at the stars. The crisp, clear evenings reveal otherwise hidden celestial wonders and the earth’s clockwork pilgrimage around the sun brings some familiar sights back into view. If you’ve got some binoculars or a telescope, there are a multitude of luminescent wonders you can enjoy, and those with larger telescopes can get some truly awe-inspiring views. Just remember to dress like you’re embarking on an arctic voyage.

The Great Orion Nebula

Orion is one of the most well-known constellations in the cosmos. The mammoth hunter hovers in the southern sky throughout the winter, and under the three stars of his belt you should be able to make out his “sword,” which is composed of three bright dots. The central one is the Orion Nebula. You can see it with the naked eye, but with binoculars and telescopes the view gets better and better.

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Betelgeuse and Rigel

The main bulk of Orion is a slightly off-kilter rectangle which surrounds his belt. The top left star in this rectangle – his shoulder – is the red super giant star Betelgeuse. It’s 20 times the mass of our sun, and gives off 7,500 times as much energy, and it’s set to explode at some time in the next 100,000 years. Rigel – opposite Betelgeuse in the rectangle – is a blue supergiant that’s a massive 66,000 times more powerful than our sun. You can see twinges of their distinctive colours with the naked eye.

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The Double Cluster

The Double Cluster of Perseus has been called one of the most brilliant telescopic sights in the sky, and all you need is some binoculars or a small telescope to get a good view of the twin swarms of stars. If you can’t find Perseus, look for the large “W” of Cassiopeia (on the opposite side of Polaris to “the plough” or Ursa Major). Draw an imaginary line from the central star to Ruchbah (the point of left “V” in the “W”) and continue about one and a half times further in the same direction to find the Double Cluster.

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Algol has long been associated with the snake-infested head of the mythical beast Medusa, and was once known as the “Demon Star.” It’s also a variable star, meaning that it gets brighter and dimmer regularly. It’s actually in a binary system with another star, and it gets dimmer every time it’s smaller companion crosses in front of it, every two days, 20 hours and 49 minutes. If you continue the imaginary line past the double cluster, you find the constellation Perseus. Moving in the same direction, find the bright star Mirfak, and then it’s a simple star-hop across to Algol.

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Andromeda Galaxy

Our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, is ripe for viewing in winter. Find the square of Pegasus, and look at star in the corner closest to Cassiopeia. Two lines of stars stream off from this corner. Follow both down to their second stars, Mirach and Mu Andromedae, and draw an imaginary line through them. Find the smudge of light if you draw a line from Mirach to Mu Andromedae and continue past it roughly the same distance. Low power is best for looking at Andromeda, because it’s understandably pretty large, since it contains over 300 billion stars.

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The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is a stellar nursery left over from a supernova that rocked Chinese astronomers in 1054 AD. The intense light faded, and now you’ll need clear skies and a decent telescope to get a good view of it. Find Taurus, recognisable by the “v” shaped arrangement of stars above Orion’s shield. Go from the point of the “v,” past Aldebaran (the brightest star in the constellation) and to Zeta Tauri at the end. Just a degree northwest, you’ll find the nebula.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy

One of the most beautiful galaxies visible with a modest telescope, the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is found just 3.5 degrees southeast of the end star in the plough’s handle. The galaxy’s arms spiral out from the dense centre, and the iconic shape is believed to have been formed from the collision of two galaxies.

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The Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters are otherwise known as the Pleiades, and are found near Taurus. Draw an imaginary line from the three stars of Orion’s belt, up through the “v” shaped portion of Taurus and continue up until you see a closely packed bunch of stars. These are the Seven Sisters, which through a telescope reveal themselves as containing a plethora of stars (somewhere around 250) and has nebula-like gas clouds.

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Geminid Meteor Shower – December 13th and 14th

Many astronomers stand by the Geminid meteor shower as being the most reliably amazing of the year. They emanate from the Gemini constellation, which is found on the opposite side of Orion to Taurus. To see them, all you have to do is look around the area on the either of the peak nights in December. If you have a clear night, you’ll be treated to quite a display.

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The Dog Star and the Pup

Sirius is known as the Dog Star, and is the brightest star in the sky. You’ll find it in the constellation of Canis Major, and it’s pretty difficult to miss because of its size. Sirius is technically called Sirius A, because it’s part of a binary system with a white dwarf star known as Sirius B, or the Pup. It’s 90,000 times as dense as our sun, meaning a teaspoon of it would weigh over two tons.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.