Winter Sky Viewing Guide (Northern Hemisphere)

Ah, wintertime in the Northern Hemisphere – that festive time of year when nights are long and barren landscapes are blanketed in snow. The sky never ceases to amaze on these cold, crystal-clear winter nights. Fainter stars appear in great profusion while an abundance of first magnitude or brighter stars in the most popular and most recognizable constellations dot the night sky.

Winter is also a popular time of year for many beginning stargazers to try out the new telescopes they found under their Christmas trees.

If you are just getting started or have a little experience stargazing but want to learn more, this guide will help you familiarize yourself with some of the popular wintertime constellations. We will also highlight the coolest observable celestial targets within these constellations. So bundle up, put on your gloves and beanies, warm up some hot chocolate, bring out your new telescope or binocular and let’s do some exploring!

 

Popular Wintertime Constellations and Asterisms

In ancient times, our ancestors looked towards the heavens and noticed with every season, new groupings of stars would appear in the sky. The predictable cycle of observable constellations repeated year after year. Using their imaginations, they envisioned these groupings as forming patterns that resembled mythological characters, animals, and other objects for which they were named. Many constellations and star names have Greek, Latin, or Roman backgrounds, so you might already be familiar with some of them. One thing is for sure, though: being able to identify the most popular constellations will make your observing sessions much more enjoyable. There are nearly twenty wintertime constellations, but here are some of the more prominent ones:

Orion, the Hunter in Greek mythology, is one of the most recognizable and easiest to identify constellations in the winter sky of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is visible in the summer sky and is seen upside down! If you use your imagination, Orion appears like a “bow tie” in the sky! Three medium bright stars in a row, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, comprise Orion’s Belt, while the four corner stars, reddish star Betelgeuse top left, Bellatrix top-right, Saiph bottom left, and bluish-white, Rigel bottom-right, make out Orion’s body. Some of the fainter stars create patterns that make Orion appear to be holding a club and shield as he faces a charging Taurus. You might notice three faint stars that make up his sword region, including a “fuzzy star” in the middle. We will cover that later.

Taurus, the Bull, can be seen to the upper right of Orion. This easily recognizable constellation of the zodiac is famous for its V-shaped horns and appears to be charging at Orion. Taurus is easy to find and can be seen from the city. Its bright reddish orange star, Aldebaran, forms one of the bull’s eyes and is helpful in finding the famous Hyades star cluster. Although Aldebaran appears to be part of the cluster, it is actually not and is further away but just lies in the same line of sight.

Auriga, the celestial Charioteer, is shaped like a pentagon and can be found above the constellation Taurus. In fact, both Taurus and Auriga share the same star, El-Nath. Auriga can be identified by its brightest star, Capella, a multiple star system consisting of a group of four stars — two large binary stars, and two fainter binary dwarf stars. Auriga is often shown holding a female goat and three baby goats known as “The Kids,” along with the reins of a chariot. Because part of the winter Milky Way passes through its borders, several bright open clusters are visible.


Gemini, the Twins in Latin, is another constellation of the zodiac and is located to the upper left of Orion and between fellow zodiac constellations Taurus and Cancer. The two brightest stars in the constellation are named after Greek mythology's Pollux and Castor. They represent the heads of the twins. Fainter stars outline their bodies all the way down to their feet. Pollux, a golden star, is known to have an extrasolar planet, or exoplanet. Scientists estimated it has a mass at least 2.3 times that of Jupiter! Castor is white with a tinge of blue, but what makes Castor unique is that it is a triple star, but each of its components is a double star, so there is actually 6 stars in all!

Canis Major, the Big Dog and Orion’s faithful companion, stands below and to the left of his master, who dominates the winter sky. The three bright stars in Orion’s belt points to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, also known as the Dog star which makes up the canine’s head. Sirius appears to be a single star, but is in fact, a double star. Its faint companion star is known as Sirius B, “The Pup” and is a white dwarf that orbits the primary star every 50 years, making it a binary star system. Sirius is in close proximity to Earth, only 8.6 light-years away from us.

Unlike its bigger brother Canis Major, Canis Minor, the Little Dog, is the smaller of Orion’s two hunting dogs and is located between Canis Major and Gemini. Its constellation is only composed of two naked-eye stars which resemble a straight line. Procyon is the brighter star of the two and is known as “Little Dog Star.” This white yellow star can be located by drawing an imaginary line through the two stars marking Orion's shoulders, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. And just like Sirius, Procyon is a binary star system with a white dwarf star and is a close neighbor at 11.5 light-years away from us.

Lepus, “the Hare” in Latin, lies south of the celestial equator, but can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere in winter. It is a small constellation and can be found just below Orion. First identified by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, Lepus is represented as a rabbit being pursued by Orion and his two faithful hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Luckily for the rabbit, Orion encountered Taurus the Bull instead, but the rabbit’s position “on the run” is forever etched in the sky.


One of two major asterisms seen in the winter night sky, the Winter Hexagon is not an official constellation, but an outline formed by seven first magnitude or brighter stars in six prominent winter constellations: Sirius in Canis Major, Procyon in Canis Minor, Pollux in Gemini, Castor in Gemini, Capella in Auriga, Aldebaran in Taurus, and Rigel in Orion. Use your imagination and connect the stars to see this cool wintertime pattern. No binocular or telescope needed.

The second of two major asterisms seen in the winter night sky, the Winter Triangle is also not an official constellation but is an outline formed by three zero magnitude or brighter stars in three prominent winter constellations: Betelgeuse in Orion, Procyon in Canis Minor, and Sirius in Canis Major. Use your imagination and connect the stars to see this cool wintertime triangle of bright stars. No binocular or telescope needed.


Top Wintertime Celestial Objects

Now that we have identified the brighter, well-known wintertime constellations, let us take a look at the most observable wintertime celestial objects visible in most entry-level and mid-level telescopes from a modest 60mm up to 8” in aperture. Although there are not as many impressive galaxies to view this time of year, there are many star clusters and a famous nebula to see. Springtime is galaxy season, which we will cover in our springtime viewing guide.

The Orion Nebula (Messier 42) 
The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is one of the most famous and easily visible deep sky objects in the winter sky. M42 is located in Orion’s sword region and with the unaided eye, appears to be a “fuzzy star” shining at magnitude 4. Through a telescope or a small pair of binoculars, the nebula is transformed into a huge grayish “cosmic flower” of gas and dust. M42 is an interstellar nursery where baby stars are being formed. In the core of the nebula is the famous Trapezium cluster of stars. The Trapezium illuminates the gases in the Orion Nebula. It is a diffuse cloud of gas and dust about 1,300 light years away.

Pleiades Star Cluster (Messier 45)
The Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters” and M45, is an easily visible wintertime object in Taurus that resembles a “little dipper” with a trail of stars that looks like a tail. Each of the seven sisters have names: Maia, Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Taygete, Electra, and Merope. However, this famous cluster is actually comprised of several hundreds of super-hot young bluish stars about 410 light years away from Earth. The brightest stars in the formation glow from gas that formed within the last 100 million years. Use Orion’s belt as a pointer to the bright star, Aldebaran and then directly towards the Pleiades. Use your unaided eyes, small binoculars, or a low powered telescope for the best views.

Hyades Star Cluster 
The V-shaped figure of stars (except Aldebaran) that forms the bull’s head, highlights the five brightest stars in the Hyades. In a dark sky, the Hyades stars are visible to the unaided eye but come alive in small binoculars or through a telescope at low power. An easy target for beginners!


Crab Nebula (Messier 1) 
Located in Taurus next to its “Southern Horn” star, Zeta Tauri, the Crab Nebula is the first entry in the Messier catalog. The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant that was observed and documented by Chinese astronomers in the year 1054 AD. The explosion was so bright that it was visible to the naked eye for up to two years after it went supernova. At magnitude 8.4, it will appear as a hazy cloud in 8” telescope at 50x from the city. Viewing this nebula in dark skies is highly recommended. There, M1 will be visible in smaller aperture telescopes.

Open Star Clusters (Messier 36, 37, 38)
The constellation Auriga has several beautiful, bright open star clusters that are popular targets for amateur astronomers. M36, also known as the Pinwheel Cluster, is an open star cluster with an apparent magnitude of 6.3 that lies about 4,100 light years from Earth. This cluster contains at least 60 stars and is viewable in binoculars and small aperture telescopes. Binoculars will show a fuzzy patch of light and small aperture telescopes will reveal just over a dozen brightest stars in the cluster, which appears like a pinwheel. M37 is the brightest and largest of these three open clusters in Auriga. M37 has an apparent magnitude of 6.2 and lies at a distance of 4,511 light years from Earth. From the city, binoculars will reveal a fuzzy patch of light, but a small telescope will reveal a tight cluster of stars. An 8-inch telescope will resolve hundreds of stars within the cluster, but the best views will be away from light pollution. M38, known as the Starfish Cluster, has an apparent magnitude of 7.4 and lies at a distance of 4,200 light years from Earth. Messier 38 can be seen along with M36 in the same field of view in binoculars as hazy patches. A small to medium size telescope will reveal the cluster’s “X” shape and many of its stars arranged in pairs.

Open Star Cluster (Messier 35) 
At the foot of Gemini (same side as Castor) resides M35, a beautiful large open star cluster. Believed to be about 175 million years old, M35 is about the size of the full Moon and is barely visible with the naked eye at magnitude 5.1 from a dark sky. M35 is easily visible through binoculars and any size telescope from the city. Just southwest of M35 is a smaller neighboring star cluster NGC 2158. Use a telescope to spot both clusters side by side.

Sirius
Sirius, also known as Alpha Canis Majoris or the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky, with an apparent magnitude of −1.46 and glows like a white, sparkling diamond. Sirius is 25 times more luminous than our Sun, and its name comes from a Greek word meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” Sirius is a binary star. In 2025, its companion, Sirius B “The Pup”, a white dwarf star, will reach its largest separation from Sirius “A” in its 50-year orbital cycle. The next few years will be a good time to try to catch a glimpse of Sirius B in telescopes as small as 4” (102mm) in aperture. It will be challenging to spot due to Sirius’ overwhelmingly brightness, but the view will be rewarding if you are successful.


Open Star Cluster (Messier 41)
Located about four degrees south of Sirius, M41 is a relatively bright open star cluster of about 100 stars that can be seen with the unaided eye from a dark sky location. From the city, M41 appears as a hazy patch of light in binoculars with stars being resolvable in small telescopes. At the center of the cluster is an orange giant 700 times more luminous than our Sun.

Open Star Clusters (Messier 46, 47)
M46 and M47 are bright open star clusters about a degree apart from one another, located in the constellation Puppis, the Stern. M46 contains around 500 stars and is almost the size of the full Moon with an apparent magnitude of 6.1. M46 is easy to spot in binoculars and small telescopes. Using Sirius as a guidepost, M46 is located about 14 degrees to the north-east of the Dog Star, Sirius. In dark skies, a modest size telescope will reveal planetary nebula NGC 2438 which appears like a tiny bubble nestled within the cluster’s northern boundary. M47 is one of the least densely populated open clusters with only around 50 stars, taking up about the same size as the full Moon. M47 has an apparent magnitude of 4.2 and is located about 12 degrees to the north-east of the Dog Star, Sirius. Binoculars and a small telescope will easily reveal this loose cluster of stars.

Globular Star Cluster (Messier 79) 
M79 is a rare wintertime globular cluster located in the constellation Lepus, the Hare, which is directly to the south of Orion. The cluster contains about 150,000 stars and has an apparent magnitude of 8.5. In binoculars, it appears as a hazy star, while small telescopes will reveal a hazy, brighter core. 8” telescopes will resolve the core into stars.  M79 is an ideal target for urban viewing, and you won’t have to wait until summertime to view globular clusters when they are most plentiful.  



Helpful Observing Hints

  • Tip #1: Use an Astronomy App or Star Chart 
    Using a detailed star map is a great way of learning where to locate these celestial wonders or any other celestial objects anytime of the year. It may be an old fashion learning tool, but it just works. The most modern and informative tools today can be found in astronomy apps such as Celestron’s SkyPortal mobile app. This full featured planetarium app is included with the purchase of any Celestron telescope, available from the Apple App Store or Google Play. SkyPortal instantly provides new telescope owners with a wealth of information at their fingertips, including audio and written descriptions about various objects. It also provides its celestial coordinates, a real-time sky map, rise and set times, physical and orbital parameters.
  •  Tip #2: Seeing Conditions 
    Steady seeing conditions are critical while observing objects such as planets, the Moon, or double stars, although deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies are less affected by poor seeing conditions. Avoid nights of bad seeing when our atmosphere is turbulent, and your targets appear like shimmering blobs in your telescope’s eyepiece. Start with low magnification and work your way up if the views remain steady. During a night of good seeing, you will be amazed how sharp and detailed objects can appear.
  •  Tip #3: Telescope Cooldown 
    Cool your telescope down! Make sure you bring your telescope outside about an hour or so before you plan to observe to cool it to ambient temperature. It is important for the telescope to reach thermal equilibrium with the outside air temperature to avoid distorted views. Telescopes with large mirrors and lenses may take longer to properly cool down for the best views.
  •  Tip #4: Collimation
    Collimate, collimate, collimate! If you own a Newtonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, make sure your telescope’s optics are collimated. It can make a difference when it comes to discerning fine detail. If the optics are slightly out of alignment, you may be cheating yourself out of seeing the clearest and sharpest details. Make it a habit to check collimation and adjust as needed once your telescope is cooled down. Most refractor telescopes generally do not need to be collimated.
  • Tip #5: Dress Warmly 
    Wintertime offers us amazing views of intergalactic space with an abundance of cosmic jewels to view, so the cold temperatures should not deter us from venturing outside to use our binoculars or telescopes. Just make sure to dress warmly and in layers in case you need to adjust your clothing as temperatures change as the night goes on. If you have a beanie and scarf, wear them to keep your head, ears, and neck warm. Gloves are useful too, but they can make things difficult such as holding on or changing eyepieces. Wear double socks and insulated boots to keep your feet warm, and if you have hand and foot warmers, they can make a world of difference in keeping warm. 

    Celestron offers a variety of outdoor electronics, including multipurpose devices that can keep your hands warm and your smartphone charged up. You can browse our Elements products here.

If you own a Schmidt-Cassegrain or EdgeHD telescope, make sure you use a dew shield to help protect your telescope’s front corrector plate and help prolong the effects of dew. You can browse our Dew Prevention products here.

 

Final Thoughts

Wintertime offers you and your family the most memorable celestial targets as cold air often provides crystal clear views than warmer summertime air. However, it can also be a bit of a challenge for one main reason, frigid temperatures in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere! If you plan on observing on a cold winter's night, check the forecast ahead of time. Select a night when your area is not under a threat of bone chilling winds and moisture, which can better your odds of having good seeing and more comfortable viewing conditions.

If you would like to observe right away, consider a computerized GoTo telescope or an app-enabled push-to telescope that will help find celestial objects more quickly. And remember, you do not need to use high power all the time.  Sometimes, you can have a different perspective of an object by using lower magnification, especially on wide targets such as the Pleiades star cluster and Orion’s entire sword region. Experiment using different eyepieces and see the difference.

 

Clear skies and happy observing!