With long full nights, winter remains the best period of the year to enjoy the starry sky and discover its rich objects. The night falls usually around 6:00 pm, which is a perfect timing for week and week-end stargazing. Thus, you do not have to wait several hours like in summer time.
However, once your telescope is out and installed, what could you observe? If the Milky Way visibility is not suitable for winter observing, a large number of extraordinary targets can be admired using relatively modest instruments: bright galaxies and nebulae, huge clusters and interesting comets! Here is our selection of objects that could feed your astronomical hunger in winter.
The Great Orion Nebula – M42
A traditional target is obviously the splendid pink-colored nebula M42. Its strong brightness and its huge stretch enables to be easily visible in the sky, even to the naked eye. A simple binoculars will reveal its internal structures. Orion is the brightest nebula of the Northern hemisphere, located in the constellation of the same name whose visibility starts around mid-october and finishes at the beginning of March. The intense colors of the dust and gas clouds are not discernible to the naked eye but could be highlighted using a telescope equipped with an image sensor, such as Stellina.
Horse Head and Flame Nebulae
Still in the Orion constellation, the dark nebula IC 434 features a particular shape, similar to the profile of a horse, hence its name. This object is even more gorgeous when it is captured: we can then see pink tint clouds in the background participating in increasing the contrast of the Horse Head nebula absorbing the light. This original deep sky object is narrowly associated with another brighter nebula, called the Flame nebula. It becomes interesting to frame both of these nebulae into a single image.
Pleaides Star Cluster – M45
Let us travel from Orion to Taurus constellation and look at this great and luminous open star cluster, intensively tinted with blue. Often mistaken with the Ursa Minor constellation, the Pleiades star cluster is easily accessible to the naked eye. It is composed of a large group of 3 000 young stars whose seven of them can be observed with binoculars. Dust clouds give the impression that the Pleaides is a nebula, but it has actually nothing to do with the cluster itself: they are only dusty materials standing at the foreground. One more time, a telescope fitted with a camera could reveals the true blue color of M45 star cluster.
Andromeda Galaxy – M31
With an angular size containing about 6 times the diameter of a full moon, Andromeda is a spiral galaxy pretty close to the Milky Way, making it one of the rarest galaxies visible without using any instruments, except our eyes – the Large and Small Magellanic clouds are the brightest but are only visible from the Southern hemisphere sky. The beginning of winter is the most suitable period for admiring this masterpiece whether with binoculars or telescopes. Andromeda lays within the constellation having the exact same name. Its angular diameter is so high that a too much powerful telescope in terms of magnification will not enable observing the entire disc of the Andromeda galaxy. A telescope between 400 and 800 mm focal length makes a reasonable choice, more particularly when it is associated with a photographic sensor. Despite being located just 2.5 million light years from us, Andromeda shows a high density of stellar population and hides a lot of interesting structures like its spiral arms that can be resolved with most of amateur telescopes.
The Beehive cluster – M44
Praesepe is a modest but amazing open star cluster which can be found inside the constellation of Cancer. Very bright, it is composed of more than 1 000 stars spreading over a angular distance where 3 full moon diameters can fit in. With binoculars or telescopes, the Beehive cluster reveals shining stars where differences between color temperatures can be noticed. An image will prove this assessment.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen: the surprise of the year?
Since the last few years, the Northern hemisphere was not often been visited by bright comets. You might remember the comet Hale-Bopp which enlightened the sky with a maximum magnitude of -1. This year, we will not be as lucky as in 1997, but comet Wirtanen is expected to reach magnitude 3 or 4 around December 16th 2018 when its orbit is at closest distance to the Earth, namely 12 million kilometers. In other words, it will be likely accessible to the naked eye and to binoculars.
Discovered in 1948, this comet belongs to the category of periodic comets, meaning that it orbits the sun every 5.4 years approx. . Wirtanen was initially the comet on which the ESA’s Rosetta Mission should set its route and drop down its Philae lander.
For more stories on comets, we invite you to read our previous article on the most impressive comets of the history.
Wirtanen is therefore an object you should pay attention on, all December 2018 long!