Throughout the year there are many beautiful sights to be seen above our heads in the Northern Hemisphere, but the crisp dark nights are without doubt the best for hunting down celestial wonders. The skies of the cold months ahead are home to some stunning sights, many of which you won't even need a telescope to spot them.
The sight of the constellation Orion rising high in the eastern sky is a sure sign that winter is upon us. One of the more well-known deep-sky objects is found nestled in the boundaries of Orion, the Great Orion Nebula (or M42). It can be seen from a dark site with the naked eye as a fuzzy patch just below Orion’s famous three star belt, but binoculars or telescopes reveal beautifully delicate wispy filaments of nebulosity. This is one of the best examples of a star-forming region and some of its young hot stars can be seen buried in the nebula.
The Orion Nebula represents stellar birth but stars do not live for ever. The Crab Nebula in nearby Taurus is a supernova remnant, the remains of a star that catastrophically exploded in 1054. The initial explosion, which could be seen in daylight, was recorded by Chinese astronomers and occurred when a massive star around 6,500 light years away reached the end of its life. The Crab Nebula is known as M1 on Charles Messier’s catalog and cannot be seen with the naked eye so a small telescope is needed to detect it.
The Hyades Cluster is much easier to detect in Taurus as it can be seen clearly with the naked eye. The constellation of Taurus depicts a bull, charging with his head lowered and the stars of the Hyades cluster represent its head. It is the nearest open cluster to our solar system at just 153 light-years away. The cluster can be found by following the line from the belt stars of Orion to the north west. It is easily recognized by the bright red star Aldebaran which depicts the eye of Taurus.
A cluster that requires a little more effort to find is M36 in the southern section of the constellation Auriga. The cluster was discovered in 1654 and is one of the three found in Auriga. At a distance of about 4,100 light-years away it is just beyond naked eye visibility, but binoculars will reveal it as a faintly glowing patch of light. It is thought the cluster is home to about 60 stars, most of which can be seen through a telescope at about 15 centimeters aperture.
For the last few years we have been able to enjoy the sight of Jupiter shining brightly in the winter sky. Like all planets, Jupiter moves and over the next few months we can find it in the constellation Gemini. It is easily visible to the naked eye and is the brightest object in that part of the sky (except when the moon is present). A good pair of binoculars on a sturdy tripod mount should just about reveal four of its many moons while a telescope will unveil some beautiful detail in the planet's atmosphere. The north and south equatorial belts are usually prominent as is the Great Red Spot -- a large hurricane system that has been raging for over 400 years.
Usually associated with the spring sky, the Andromeda Galaxy can still be seen during winter months over in the west. It is found off the north east corner of the Square of Pegasus and from a dark site with little light pollution, it can be seen with the naked eye. The galaxy is one of the most distant objects visible with the naked eye and it lies an incredible 2.3 million light-years away. Through a modest telescope the galaxy looks like a large fuzzy blob and its companion galaxies, M32 and M110 can be seen.
High in the sky southern sky, almost overhead is the constellation Perseus. It is easy to identify from the curve of moderately bright stars making up the majority of the constellation. Following the curve of Perseus toward the north takes us to Cassiopeia and between the two is the Perseus Double Cluster. This duo of star clusters lies about 7,000 light-years away but there's only a couple of hundred light years between them. They appear side by side in good binoculars or in through small wide-field telescopes.
There is nothing that inspires more than the sight of our own galaxy arching across a dark star filled sky. It is beautifully placed during the winter months but you will need to be away from the bright lights of cities to see it at its best. The hazy light we can see is coming from the 400 thousand millions stars that make up our own Galaxy but because we are inside it, we see it as a band stretching all around the sky. Galactic center lies about 30,000 light years away in the direction of Sagittarius.