‘Tis the season… to go out and be dazzled by the night sky! The holidays mean that our moods are high, and we’re eager to go out and spend a night under the stars.
We love theme nights - we got to check Halloween astronomy off our bucket list - and Christmas just seems like the perfect time to look at the sky. (Living in Australia means we get to enjoy a warm night out, too.) This is also a great time to spend with your family, as these constellations are all quite easy to identify, thus pretty interesting to show to younger family members.
Below are some of the constellations that we thought would be perfect to catch during the season.
No surprise that this is first on our list! It’s first on most people’s lists.
The Christmas Tree Cluster was named for its triangular shape, formed by a cluster of very young stars, that looks like a tree in visible light. It is located in the northern part of NGC 2264, just above the Cone Nebula. The seventh magnitude member HD 47887 sits just above the tip of the Cone and the bright variable star S Monocerotis (15 Monocerotis) is located slightly to the north and marks the trunk of the Christmas tree. The apex of the tree is located at the Cone Nebula.
Right ascension: 06h 40m 58s
Apparent magnitude: 3.9
Distance: 2,600 light years
Designations: NGC 2264, LBN 911, SH 2-273, OCl 495, C 0638+099, LBN 202.92+02.18, CCABS 52, OCISM 108, MWSC 0954
As a bonus, you can also find the Snowflake Cluster within this nebula.
Okay, so there isn’t really an agreed-upon Star of Bethlehem, but multiple sources cite Venus, Mars, Jupiter, or even Saturn as the most likely culprits - not stars at all! (From our most recent viewing session last weekend, Venus was shining so brightly that it dimmed the stars around it!) They would have been the brightest objects in the sky and closely resemble stars when one doesn’t look too closely with binoculars or a telescope. So go forth and check out our neighbouring planets - you don’t even need a telescope for that.
Click here to find out how ancient astronomers read the skies.
The constellation has since been split into three different constellations, but it’s been imagined as Noah’s Ark throughout the years. It’s located in the southern skies.
The three constellations making up the Argo are Puppis the stern, Vela the sails, and Carina the keel. When viewed from Sydney, Australia, the constellation is upside down, with Canopus topping the constellation set.
This nebula earns its place on our list due to being the coldest known place in the universe (it has a temperature of only 1 K (-272.15°C or -458°F) - perfectly fitting the winter theme that northern hemisphere observers know. The nebula is located in the southern skies, though.
Right ascension: 12h 44m 45.45s
Angular size: 1′.445 × 0′.724
Designations: Boomerang Nebula, PGC 3074547, Centaurus Bipolar Nebula
The winter theme is strong within this post, which means we're going to include the Winter Hexagon.
The Winter Hexagon can be seen high in the sky between December and March in the northern hemisphere, with a band of the Milky Way running through the centre of the asterism. In southern latitudes, the asterism appears as the “summer hexagon” or “summer circle” and can be extended with Canopus in the southern constellation Carina, the second brightest star in the night sky.
- Constellation Guide
How does this relate to the holidays? Well, there’s nothing better than a hot cup of a tea on a cold winter’s night. Not that we know anything about cold weather this time of year - though what's quite ironic is that this constellation is in the southern sky. Sorry to our readers stuck in colder climates! (Though northern hemisphere observers can see this constellation during the summer - June to August.)
We’ve lived in cold places, so we've enjoyed the opportunity to curl up in front of a warm fire on chilly nights. Even in Australia, camping in central NSW in April is cold - a campfire kept us toasty warm. The flame nebula is one of the most beautiful (in our opinion!) and perfectly fitting the holiday theme of this post.
Distance: 1,350 light years (415 parsecs)
Apparent magnitude: +2
Right ascension: 05h 41m 54s
Apparent size: 30′ x 30′
Designations: Flame Nebula, NGC 2024, Sharpless 277, W 12, LBN 953, PMN J0541-0154, SNR G206.5-16.4
Its name means “the southern crown” in Latin, fitting for the celebration of the birth of a king. Compared to other constellations, this one is pretty faint, but worth looking at nonetheless. Visible in the southern sky, we have its northern compatriot below.
We haven’t forgotten the northern skies!
Corona Borealis lies between the constellations Boötes and Hercules and represents the crown of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos in Greek mythology, who helped the hero Theseus kill the Minotaur and find his way out of the labyrinth in which the creature lived. In Celtic mythology, Corona Borealis is known as Caer Arianrhod, or the Castle of Arianrhod, the place where the mythical Lady Arianrhod lived.
- Constellation Guide
No one’s called Eridanus a garland before - that’s just us taking creative liberty. We wanted to make this list an even ten, so our last one is a bit of a desperate clutch at straws. Eridanus is called the river though -
Eridanus represents the celestial river. In Sanskrit, it is called srotaswini, which means “stream,” “current,” or “torrent.” The constellation is associated with the Greek myth of Phaëton and usually depicted as a river flowing from the waters poured by Aquarius.
So that's it for our list of Christmas-themed constellations! We had a lot of fun compiling this list and intend to go out and follow it at least once this month. Don't forget - the new moon is 29th December, so your best viewing will be done close to the new year. Happy holidays from us!
For more holiday viewing, check out this list by Space.com.