A guide to winter stargazing

Milky Way and northern lights
The Milky Way core and the northern lights make their appearance in October 2014 in the skies north of Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file 2014

What’s visible in the night sky shifts with the seasons — and winter has some telescope-worthy events starting to unfold overhead.

“The most exciting things to see in the sky that you can count on regularly are planets,” said Sally Brummel, the planetarium director at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. “We have three planets visible as you’re going out right at sunset.”

Venus, Jupiter and Saturn will be shining in the sky this winter. Brighter than any star, the planets will be visible to the naked eye on a cloudless winter night through the majority of January. 

“People sometimes confuse [Venus] for a UFO,” Brummel said.

Being the brightest planet out of the trio, its the easiest to spot in the southeastern night sky.

Jupiter can be seen to the south of Venus. In between the two, Saturn can be spotted — although it will be more difficult to find because of its distance from the Earth, a telescope and a cloudless night will offer a clear view of all three planets. 

“One thing that is kind of rare to see in the sky is Mercury,” Brummel said. For the first three weeks of January, Mercury will be making its way onto the lower western horizon as Venus moves out of view. Because Mercury is closer to the sun than the other two planets, it will only be visible right after sunset or just before sunrise.  

Unlike the planets that depend on their distance from the Earth, their distance from the sun and their revolutions in order to be seen, the same constellations make their way into the winter sky each year.

“We’re looking in a completely different direction in space every season so we have seasonal constellations,” Brummel said. “A lot of people think the winter is one of the best times for searching for constellations because it's got some of the brightest stars and the most familiar ones.” 

Orion the Hunter is a fan favorite of winter’s star findings. The constellation can be found in the southeastern section of the sky as the sun sets, and it holds one of the most apparent stellar nurseries that can be found in the winter sky this year. 

“It’s called the Great Orion Nebula,” said Jerry Jones, the astronomical coordinator for the Minnesota Astronomical Society. He explains that a stellar nursery is where stars are created, “where they’re born.”

The society has five observing sites centered around the Twin Cities metro area, and four of those locations house more than a dozen telescopes for its 400 members to use. Many of the observatories are open to the public on specific days and offer star parties for both members and non-members wanting to take a closer look at the night sky. 

Both the Minnesota Astronomical Society and the Bell Museum currently offer star parties online, but they’ll be returning to in-person starting in January 2022. Star parties focus on either general observations of the sky at that time or more specific stargazing events like meteor showers or different moons in the galaxy. 

“A pair of binoculars will show the four Galilean moons that are around Jupiter,” Jones said. “And other things that are wonderful to look at in the winter sky are things like the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, in Taurus.”

Pleiades is an open cluster of stars that most people with good eyesight can see, but Jones suggests looking through a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a better view. 

Both Jones and Brummel mentioned that the northern lights is one of the most popular and beloved sights in the sky year-round. The northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, form when particles from the sun erupt and travel through space and hit Earth’s atmosphere, making the atmosphere light up. Known as a “sun storm,” the northern lights depend completely on how active the sun is and most of the time, that can be pretty unpredictable.

Brummel explained that NASA and other space agencies have spacecraft that track the sun and observe sun storms in order to know how long it will take for the sun’s particles to reach the Earth. Most of these agencies post two- to-three-day advanced warnings on their websites before the northern lights are painted across the sky.

Expert tips for stargazers this winter

  • Go where you can see the stars. Steer clear of light pollution and head outside of metro areas to clear, cloudless skies. 

  • Find a star map to use. Star maps offer viewers a helpful hand in differentiating stars, planets and constellations. They can include the moon’s phases for a given time and flag the best dates for stargazing. The Bell Museum provides printable copies of their star maps online, and apps like SkySafari offer the same help from your phone.

  • Have a telescope or a pair of binoculars handy. You can see a lot with the naked eye, but an up-close view will offer more detail into the winter sky’s planets and constellations.

  • Dress warmly. Minnesota’s winters are known for being spontaneous, so plan to dress 20 degrees less than the ambient temperature. Make sure that your head and feet are both thoroughly covered.

  • Take your time looking up. “I encourage people to go outside and look up,” Jones said as his final tip. “It is the best way for us to connect to something bigger than ourselves.”

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