What to See in the Night Sky for January 2022

A dark sky meteor shower, Mercury rising, and a full 'wolf moon' kick off the new year.

looking at the night sky in January

Dneutral Han / Getty Images

A very happy New Year and welcome to 2022! January is typically pretty light on exciting night sky reasons to get outside—and for those of us in parts of the Northern Hemisphere under a deep freeze, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nonetheless, below are some space-related dates to note over the next few weeks, as well as a preview of other events in the months ahead worth checking out. Wishing you clear skies!

Cold Nights Bring Exceptional Viewing Conditions (All Month)

While plunging temperatures may not inspire motivation to get outside and look up, I’m going to recommend you drag yourself away from your warm abode and do it anyway. Why? Because these cold temperatures actually help to create the absolute best skywatching conditions of the year.

Cold air holds less moisture than warm air, resulting in crystal-clear conditions in winter. Summer nights, on the contrary, are generally heavy with moisture and more hazy. Combine this with long nights and you’ve got some great opportunities for you (or the whole family) to enjoy the night sky well before bedtime. Just don’t forget the hot cocoa.

A New Moon Kicks Off Dark Skies for a New Year (Jan. 2)

There’s no better way to enjoy the crystal-clear viewing conditions of January than with an early new moon keeping light pollution (at least from the heavens) to a minimum. If you want a dark sky target, try finding the Andromeda Galaxy. Located approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth, it’s the farthest object visible with the naked eye. To locate it, head out when skies are completely dark and look to the lower right of the constellation Cassiopeia (a series of stars shaped like an ‘M’ or ‘W’). Andromeda will appear as a glowing smudge on the sky. If you own a pair of binoculars, bring those along to help enhance the view.

If you happen to be immortal, you can expect views of the Andromeda Galaxy to improve over time. Astronomers estimate that in four to five billion years, our own Milky Way Galaxy and Andromeda will collide and combine to form one giant elliptical galaxy. You can view a simulation of how spectacular our night sky will become as a result of this collision here

Catch the (Mysterious) Quadrantids Meteor Shower  (Jan. 3)

Named after a now-extinct constellation called Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids are an annual meteor shower that appear to radiate from the more-enjoyable-to-pronounce constellation Boötes. While other meteor showers throughout the year have peak viewing conditions that last one or two days, the peak of the Quadrantids lasts only a few hours. That’s because the stream of debris Earth passes through is not only thin (the suspected remnants of an ancient comet), but also intersected at a perpendicular angle.

Despite this small window, it’s still considered one of the best meteor showers of the year—with dark, clear skies showing off as many as 60 to 200 shooting stars per hour. According to NASA, because the debris is larger than other streams, extremely bright, long-lasting fireballs of various colors are possible.

To view the Quadrantids, bundle up, get away from any light pollution, and get cozy in a spot with as large a swath of the night sky visible as possible. Once your eyes adjust (after about 30 minutes), you should be able to see both the spectacular fireballs and fainter shooting stars produced by this New Year wonder.

Earth Makes Its Closest Approach to the Sun (Jan. 4) 

Okay, so this isn’t something you can actually see, but maybe just knowing it will make your day feel a bit warmer. On January 4 at approximately 1:52 a.m. EST, the sun and Earth will reach the closest point in their annual orbital dance. Called “perihelion,” Earth will be about three million miles closer to the sun than it is at its furthest point in June (called aphelion). It also reaches its fastest orbital speed—roughly 19 miles per second, according to EarthSky.

Why don’t we feel warmer as we move closer to the sun? That’s because it’s the tilt of the Earth that influences our season and not its proximity. Right now, in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re tilted sharply away from the sun. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s full-on summer with a tilt toward the sun.

Fun fact: For billions of years, the Earth has actually been spiraling away from the sun at a rate estimated to be about 1.5 centimeters per year. While that might give you cause for alarm over the eventual uncoupling of these two celestial bodies, don’t worry. Astronomers say that the Earth will either lose its orbital energy and spiral into the sun, or be engulfed by its red giant phase. These two are in it together until the fiery end.

Mercury at Its Highest Point in the Western Sky (Jan. 7) 

Take a moment to appreciate the planet Mercury, which will be at its “greatest eastern elongation” (i.e. highest point above the horizon in the western sky) on the evening of Jan. 7. The closest planet to the sun, Mercury will also form a temporary quartet with Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Look for them from highest to lowest, east to west, just after sunset. 

Howl at the Full Wolf Moon (Jan. 17)

While the Old Farmer's Almanac refers to January's big lunar event as the "full wolf moon," native people of North America have also called it the Cold Moon, Frost Exploding Moon, Freeze-Up Moon, and the Severe Moon. Owing to more pleasant conditions in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s known down under as Thunder Moon, Mead Moon, and Hay Moon.

View the wolf moon in all its full-phase glory around 6:51 p.m. EDT on the evening of Jan. 17. 

What Else Is in Store for Space Events in 2022?

Below are just a few other highlights to look forward to as we kick off the new year. 

SpaceX Launch of Its Orbital Starship (Jan/Feb)

For those that love tuning in to SpaceX launches, the early months of 2022 could provide some of the most spectacular yet. The biggest by far is the first test orbital launch of the company’s Starship. The largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed, it’s meant to be reusable—with its Super Heavy Booster returning to Earth after delivering the Starship spacecraft to orbit. Upon reentry, the Super Heavy will land by being “caught” by two giant clamps at SpaceX’s Texas Starbase. The first test launch of the rocket is expected for either January or February. Eventually, NASA plans to use the Starship spacecraft to return astronauts to the moon. 

Two Total Lunar Eclipses (May 16 & Nov. 8)

Missed the last historic (somewhat-partial) lunar eclipse in November? Those of us in North America will have two opportunities this year to catch another. The first, on May 16, will actually play nice with sleep schedules, with totality occurring around 12:11 a.m. EST and ending at 2:50 a.m. EST. The second, on Nov. 8, will complement your morning coffee, with totality occurring at 5:59 a.m. EST and ending at 6:41 a.m. EST.

Launch of NASA Artemis 1 Lunar Test Flight (March)

The Artemis 1 is the first test launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS), as well as the first flight of its Orion crew vehicle. As part of this mission, expected to launch sometime in March, the uncrewed Orion will spend three weeks in space, including six days in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. 

The $20-billion (and counting) SLS project is intended to become the successor to NASA’s Space Shuttle program, as well as its future launch system for deep space exploration. With an expected cost of $2 billion per launch (and only one launch planned per year), NASA has a lot riding on this first critical test. 

First Images From the James Webb Space Telescope (Summer)

While the James Webb Space Telescope successfully launched on Christmas Day, there are still many, many things that could go wrong on its month-long, nearly-million-mile journey to its home outside Earth's orbit and subsequent deployment and testing. Should everything go according to plan, NASA expects to receive the first data back from the massive $9.7-billion telescope sometime this summer. 

Launch of the Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover (Sep. 22)

After a pandemic-fueled delay, the Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover, a joint partnership between the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation, will finally launch on Sep. 22. Its mission is to search for past evidence of life on the red planet, as well as explore Oxia Planum, a flat clay-bearing plain on Mars that was thought to host a wet environment three to four billion years ago.