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See the Unicorn tonight, moon and Mars after midnight

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Tonight for January 21, 2014

Look for the waning gibbous moon, the planet Mars and the star Slica between midnight and dawn on Wednesday, January 22.

Look for the waning gibbous moon, the planet Mars and the star Spica between midnight and dawn on Wednesday, January 22, 2014. Mars will be near the moon on Thursday morning, too.

You’ll need a very dark sky to see the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn in the sky on these cold winter nights. And you’ll have to stay up late tonight (January 21, 2014) or wake up early tomorrow (January 22) to see the moon and Mars in front of the constellation Virgo. After the moon and Mars rise in the east, they’ll be out for rest of the night.

Let’s find the Unicorn, which comes out at nightfall. Focus in on the bright stars Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon (see charts on this page). They make a triangle, which is sometimes called the Winter Triangle. Within this triangle of stars, hidden in between the many bright and glittering stars and constellations visible at this time of year, there’s a constellation that’s as elusive in our night sky as its namesake is in countless fairy tales.

This is the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. You will need a very dark sky to see it.

Sky chart of the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. Click here for a larger chart

M50 image from The Munich Astro Archive

M50 is an open cluster in the constellation Monoceros. Image via The Munich Astro Archive

Like all of the night sky, the region of the heavens around Monoceros holds interest. The winter Milky Way runs through here, so it’s a good place to scan with binoculars.

With binoculars, you can see star clusters here. Those with dark skies might try drawing an imaginary line from the star Sirius to Procyon. About a third of the way along this line, you’ll find a hazy object – an open star cluster – called M50.

You need a telescope to see M50 clearly. But, with an ordinary pair of binoculars, this cluster of stars is wonderful to glimpse and contemplate on a winter night. There are really about 100 stars in the little patch we know as M50. The main part of the cluster is about 10 light-years across. The entire cluster is located some 3,000 light-years from us.

Bottom line: Treat yourself to a visit with a mythical beast – Monoceros the Unicorn – in the January evening sky. And if you’re up late – at or after midnight on the night of January 21-22, 2014 – let the moon be your guide to the red planet Mars.

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