IT'S January, the beginning of another year, and although we are in winter the Earth will be closest to the Sun.

The closest point, or ‘Perihelion’, occurs on January 3 when Earth will be just 91,404,374 miles (147,101,0815km) away from its star. That’s in contrast to six months from now when, on July 4, Earth reaches ‘Aphelion’, its most distant point from the Sun, when we will be 94,510,492 miles (152,099,894km) away.

In January in the northern hemisphere we experience winter, so it can seem counter-intuitive to learn that the Earth is now at its closest to the Sun. However, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun in January, while the southern hemisphere, which is tilted towards the Sun, has summer. In six months’ time of course the positions will be reversed.

On the night of January 3/4 we have the Quadrantid meteor shower when around 40 to 70 meteors per hour can be seen.

The Quadrantids do have one very important claim to fame in that theirs is the only meteor shower named after a constellation that no longer exists.

A meteor shower is named after the constellation the meteors appear to come from; in this case the Mural Quadrant. In 1930 when the modern constellation boundaries were defined, the Mural Quadrant was discarded as were many other old constellations.

As this meteor shower was known during the 19th century we still recognise the defunct constellation in its name. It is believed that the Quadrantids, unlike most meteor showers, are associated not with a comet but with an asteroid, which is also the case for the Geminid meteor shower we see in December. In the case of the Quadrantids it is believed to be asteroid 2003 EH1.

If you look north east you will see the Plough with its handle pointing towards the horizon. The two stars furthest from the handle of the Plough are, as always, pointing to the North Star.

The ‘W’ of Cassiopeia is now very high in the North West and because of its position is becoming a letter ‘M’. If you look directly overhead you will see the bright yellow star Capella in the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer and just to the right and below Capella you will notice a faint but distinctive triangle of stars known the Haedi or Kids. ‘Capella’ means the she-goat and where the she-goat goes, the kids will follow, meaning they are always easy to find.

If you look to the south you cannot fail to see the splendid constellation of Orion the Hunter. Seven bright stars make up this constellation; four that form a large rectangle and inside this the three stars that form the belt of Orion.

According to legend, Orion boasted that he could kill any living creature, but one day, when he was boasting to a large crowd about all the animals he had killed, he did not see a little Scorpion creeping up behind him.

The Scorpion stung Orion on the ankle and killed him. The gods, however, had been so impressed with the boasting of Orion that he was placed in the sky forever, and so was the clever Scorpion. To make sure they could never meet again Orion was placed in the winter sky while the Scorpion was placed in the summer sky.

It will quickly be seen that six of the seven stars that form Orion are blue/white in colour, while one is distinctly red. The red star in the top left of the rectangle is called Betelgeuse, or as some people like to call it, Beetlejuice.

The colours of the stars tell astronomers how hot they are. Stars that appear blue/white are much hotter than stars that are red. The blue stars are very young stars and can have surface temperatures of around 30,000 degrees centigrade, while the much older, red stars have surface temperatures of only 3,000 degrees centigrade. Our Sun has a surface temperature of around 5,800 degrees centigrade and is, in stellar terms, rather middle aged.

Just below the stars of Orion’s Belt you will notice the fuzzy patch of the Orion Nebula. This is a stellar nursery: an area of space where as many as one thousand stars are actually being created out of a giant cloud of dust and gas at any moment.

If you use the belt stars and draw a line down and to the left you will arrive at Sirius the Dog Star; the brightest star in the sky in the constellation of Canis Major, the Great Dog. Using the belt stars and drawing a line up and to the right you will find the bright red star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus the Bull and if this line is continued you will reach a fuzzy or misty patch in the sky which is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, a cluster of stars moving through space together.

Although called the Seven Sisters, I can usually only see five or six with the naked eye. People with much better eyesight than mine will see seven or more, but in fact there are hundreds of stars there.

Going back to Betelgeuse, a line drawn to the left and slightly curved will reach another bright star, Procyon, in the constellation of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. A line drawn from the middle star of the belt of Orion past Betelgeuse and curved slightly to the left will reach the two brightest stars in the constellation of Gemini the Twins; the stars Castor and Pollux.

By using Orion as a signpost it is possible to find the brightest stars in the winter sky and then to navigate around them to find the fainter constellations and stars.

The Planets in January.

The planet Jupiter is still dominating the evening sky. It can be seen as a very bright white dot that will be seen in the south as soon as the sky becomes dark. The planet Saturn will be setting by around 8.00pm, so if you want to see it, look to the south west just after sunset.

In the morning sky in the south east before the Sun rises you can see Venus, which appears as a bright white dot. If you look to the left of Venus and lower in the sky between January 7 and 17 you might get a glimpse of the elusive planet Mercury. This planet is never easy to see because it is always so close to the Sun. The last naked eye planet is Mars, which is still too close to the Sun to be seen this month.

Phases of the Moon for January.

Last Quarter 4, New Moon 11, First Quarter 18, Full Moon 25 The Full Moon in January is known as the Wolf Moon, as in ancient times, hungry wolves were heard howling more often than normal at this time of year.

I wish clear skies to everyone this New Year.