ALTHOUGH they're long and often bitterly cold, the nights of early January are perfect for amateur astronomy, writes STUART ATKINSON. Because the Sun sets early we don't have to wait long for it to get dark enough to see things 'up there,' and if you're really dedicated you can enjoy many hours of stargazing before finally crawling under the duvet and thawing out.

One thing you might see during the first week of January is a shooting star zipping away from the Big Dipper (or The Plough or The Saucepan, or whatever you might know that star pattern as). This is because every year on January 3 or 4 a meteor shower called the Quadrantids reaches its peak, but they can dash across the sky on any night during that first week. Quadrans no longer exists as a constellation, but it used to lie off to one side of the Big Dipper's handle, which is why these shooting stars come from that direction.

Early January is also a great time to enjoy just looking at the sky. The frostier the night the better, because the air will be still and less affected by mist and murk. If you can get to somewhere with a big view of the sky, with no streetlights to dim the stars, and no trees or buildings to block your view, you'll see a sky strewn with stars like jewels. If you're still up at around 6am you'll also be able to see the giant planet Jupiter shining brightly in the south east, looking like a beautiful blue-white spark.