March  2017

Updated:   24 March 2017



Welcome to the night skies of Autumn, featuring Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Orion, Canis Major, Carina and Crux 


Our course in Astronomy "Understanding the Universe" is starting on April 6 - one night per week for eight weeks, including observing through our robotic telescope on each clear night.
here for details.


Note:  Some parts of this webpage may be formatted incorrectly by older browsers.


The new Alluna RC-20 Ritchey Chrétien telescope was installed in March, 2016.

The telescope is able to locate and track any sky object (including Earth satellites and the International Space Station) with software called TheSkyX Professional, into which is embedded a unique T-Point model developed for our site with our equipment over the past eight months.


Explanatory Notes:  


Times for transient sky phenomena are given using a 24 hour clock, i.e. 20:30 hrs = 8.30 pm. Times are in Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST), which equals Universal Time (UT) + 10 hours. Daylight saving is not observed in Queensland. Observers in other time zones will need to make their own corrections where appropriate. With conjunctions of the Moon, planets and stars, timings indicate the closest approach. Directions (north or south) are approximate. The Moon’s diameter is given in arcminutes ( ’ ). The Moon is usually about 30’ or half a degree across. The 'limb' of the Moon is its edge as projected against the sky background.

Rise and set times are given for the theoretical horizon, which is a flat horizon all the way round the compass, with no mountains, hills, trees or buildings to obscure the view. Observers will have to make allowance for their own actual horizon. 

Transient phenomena are provided for the current month and the next. Geocentric phenomena are calculated as if the Earth were fixed in space as the ancient Greeks believed. This viewpoint is useful, as otherwise rising and setting times would be meaningless. In the list of geocentric events, the nearer object is given first.

When a planet is referred to as ‘stationary’, it means that its movement across the stellar background appears to have ceased, not that the planet itself has stopped. With inferior planets (those inside the Earth’s orbit, Mercury and Venus), this is caused by the planet heading either directly towards or directly away from the Earth. With superior planets (Mars out to Pluto), this phenomenon is caused by the planet either beginning or ending its retrograde loop due to the Earth’s overtaking it.

Apogee and perigee:   Maximum and minimum distances of the Moon or artificial satellite from the Earth.

Aphelion and perihelion:  Maximum and minimum distances of a planet, asteroid or comet from the Sun.

A handspan at arm's length covers an angle of approximately 18 - 20 degrees.

mv = visual magnitude or brightness. Magnitude 1 stars are very bright, magnitude 2 less so, and magnitude 6 stars are so faint that the unaided eye can only just detect them under good, dark conditions. Binoculars will allow us to see down to magnitude 8, and the Observatory telescope can reach visual magnitude 17 or 22 photographically. The world's biggest telescopes have detected stars and galaxies as faint as magnitude 30. The sixteen very brightest stars are assigned magnitudes of 0 or even -1. The brightest star, Sirius, has a magnitude of -1.44. Jupiter can reach -2.4, and Venus can be more than 6 times brighter at magnitude -4.7, bright enough to cast shadows. The Full Moon can reach magnitude -12 and the overhead Sun is magnitude -26.5. Each magnitude step is 2.51 times brighter or fainter than the next one, i.e. a magnitude 3.0 star is 2.51 times brighter than a magnitude 4.0. Magnitude 1.0 stars are exactly 100 times brighter than magnitude 6.0 (5 steps each of 2.51 times, 2.51x2.51x2.51x2.51x2.51 = 2.515 = 100).


The Four Minute Rule:   

How long does it take the Earth to complete one rotation? No, it's not 24 hours - that is the time taken for the Sun to cross the meridian on successive days. (The meridian is an imaginary semicircular line running from the due south point on the horizon and arching overhead through the zenith, and coming down to the horizon again at its due north point.) This 24 hours is a little longer than one complete rotation, as the curve in the Earth's orbit means that it needs to turn a fraction more (~1 degree of angle) in order for the Sun to cross the meridian again. It is called a 'solar day'. The stars, clusters, nebulae and galaxies are so distant that most appear to have fixed positions in the night sky on a human time-scale, and for a star to return to the same point in the sky relative to a fixed observer takes 23 hours 56 minutes 4.0916 seconds. This is the time taken for the Earth to complete exactly one rotation, and is called a 'sidereal day'.

As our clocks and lives are organised to run on solar days of 24 hours, and the stars circulate in 23 hours 56 minutes approximately, there is a four minute difference between the movement of the Sun and the movement of the stars. This causes the following phenomena:

    1.    The Sun slowly moves in the sky relative to the stars by four minutes of time or one degree of angle per day. Over the course of a year it moves ~4 minutes X 365 days = 24 hours, and ~1 degree X 365 = 360 degrees or a complete circle. Together, both these facts mean that after the course of a year the Sun returns to exactly the same position relative to the stars, ready for the whole process to begin again.

    2.    For a given clock time, say 8:00 pm, the stars on consecutive evenings are ~4 minutes or ~1 degree further on than they were the previous night. This means that the stars, as well as their nightly movement caused by the Earth's rotation, also drift further west for a given time as the weeks pass. The stars of autumn, such as Orion are lost below the western horizon by mid-June, and new constellations, such as Sagittarius, have appeared in the east.  The stars change with the seasons, and after a year, they are all back where they started, thanks to the Earth's having completed a revolution of the Sun and returned to its theoretical starting point.

We can therefore say that the star patterns we see in the sky at 11:00 pm tonight will be identical to those we see at 10:32 pm this day next week (4 minutes X 7 = 28 minutes earlier), and will be identical to those of 9:00 pm this date next month or 7:00 pm the month after. All the above also includes the Moon and planets, but their movements are made more complicated, for as well as the Four Minute Drift  with the stars, they also drift at different rates against the starry background, the closest ones drifting the fastest (such as the Moon or Venus), and the most distant ones (such as Saturn or Neptune) moving the slowest.



 Solar System


Sun:   The Sun begins the month in the constellation of Aquarius, the Water Bearer, and passes into Pisces, the Fishes, on March 12.   



Moon Phases:  Lunations (Brown series):  #1165, 1166  


First Quarter:        March 05          21:33 hrs          diameter = 32.3'
Full Moon:             March 13          00:55 hrs          diameter = 30.7'
Last Quarter:        March 21          01:59 hrs          diameter = 29.7' 
New Moon:            March 28         12:58 hrs          diameter = 32.5'

First Quarter:        April 04            04:40 hrs          diameter = 32.0'
Full Moon:            
April 11            16:09 hrs          diameter = 30.0'         
Last Quarter:       
April 19            19:58 hrs          diameter = 30.1' 
New Moon:           
April 26             22:17 hrs         diameter = 33.1'         



Lunar Orbital Elements:

March 03:         Moon at perigee (369 065 km) at 18:05 hrs, diameter = 32.4'
March 11       Moon at ascending node at 14:20 hrs, diameter = 31.1'
March 19:         Moon at apogee (404 646 km) at 03:30 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
March 26:         Moon at descending node at 01:41 hrs, diameter = 31.5
March 30
:         Moon at perigee (363 863 km) at 22:40 hrs, diameter = 32.8'

April 07:            Moon at ascending node at 19:18 hrs, diameter = 30.9'
April 15:            Moon at apogee (405 488 km) at 20:05 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
April 22:            Moon at descending node at 08:28 hrs, diameter = 31.2'
April 28:            Moon at perigee (359 341 km) at 02:08 hrs, diameter = 33.3'

Moon at 8 days after New, as on March 06

Moon at 9 days after New, as on March 07

The two photographs above show the Mare Imbrium area in the Moon's northern hemisphere. They were taken a day apart, just after First Quarter. Mare Imbrium (the Sea of Rains) is a large lava flow caused by the Imbrium Event - a cataclysmic collision of an asteroid with the Moon many millions of years ago. A comparison of the two photographs will show how the appearance of lunar features changes with the angle of the Sun. 

In the first photograph, Mare Imbrium (left) is separated from Mare Serenitatis (right) by two ranges of mountains, the Alps to the north and the Apennines to the south. Two large craters at upper right are Aristoteles and Eudoxus. The straight Alpine Valley may be seen cutting through the Alps. Mt Piton (height 2000 metres) is visible as a bright spot with a shadow, due south of the southern end of the Alpine Valley. Archimedes is the large crater at left. It is a walled plain 80 kilometres in diameter with a flat floor. To its right are two bowl-shaped craters, Aristillus and Autolycus.  These craters are all formed by impact with large meteors. Apollo 15 landed close by the Apennines, in a small enclosed area to the right and below Archimedes, on the picture's central vertical axis.

In the second photograph, the sunrise line (called the 'terminator') has moved to the left, revealing a large walled plain in the Alps, known as Plato. South of Plato, an isolated mountain protruding through the lava flow is called Mt Pico. Ripples in the lava, called 'wrinkle ridges', are visible. The crater at lower left is Timocharis, 42 kilometres in diameter.

A detailed map of the Moon's near side is available here. A rotatable view of the Moon, with ability to zoom in close to the surface, and giving detailed information on each feature, may be downloaded  here.

Click here for a photographic animation showing the lunar phases. It also shows the Moon's wobble or libration, and how its apparent size changes as it moves from perigee to apogee each month. It takes a little while to load, but once running is very cool !<



Lunar Feature for this Month:


Each month we describe a lunar crater, cluster of craters, valley, mountain range or other object, chosen at random, but one with interesting attributes. A recent photograph from our Alluna RC20 telescope will illustrate the object. As all large lunar objects are named, the origin of the name will be given. This month we will describe the crater Petavius:


Petavius was photographed from Starfield Observatory, Nambour on July 9, 2016. East (where the Sun is rising) is to the top, north is to the left. As Petavius is near the south-east limb of the Moon, we see the crater at an angle, which foreshortens its circular shape into an ellipse. On the southern wall of Petavius (on the right in the picture above, is an 11 kilometre wide crater, Petavius C. A peculiar double ridge 150 kilometres long passes through Petavius C and ends at the end of the Great Cleft.

This is the same image of Petavius, but it has been corrected for perspective. It shows Petavius as it would appear to someone positioned directly over it and looking vertically down, as with the crater Alphonsus described last month. It has also been rotated so that north is at the top, and the rising Sun to the right. To the west of Petavius is the 60 kilometre wide crater Wrottesley which, like most large impact craters, also has a central mountain group.


Petavius is a large circular formation, but as it is near the Moon's limb (edge), it appears to us greatly foreshortened. It is one of the finest crater plains on the entire lunar surface and a grand object under low and medium illumination, but difficult to see approaching Full Moon. It is 182 kilometres in diameter measured from crest to crest, with massive, broad and very complex walls rising to peaks of 3300metres on the west where the wall is double, and 2100 metres on the east. There are traces of a once-complete double rampart, the inner one being lower and less regular than the outer and main wall. The interior is decidedly convex, the central portion being 240 metres higher than that adjoining the walls. In the centre of the floor is a grand, complex mountain group, the principal peak rising 1700 metres and casting a long shadow under a low sun. This, and the details of the group, are best seen when the Moon is two or three days after Full.

From this mountain group one of the finest clefts on the entire Moon runs towards the south-west wall, cutting through the inner wall into a valley between the walls. In places this great almost-straight cleft, which can be seen with a very small telescope, has raised banks, like a canal. The inner third of its length is about 4 kilometres wide, but then it narrows to about 2 kilometres and becomes deeper as it approaches the outer wall. There are a number of small dome-like hills on either side of this cleft.

The southern half of the floor of Petavius is quite smooth in comparison with the northern half, which is much more rugged and crossed by two winding clefts. One of these connects with the central end of the Great Cleft, and heads roughly north from a valley between the central peaks, before turning to the north-west and petering out. The other is finer, and crosses the crater floor midway between the peaks and the north-east rim. Whereas the Great Cleft and the north-heading one are radial to the crater's centre, this third, delicate cleft runs nearly parallel to the crater rim.

Three parallel clefts run from the central mountains in a south-east direction towards a small 5 kilometre crater, Petavius A, which is halfway from the centre to the main wall. These are quite delicate, as are the numerous craterlets which dot the floor of Petavius. South-west of Petavius A is a cluster of low domes, visible in the image above.

The surrounding region is very complex, consisting of ridges gradually radiating away from the rim of Petavius with shallow valleys between. The whole area around the crater has been swamped with superheated liquified rock, melted from the heat caused by the impact which created Petavius.

Petavius was created in the Lower Imbrian period (3.8 to 3.85 billion years ago), while the later crater Wrottesley, adjoining its western ramparts, dates from the Upper Imbrium period (3.2 to 3.8 billion years ago). 



The crater's name is the Latinised version of the name of a French chronologist, Denis Pétau (1583-1652). He was also a historian and theologian, but his connection with astronomy is quite obscure. The crater was named by Riccioli in 1651.



This crater is named after John Wrottesley (1798-1867), a 19th century English astronomer who did valuable work in cataloguing double stars and measuring star positions. The crater was named by Birt and Lee in 1865.



Geocentric Events:

It should be remembered that close approaches of Moon, planets and stars are perspective effects as seen from the Earth - that is why they are called 'geocentric or Earth-centred phenomena'. The Moon, planets and stars do not really approach and dance around each other as it appears to us from our speeding planet.

March 2:        Moon 4º south of Uranus at 03:47 hrs
March 2:        Moon 4.6º south of Mars at 06:16 hrs
March 2:        Neptune in conjunction with the Sun at 12:52 hrs  (diameter = 2.2")
March 4:        Venus at eastern stationary point at 18:46 hrs  (diameter = 49.3")
March 4:        Mercury 1.1º south of Neptune at 21:09 hrs
March 5:        Neptune 28 arcminutes south of the star Lambda Aquarii (mv=3.73) at 07:39 hrs
March 5:        Limb of Moon 14 arcminutes north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 11:25 hrs
March 7:        Mercury in superior conjunction at 10:10 hrs  (diameter = 4.9")
March 11:      Limb of Moon 21 arcminutes south of the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv=1.36) at 09:12 hrs
March 15:      Moon 2.5º north of Jupiter at 09:37 hrs
March 18:      Saturn at western quadrature at 07:38 hrs  (diameter = 16.5")
March 20:      Moon 4.1º north of Saturn at 19:40 hrs
March 22:      Moon 3.3º north of Pluto at 16:37 hrs
March 23:      Mercury at perihelion at 23:52 hrs  (diameter = 6.0")
March 25:      Venus at inferior conjunction with the Sun at 20:28 hrs  (diameter = 59.4")
March 26:      Uranus 2.5º north of the star Mu Piscium (mv=4.84) at 02:25 hrs
March 26:      Limb of Moon 25 arcminutes north of Neptune at 19:08 hrs
March 26:      Mercury 2.1º north of Uranus at 23:44 hrs
March 29:      Moon 2.7º south of Uranus at 3:53 hrs
March 29:      Moon 5.6º south of Mercury at 22:32 hrs
March 31:      Moon 5º south of Mars at 01:56 hrs

April 1:           Mercury at greatest elongation east (18º 50') at 15:50 hrs  (diameter = 7.5")
April 1:           Limb of Moon 44 arcseconds north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 20:21 hrs
April 6:           Jupiter 9.6 arcminutes south of the star Theta Virginis (
mv= 4.38) at 13:08 hrs
April 6:           Saturn at western stationary point at 14:44 hrs  (diameter = 17.1")
April 7:           Moon occults the star
Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv=1.36) between 13:04 and 13:45 hrs
April 8:           Jupiter at opposition at 07:20 hrs  (diameter = 44.2")
April 9:           Pluto at western quadrature at 10:35 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
April 10:         Mercury at eastern stationary point at 09:12 hrs  (diameter = 9.7")
April 11:         Moon 
2.3º north of Jupiter at 09:58 hrs
April 14:         Uranus in conjunction with the Sun at 15:25 hrs  (diameter = 3.3")
April 15:         Venus at western stationary point at 20:19 hrs  (diameter = 48.7")
April 17:         Moon 
3.3º north of Saturn at 04:53 hrs
April 18:         Moon 
2.9º north of Pluto at 22:10 hrs
April 20:         Mercury at inferior conjunction at 15:50 hrs  (diameter = 11.7")
April 20:         Pluto at western stationary point at 17:53 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
April 23:         Moon occults Neptune between 03:53 and 04:59 hrs
April 24:         Moon 
4.7º south of Venus at 06:19 hrs
April 26:         Moon 
3.4º south of Uranus at 02:50 hrs
April 26:         Moon 
4.1º south of Mercury at 04:59 hrs
April 28:         Moon 
5.1º south of Mars at 19:19 hrs
April 28:         Mercury 
5.5 arcminutes south of Uranus at 22:17 hrs
April 29:        
Limb of Moon 22 arcseconds north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 03:06 hrs

The Planets for this month:


Mercury:    At the beginning of March, Mercury will be in the eastern pre-dawn sky, rising just before the Sun. It will be too close to the solar glare to be observed. On March 7 it will pass on the far side of the Sun (superior conjunction) and will move to the western twilight sky, where it will remain until April 20.  This is not a favourable appearance, as it will not venture far from the solar glare. Mercury will reach its greatest angular distance from the Sun (18º 50') on April 1, when its angular size will be 7.5 arcseconds. The best time to look for it will be in the last week of March and the first week of April. The narrow crescent Moon will be to the left of Mercury on March 29.


Venus:  This, the brightest planet, is the famous 'evening star', and has been dominating the western twilight sky for the last six months, but as March begins it is rapidly approaching the Earth as it prepares to pass between us and the Sun (inferior conjunction), which will occur on March 25. On March 1 the crescent shape of Venus will be visible even in the smallest telescope, as its angular diameter will be 47 arcseconds and its phase will be 16.5%, very similar to its appearance when the third photograph below was taken. At the beginning of March, Venus will be low to the western horizon soon after sunset. As the days progress, each night at a given time (say 6:40 pm) Venus will be lower to the horizon. By the middle of March it will  become harder to find in the solar glare. After inferior conjunction, Venus will move to the pre-dawn sky to be a 'morning star' once again.

(The coloured fringes to the first and third images below are due to refractive effects in our own atmosphere, and are not intrinsic to Venus. The planet was closer to the horizon when these images were taken than it was for the second photograph, which was taken when Venus was at its greatest elongation from the Sun).

                      August 2016                           January 2017                         March 2017                      

Click here for a photographic animation showing the Venusian phases. Venus is always far brighter than anything else in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. For the first half of 2015, Venus appeared as an 'Evening Star', but from August 2015 it moved to the pre-dawn sky and became a 'Morning Star'. Each of these appearances lasts about eight to nine months. Venus passed on the far side of the Sun (superior conjunction) on June 7, 2016, and has now returned to the evening sky and become an 'Evening Star' once again. It will leave the evening sky and become a 'Morning Star' again on March 25.

Because Venus was visible as the 'Evening Star' and as the 'Morning Star', astronomers of ancient times believed that it was two different objects. They called it Hesperus when it appeared in the evening sky and Phosphorus when it was seen before dawn. They also realised that these objects moved with respect to the so-called 'fixed stars' and so were not really stars themselves, but planets (from the Greek word for 'wanderers'). When it was finally realised that the two objects were one and the same, the two names were dropped and the Greeks applied a new name Aphrodite (Goddess of Love)  to the planet, to counter Ares (God of War). We use the Roman versions of these names, Venus and Mars, for these two planets.


Mars:   Having passed through opposition on May 22 last year, the red planet continues to shrink and fade as the speeding Earth leaves it behind. At opposition it reached magnitude -2, rivalling Jupiter in brightness, but by March 1 it has faded to 1.3 (one twentieth as bright). In the same period, its apparent size has shrunk from 18.4 arcseconds to 5 arcseconds. It is a faint orange object low in the west as soon as twilight fades, as it is passing through an area of sky lacking in bright stars. It may be found on March 1 to the right of the crescent Moon with Venus below, about a handspan above the western horizon at 7 pm, and again (without Venus) on March 30.   

Mars is now passing rapidly through the constellation of Pisces, but crosses into Aries on March 9. On April 12 it will move into Taurus, and by April 21 will be three degrees to the left of the Pleiades star cluster. By the first of May, Mars will be alongside the Hyades star cluster, with its bright orange giant star, Aldebaran. By then it will be very low in the west as twilight ends. Mars reaches conjunction with the Sun on July 27.

In this image, the south polar cap of Mars is easily seen. Above it is a dark triangular area known as Syrtis Major. Dark Sinus Sabaeus runs off to the left, just south of the equator. Between the south polar cap and the equator is a large desert called Hellas. The desert to upper left is known as Aeria, and that to the north-east of Syrtis Major is called Isidis Regio.  Photograph taken in 1971.

Mars photographed from Starfield Observatory, Nambour on June 29 and July 9, 2016, showing two different sides of the planet.  The north polar cap is prominent.


Brilliant Mars at left, shining at magnitude 0.9, passes in front of the dark molecular clouds in Sagittarius on October 15, 2014. At the top margin is the white fourth magnitude star 44 Ophiuchi. Its type is A3 IV:m. Below it and to the left is another star, less bright and orange in colour. This is the sixth magnitude star SAO 185374, and its type is K0 III. To the right (north) of this star is a dark molecular cloud named B74. A line of more dark clouds wends its way down through the image to a small, extremely dense cloud, B68, just right of centre at the bottom margin. In the lower right-hand corner is a long dark cloud shaped like a figure 5. This is the Snake Nebula, B72. Above the Snake is a larger cloud, B77. These dark clouds were discovered by Edward Emerson Barnard at Mount Wilson in 1905. He catalogued 370 of them, hence the initial 'B'. The bright centre of our Galaxy is behind these dark clouds, and is hidden from view. If the clouds were not there, the galactic centre would be so bright that it would turn night into day.


Jupiter:   This gas giant planet passed through western quadrature (rising at midnight) on January 12. This month it may be easily seen in the eastern sky, rising soon after 8 pm. It is in the constellation Virgo, north of the first magnitude star Spica. Jupiter will reach opposition (rising in the east at sunset) on April 8.


Saturn:   The ringed planet is an after-midnight object this month, as it was in conjunction with the Sun on December 10. It will pass through western quadrature on March 18, when it rises at midnight. By April it will be visible low in the east just before midnight. The Last Quarter Moon will be just below Saturn in the early hours of March 21.

Left: Saturn showing the Rings when edge-on.    Right: Over-exposed Saturn surrounded by its satellites Rhea, Enceladus, Dione, Tethys and Titan - February 23/24, 2009.

Saturn with its Rings wide open on June 29, 2016. The shadow of its globe can be seen on the far side of the Ring system. There are three main concentric rings: Ring A is the outermost, and is separated from the brighter Ring B by a dark gap known as the Cassini Division, which is 4800 kilometres wide, enough to drop Australia through. The innermost parts of Ring B are not as bright as its outermost parts. Inside Ring B is the faint Ring C, almost invisible but noticeable where it passes in front of the bright planet as a dusky band. Spacecraft visiting Saturn have shown that there are at least four more Rings, too faint and tenuous to be observable from Earth, and some Ringlets. Some of these extend from the inner edge of Ring C to Saturn's cloudtops. The Rings are not solid, but are made up of countless small particles, mainly water ice with some rocky material, all orbiting Saturn at different distances and speeds. The bulk of the particles range in size from dust grains to car-sized chunks.


Uranus:  This ice giant planet is not in a good position for viewing in March. At 7:15 pm on March 1, it is about two-thirds of a handspan above the west-north-western horizon, in the constellation of Pisces. Uranus will reach conjunction with the Sun on April 14. As it shines at about magnitude 5.8, a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required to observe Uranus.


Neptune:   The icy blue planet is in conjunction with the Sun on March 2, so will be a very difficult object to observe for most of March. Neptune is located in the constellation of Aquarius, between the magnitude 3 star Skat (Delta Aquarii) and the four-star asterism known as the Water-Jar. As it shines at about magnitude 8, a small telescope is required to observe Neptune.

Neptune, photographed from Nambour on October 31, 2008


Pluto:   The erstwhile ninth and most distant planet is a pre-dawn object this month, as it reached conjunction with the Sun on January 7. Located inside the 'Teaspoon' which is above the Sagittarius 'Teapot', it is a faint 14.1 magnitude object near the centre of Sagittarius. It rises at about 1 am at mid-month. Pluto's angular diameter is 0.13 arcseconds, less than one twentieth that of Neptune.



The movement of the dwarf planet Pluto in two days, between 13 and 15 September, 2008. Pluto is the one object that has moved.
Width of field:   200 arcseconds

This is a stack of four images, showing the movement of Pluto over the period October 22 to 25, 2014. Pluto's image for each date appears as a star-like point at the upper right corner of the numerals. The four are equidistant points on an almost-straight line. Four eleventh magnitude field stars are identified.  A is GSC 6292:20, mv = 11.6.  B is GSC 6288:1587, mv = 11.9.  C is GSC 6292:171, mv = 11.2 D is GSC 6292:36, mv = 11.5.  (GSC = Guide Star Catalogue).   The position of Pluto on October 24 (centre of image) was at Right Ascension = 18 hours 48 minutes 13 seconds,  Declination =  -20º 39' 11".  The planet moved 2' 51" with respect to the stellar background during the three days between the first and last images, or 57 arcseconds per day, or 1 arcsecond every 25¼ minutes.



Planetary Alignments for March:


Venus chases Mars in the western evening sky

For the last few months, Venus has been chasing Mars in the western twilight sky. On February 1, Venus and Mars were only 5.4 degrees apart, with the crescent Moon just above them both. In fact, they made a novel alignment, an almost straight line in the sky, with Mars in the middle. On February 3, Venus and Mars were at their closest, but two days later Venus gave up the chase and curved away from Mars. Venus will perform a U-turn in the first two weeks of March, and head back towards the Sun.

On February 27, Mars was only 35 arcminutes north of Uranus. If you have not yet discovered Uranus with your telescope, then that day gave you a good chance to find it. On March 1 Mars and Uranus were still less than two degrees apart. Venus will resume the Mars chase next April 15, and will finally catch up to Mars on October 6, 2017, when they will both be in the early morning eastern sky. 

On March 26, Mercury and Uranus will be only 2.1 degrees apart, but by April 28 they will be extremely close, only 5.5 arcminutes apart. Unfortunately for us, this will occur at 10:17 pm, when neither will be above our horizon. By the time they rise the next morning (5:16 am), they will be 22.5 arcminutes apart, and only 12.5 degrees from the Sun, which will rise at  6:10 am. 




Meteor Showers:

No meteor showers in March.

Lyrids                              April 23                      Full Moon, 100% sunlit                         ZHR = 15
                                        Radiant:  Near the star Vega. 
      Associated with Comet Thatcher.

Pi Puppids                     April 24                    Almost Full Moon, 99% sunlit            ZHR = 10
                                        Radiant:  Between the False Cross and the tail of Canis Major

Use this  Fluxtimator  to calculate the number of meteors predicted per hour for any meteor swarm on any date, for any place in the world.

ZHR = zenithal hourly rate (number of meteors expected to be observed at the zenith in one hour). The maximum phase of meteor showers usually occurs between 3 am and sunrise. The reason most meteors are observed in the pre-dawn hours is because at that time we are on the front of the Earth as it rushes through space at 107 000 km per hour (30 km per second). We are meeting the meteors head-on, and the speed at which they enter our atmosphere is the sum of their own speed plus ours. In the evenings, we are on the rear side of the Earth, and many meteors we see at that time are actually having to catch us up. This means that the speed at which they enter our atmosphere is less than in the morning hours, and they burn up less brilliantly.

Although most meteors are found in swarms associated with debris from comets, there are numerous 'loners', meteors travelling on solitary paths through space. When these enter our atmosphere, unannounced and at any time, they are known as 'sporadics'. Oan average clear and dark evening, an observer can expect to see about ten meteors per hour. They burn up to ash in their passage through our atmosphere. The ash slowly settles to the ground as meteoric dust. The Earth gains about 80 tonnes of such dust every day, so a percentage of the soil we walk on is actually interplanetary in origin. If a meteor survives its passage through the air and reaches the ground, it is called a 'meteorite'.  In the past, large meteorites (possibly comet nuclei or small asteroids) collided with the Earth and produced huge craters which still exist today. These craters are called 'astroblemes'. Two famous ones in Australia are Wolfe Creek Crater and Gosse's Bluff. The Moon and Mercury are covered with such astroblemes, and craters are also found on Venus, Mars, planetary satellites, minor planets, asteroids and even comets.




This comet, (C/2007 N3), discovered in 2007 at Lulin Observatory by a collaborative team of Taiwanese and Chinese astronomers, is now in the outer Solar System, and has faded below magnitude 15.

Comet Lulin at 11:25 pm on February 28, 2009, in Leo. The brightest star is Nu Leonis, magnitude 5.26.


The LINEARrobotic telescope operated by Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research is used to photograph the night skies, searching for asteroids which may be on a collision course with Earth. It has also proved very successful in discovering comets, all of which are named ‘Comet LINEAR’ after the centre's initials. This name is followed by further identifying letters and numbers. Generally though, comets are named after their discoverer, or joint discoverers. There are a number of other comet and near-Earth asteroid search programs using robotic telescopes and observatory telescopes, such as:
Catalina Sky Survey, a consortium of three co-operating surveys, one of which is the Australian Siding Springs Survey (below),
Siding Spring Survey, using the 0.5 metre Uppsala Schmidt telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, N.S.W., to search the southern skies,
LONEOS, (Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search), concentrating on finding near-Earth objects which could collide with our planet,
Spacewatch, run by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona,
Ondrejov, run by Ondrejov Observatory of the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic, 
Xinglong, run by Beijing Astronomical Observatory 

Nearly all of these programs are based in the northern hemisphere, leaving gaps in the coverage of the southern sky. These gaps are the areas of sky where amateur astronomers look for comets from their backyard observatories.

To find out more about current comets, including finder charts showing exact positions and magnitudes, click here. To see pictures of these comets, click here.

The 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at the Australian Astronomical Observatory near Coonabarabran, NSW.




Deep Space



Sky Charts and Maps available on-line:

There are some useful representations of the sky available here. The sky charts linked below show the sky as it appears to the unaided eye. Stars rise four minutes earlier each night, so at the end of a week the stars have gained about half an hour. After a month they have gained two hours. In other words, the stars that were positioned in the sky at 8 pm at the beginning of a month will have the same positions at 6 pm by the end of that month. After 12 months the stars have gained 12 x 2 hours = 24 hours = 1 day, so after a year the stars have returned to their original positions for the chosen time. This accounts for the slow changing of the starry sky as the seasons progress.

The following interactive sky charts are courtesy of Sky and Telescope magazine. They can simulate a view of the sky from any location on Earth at any time of day or night between the years 1600 and 2400. You can also print an all-sky map. A Java-enabled web browser is required. You will need to specify the location, date and time before the charts are generated. The accuracy of the charts will depend on your computer’s clock being set to the correct time and date.

To produce a real-time sky chart (i.e. a chart showing the sky at the instant the chart is generated), enter the name of your nearest city and the country. You will also need to enter the approximate latitude and longitude of your observing site. For the Sunshine Coast, these are:

latitude:   26.6o South                      longitude:   153o East

Then enter your time, by scrolling down through the list of cities to "Brisbane: UT + 10 hours". Enter this one if you are located near this city, as Nambour is. The code means that Brisbane is ten hours ahead of Universal Time (UT), which is related to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the time observed at longitude 0o, which passes through London, England. Click here to generate these charts.


Similar real-time charts can also be generated from another source, by following this second link:

Click here for a different real-time sky chart.

The first, circular chart will show the full hemisphere of sky overhead. The zenith is at the centre of the circle, and the cardinal points are shown around the circumference, which marks the horizon. The chart also shows the positions of the Moon and planets at that time. As the chart is rather cluttered, click on a part of it to show that section of the sky in greater detail. Also, click on Update to make the screen concurrent with the ever-moving sky.

The stars and constellations around the horizon to an elevation of about 40o can be examined by clicking on

View horizon at this observing site

The view can be panned around the horizon, 45 degrees at a time. Scrolling down the screen will reveal tables showing setup and customising options, and an Ephemeris showing the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets, and whether they are visible at the time or not. These charts and data are from YourSky, produced by John Walker.

The charts above and the descriptions below assume that the observer has a good observing site with a low, flat horizon that is not too much obscured by buildings or trees. Detection of fainter sky objects is greatly assisted if the observer can avoid bright lights, or, ideally, travel to a dark sky site. On the Sunshine Coast, one merely has to travel a few kilometres west of the coastal strip to enjoy magnificent sky views. On the Blackall Range, simply avoid streetlights. Allow your eyes about 15 minutes to become dark-adapted, a little longer if you have been watching television. Small binoculars can provide some amazing views, and with a small telescope, the sky’s the limit.

The Eta Carinae Nebula, directly above the Southern Cross at 7:30 pm in mid-March.


The Stars and Constellations for this


This description of the night sky is for 9 pm on March 1 and 7 pm on March 31. They start at Orion, which is very high in the north-west.


This month, Orion (see below) is high in the north-west. By mid-month, Orion will have set by midnight. Canis Major (the Large Dog) is just west of the zenith at this time, with the brilliant white star Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) showing the Dog's heart. Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky and is about a handspan from the zenith. The brilliant white star Rigel (Beta Orionis) is about two handspans west of the zenith. Nearly overhead are the constellations Puppis, the Stern (of the ship, Argo) and Columba, the Dove. Columba culminates at 8 pm on March 1.

Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is the brightest star in the night sky. It has been known for centuries as the Dog Star. It is a very hot A0 type star, larger than our Sun. It is bright because it is one of our nearest neighbours, being only 8.6 light years away. The four spikes are caused by the secondary mirror supports in the telescope's top end. The faintest stars on this image are of magnitude 15. To reveal the companion Sirius B, which is currently 10.4 arcseconds from its brilliant primary, the photograph below was taken with a magnification of 375x, although the atmospheric seeing conditions in the current heatwave were more turbulent. The exposure was much shorter to reduce the overpowering glare from the primary star.

Sirius is a binary, or double star. Whereas Sirius A is a main sequence star like our Sun, only larger, hotter and brighter, its companion Sirius B is very tiny, a white dwarf star nearing the end of its life. Although small, Sirius B is very dense, having a mass about equal to the Sun's packed into a volume about the size of the Earth. In other words, a cubic centimetre of Sirius B would weigh over a tonne. Sirius B was once as bright as Sirius A, but reached the end of its lifespan on the main sequence much earlier, whereupon it swelled into a red giant. Its outer layers were blown away, revealing the incandescent core as a white dwarf. All thermonuclear reactions ended, and no fusion reactions have been taking place on Sirius B for many millions of years. Over time it will radiate its heat away into space, becoming a black dwarf, dead and cold. Sirius B is 63000 times fainter than Sirius A. Sirius B is seen at position angle 62º from Sirius A (roughly east-north-east, north is at the top), in the photograph above which was taken at Nambour on January 31, 2017.  That date is exactly 155 years after Alvan Graham Clark discovered Sirius B in 1862 with a brand new 18.5 inch (47 cm) telescope made by his father, which was the largest refractor existing at the time.

The constellation Taurus with the clusters Pleiades and Hyades is between Orion and the north-western horizon. The brightest star in Taurus is a star dominating (but not actually a member of) the Hyades cluster. This is Aldebaran, a K5 orange star with a visual magnitude of 0.87. It is only half as far away as the Hyades. The Pleiades is a small group like a question mark, and is often called the Seven Sisters, although excellent eyes are needed to detect the seventh star without optical aid. All the stars in this cluster are hot and blue. They are also the same age, as they formed as a group out of a gas cloud or nebula. There are actually more than 250 stars in the Pleiades.  The Pleiades will have disappeared by 10 pm early in the month, and the rest of Taurus follows them below the horizon soon after.

The Pleiades is the small cluster at centre left, while the Hyades is the much larger grouping at centre right.

Wisps of a nebula through which the Pleiades are passing can be seen around the brighter stars in the cluster.

Between Orion’s head and the north-western horizon is a large constellation shaped roughly like a pentagon. It is north of Taurus. This is Auriga the Charioteer, its brightest star being Capella, at the bottom of the tilted pentagon. Capella is the sixth brightest star in the sky, after Sirius, Canopus, Alpha Centauri, Beta Centauri and Vega. To the left of Capella is a small triangle of stars known as 'The Kids’. The lowest star in this triangle is Epsilon Aurigae, one of the largest stars known. It is also very distant.

To the east of Auriga, Gemini is quite high, the two twin stars at its eastern end, Pollux and Castor being due north. At 9 pm at the beginning of the month they are straddling the meridian (the line that runs from due south to due north and passing through the zenith - directly overhead). When a sky object crosses the meridian, it is said to be at culmination. At that point, it ceases rising and begins setting. The Twins will have set by 1.30 am.

Tonight, at a little over two handspans above the northern horizon, and directly above Pollux and Castor, is the first magnitude star Procyon, which is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor (the Small Dog).

High in the north-east is another zodiacal constellation, Leo, the Lion. The bright star Regulus (Alpha Leonis) marks the Lion’s heart, and Denebola, the star marking the tip of the lion's tail, is low in the east-north-east. From the southern hemisphere, we always see the Lion upside-down. His head and mane are marked by a curved line of stars shaped like an upside-down question mark. This line is also known as the 'Reaping Hook' or 'Sickle', the star Regulus marking the end of the Sickle's handle.

Between Gemini and Leo is the faint constellation of Cancer the Crab. Though a fairly unremarkable constellation in other ways, Cancer does contain a large star cluster called Praesepe or the Beehive, which presents well in binoculars. Also known as M44* , Praesepe is a little more than halfway along a line between Pollux and Regulus. This month, Cancer is dominated by the presence of the brilliant planet Jupiter, three times brighter than even Sirius and brighter than anything in the evening sky except for the Moon.

Rising above the eastern horizon is the next zodiacal constellation after Leo, Virgo, the Virgin. The brightest star in Virgo is Spica, an ellipsoidal variable star whose brightness averages magnitude 1. This makes it the sixteenth brightest star, and its colour is blue-white. Spica is about 10 degrees above the theoretical eastern horizon at this time. Between Denebola and Spica is a fainter star, Porrima, which has a magnitude of 2.74.  Virgo is presently dominated by the brilliant planet Jupiter, three times brighter than even Sirius. Jupiter is this month located close to Spica.

High in the east above Spica is the constellation Corvus the Crow, shaped like a quadrilateral of magnitude 3 stars. A large but faint constellation, Hydra, the Water Snake, winds its way from near Procyon around the north-eastern part of the sky at an altitude of about 60 degrees above the horizon. It passes over the top of Corvus and Virgo to end near Libra, which will not rise until 10 pm (at the beginning of the month).

Hydra has one bright star, Alphard, mv=2.2, an orange star that was known by Arabs in ancient times as ‘The Solitary One’, as it lies in an area of sky with no bright stars nearby.

Well up in the south-south-east, Crux (Southern Cross) is almost horizontal. The two Pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri lie below Crux. Crux will have rotated clockwise to a vertical position by 1 am at mid-month. Surrounding Crux on three sides is the large constellation Centaurus, and between Crux and the southern horizon are two brilliant stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. Beta is the one nearer to Crux. These two stars are also known as the Guardians of the Cross.

Crux is at centre, lying horizontally. Beneath Crux lies the Coalsack. Towards the bottom are the two Pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri. At top centre, the Eta Carinae nebula, also shown below.

To the right of Crux is a small, fainter quadrilateral of stars, Musca, the Fly. Out of all the 88 constellations, it is the only insect. Below and to the right of Alpha Centauri and underneath Musca is a (roughly) equilateral triangle of 4th magnitude stars. This is the constellation Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle. It is about half a handspan above the south-south-eastern horizon.

Between Crux and Sirius is a very large area of sky filled with interesting objects. This was once the constellation Argo Navis, named for Jason’s famous ship used by the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. The constellation Argo was found to be too large, so modern star atlases divide it into three sections - Carina (the Keel) , Vela (the Sails) and Puppis (the Stern).

The central part of the Eta Carinae nebula, showing dark lanes, molecular clouds, and glowing clouds of fluorescing hydrogen

The Keyhole, a dark cloud obscuring part of the Eta Carinae Nebula

The Homunculus, a tiny planetary nebula ejected by the eruptive variable star, Eta Carinae

One and a half handspans south of Sirius is the second brightest star in the night sky, Canopus (Alpha Carinae). On the border of Carina and Vela is the False Cross, larger and more lopsided than the Southern Cross. The False Cross is a little more than a handspan above Crux and to the right, and is also lying on its side at this time of year. It is high in the south, and will soon culminate. Both of these Crosses are actually more like kites in shape, for, unlike Cygnus (the Northern Cross) they have no star at the intersection of the two cross arms.

A handspan above the south-south-western horizon is Achernar, Alpha Eridani. It is the brightest star in Eridanus the River, which winds its way with faint stars from Achernar in a northerly direction to Cursa, a mv= 2.9 star close to brilliant Rigel in Orion. At magnitude 0.49, Achernar is the ninth brightest star. It swings down towards the south-south-westerly horizon during the evening, and sets soon after midnight.

High in the south, about 43 degrees above the horizon, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is faintly visible as a diffuse glowing patch. It is a little less than a handspan below (south of) Canopus. About a handspan below the LMC is the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a smaller glowing patch. The LMC and SMC are described below.

The zodiacal constellations visible tonight, starting at the western horizon and heading east (passing about two handspans north of the zenith, are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo and Virgo.



The season of the Hunter and his Dogs


Two of the most spectacular constellations in the sky may be seen near the zenith as soon as darkness falls. These are Orion the Hunter, and his large dog, Canis Major. Orion straddles the celestial equator, midway between the south celestial pole and its northern equivalent. This means that the centre of the constellation, the three stars known as Orion's Belt, rise due east and set due west. 


This is one of the most easily recognised constellations, as it really does give a very good impression of a human figure. From the northern hemisphere he appears to stand upright when he is high in the sky, but from our location ‘down under’ he appears lying down when rising and setting, and upside down when high in the sky. You can, though, make him appear upright when high in the sky (near the meridian), by observing him from a reclining chair, with your feet pointing to the south and your head tilted back

Orion has two bright stars marking his shoulders, the red supergiant Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. A little north of a line joining these stars is a tiny triangle of stars marking Orion’s head. The three stars forming his Belt are, from west to east, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. These three stars are related, and all lie at a distance of 1300 light years. They are members of a group of hot blue-white stars called the Orion Association.

The red supergiant star, Betelgeuse

To the south of the Belt, at a distance of about one Belt-length, we see another faint group of stars in a line, fainter and closer together than those in the Belt. This is Orion’s Sword. Orion’s two feet are marked by brilliant Rigel and fainter Saiph. Both of these stars are also members of the Orion Association.

The Saucepan, with Belt at right, M42 at upper left.

Orion is quite a symmetrical constellation, with the Belt at its centre and the two shoulder stars off to the north and the two knee stars to the south. It is quite a large star group, the Hunter being over twenty degrees (a little more than a handspan) tall. 

The stars forming the Belt and Sword are popularly known in Australia as ‘The Saucepan’, with the Sword forming the Saucepan’s handle. Tonight this asterism appears right-side up, as in the photographs above. The faint, fuzzy star in the centre of the Sword, or the Saucepan's handle, is a great gas cloud or nebula where stars are being created. It is called the ‘Great Nebula in Orion’ or ‘M42’ (number 42 in Messier’s list of nebulae). A photograph of it appears below:

The Sword of Orion, with the Great Nebula, M42, at centre

The central section of the Great Nebula in Orion. At the brightest spot is a famous multiple star system, the Trapezium, illustrated below.

New stars are forming in the nebula. At the brightest spot is a famous multiple star system, the Trapezium, illustrated below.

Canis Major

Above Orion as twilight ends (facing west), a brilliant white star will be seen about one handspan away. This is Sirius, or Alpha Canis Majoris, and it is the brightest star in the night sky with a visual magnitude of -1.43. It marks the heart of the hunter's dog, and has been known for centuries as the Dog Star. As we see him tonight, the dog is on his feet with his tail at upper left. A front leg stretches down from Sirius to Mirzam. It is also known as Beta Canis Majoris, which tells us that it is the second-brightest star in the constellation. Mirzam is about one-third of a handspan below Sirius.

The hindquarters of the Dog are indicated by a large right-angled triangle of stars located above and to the left of Sirius. The end of his tail is the top-left corner of the triangle, about one handspan south (above and to the left) of Sirius. It is marked by a blue-white star, Aludra.

Both Sirius and Rigel are bright white stars and each has a tiny, faint white dwarf companion. Whereas a small telescope can reveal the companion to Rigel quite easily, the companion to Sirius the Dog Star, (called ‘the Pup’), can only be observed by using a powerful telescope with excellent optics during rare periods of a completely still atmosphere, as it is very close to brilliant Sirius and is usually lost in the glare..

Canis Major as it appears almost overhead at 9 pm at mid-month (observer facing west).

Canis Minor    

By 8.00 pm at mid-month, this small constellation is about one and a half handspans due north of the zenith. It contains only two main stars, the brighter of which is Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris). This yellow-white star of mv= 0.5 forms one corner of a large equilateral triangle, the other two corners being the red Betelgeuse and white Sirius. Beta Canis Minoris is also known as Gomeisa, a blue-white star of mv= 3.1.



Some fainter constellations


Between the two Dogs is the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn, undistinguished except for the presence of the remarkable Rosette Nebula. South of Orion is a small constellation, Lepus the Hare. Between Lepus and the star Canopus is the star group Columba the Dove. Eridanus the River winds its way from near Orion west of the zenith to Achernar, high in the south-west. Between Achernar and the western horizon is the star Fomalhaut, a white star of first magnitude in the small constellation of Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish). To the left of Fomalhaut is the triangular constellation of Grus, the Crane. Between the zenith and the south-western horizon are a number of small, faint constellations, Horologium, Pictor, Caelum, Mensa, Tucana, Phoenix, Hydrus and Reticulum. The LMC lies in the constellation Dorado, and the South Celestial Pole is in the very faint constellation Octans.



Finding the South Celestial Pole


The South Celestial Pole is that point in the southern sky around which the stars rotate in a clockwise direction. The Earth's axis is aimed exactly at this point. For an equatorially-mounted telescope, the polar axis of the mounting also needs to be aligned exactly to this point in the sky for accurate tracking to take place.

Project a line from the top of the Cross (the star Gacrux) down through its base (the star Acrux) and continue straight on towards the south for another four Cross lengths. This will locate the approximate spot. There is no bright star to mark the Pole, whereas in the northern hemisphere they have Polaris (the Pole Star) to mark fairly closely the North Celestial Pole.

Another way to locate the South Celestial Pole is to draw an imaginary straight line joining Beta Centauri (a handspan above the south-south-eastern horizon) to Achernar (a handspan above the south-western horizon. At 8 pm at mid-month, both stars will be at similar altitudes and the line will be horizontal. Bisect this line to find the pole with an accuracy of two degrees.

Interesting photographs of this area can be taken by using a camera on time exposure. Set the camera on a tripod pointing due south, and open the shutter for thirty minutes or more. The stars will move during the exposure, being recorded on the film as short arcs of a circle. The arcs will be different colours, as the stars are. All the arcs will have a common centre of curvature, which is the south celestial pole.

A wide-angle view of trails around the South Celestial Pole, with Scorpius and Sagittarius at left, Crux and Centaurus at top, and Carina and False Cross at right.

Star trails between the South Celestial Pole and the southern horizon. All stars that do not pass below the horizon are circumpolar.



Double and multiple stars


Estimates vary that between 15% and 50% of stars are single bodies like our Sun, although the latest view is that less than 25% of stars are solitary. At least 30% of stars and possibly as much as 60% of stars are in double systems, where the two stars are gravitationally linked and orbit their mutual centre of gravity. Such double stars are called binaries. The remaining 20%+ of stars are in multiple systems of three stars or more. Binaries and multiple stars are formed when a condensing Bok globule or protostar splits into two or more parts.

Binary stars may have similar components (Alpha Centauri A and B are both stars like our Sun - B is even said to have an Earth-sized planet), or they may be completely dissimilar, as with Albireo (Beta Cygni, where a bright golden giant star is paired with a smaller bluish main sequence star).


 The binary stars Rigil Kentaurus (Alpha Centauri) at left, and Albireo (Beta Cygni) at right.


Rigel (Beta Orionis, left) is a binary star which is the seventh brightest star in the night sky.  Rigel A is a large white supergiant which is 500 times brighter than its small companion, Rigel B, Yet Rigel B is itself composed or a very close pair of Sun-type stars that orbit each other in less than 10 days. Each of the two stars comprising Rigel B is brighter in absolute terms than Sirius (see above). The Rigel B pair orbit Rigel A at the immense distance of 2200 Astronomical Units, equal to 12 light-days. (An Astronomical Unit or AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun.)  In the centre of the Great Nebula in Orion (M42) is a multiple star known as the Trapezium (right). This star system has four bright white stars, two of which are binary stars with fainter red companions, giving a total of six. The hazy background is caused by the cloud of fluorescing hydrogen comprising the nebula.

Acrux, the brightest star in the Southern Cross, is also known as Alpha Crucis.  It is a close binary, circled by a third dwarf companion.

Alpha Centauri (also known as Rigil Kentaurus, Rigil Kent or Toliman) is a binary easily seen with the smallest telescope. The components are both solar-type main sequence stars, one of type G and the other, slightly cooler and fainter, of type K. Through a small telescope this star system looks like a pair of distant but bright car headlights.

Alpha Centauri A and B take 80 years to complete an orbit, but a tiny third component, the 11th magnitude red dwarf Proxima Centauri, takes about 1 million years to orbit the other two. It is about one tenth of a light year from the bright pair and a little closer to us, hence its name. This makes it our nearest interstellar neighbour, with a distance of 4.3 light years. Red dwarfs are by far the most common type of star, but, being so small and faint, none is visible to the unaided eye. Because they use up so little of their energy, they are also the longest-lived of stars. The bigger a star is, the shorter its life.

Alpha Centauri, with Proxima

Knowing the orbital period of the two brightest stars A and B, we can apply Kepler’s Third Law to find the distance they are apart. This tells us that Alpha Centauri A and B are about 2700 million kilometres apart or about 2.5 light hours. This makes them a little less than the distance apart of the Sun and Uranus (the orbital period of Uranus is 84 years, that of Alpha Centauri A and B is 80 years.)

Albireo (Beta Cygni) is sometimes described poetically as a large topaz with a small blue sapphire. It is one of the sky’s most beautiful objects. The stars are of classes G and B, making a wonderful colour contrast. It lies at a distance of 410 light years, 95 times further away  than Alpha Centauri.

Binary stars may be widely spaced, as the two examples just mentioned, or so close that a telescope is struggling to separated them (Acrux, Castor, Antares, Sirius). Even closer double stars cannot be split by the telescope, but the spectroscope can disclose their true nature by revealing clues in the absorption lines in their spectra. These examples are called spectroscopic binaries. In a binary system, closer stars will have shorter periods for the stars to complete an orbit. Eta Cassiopeiae takes 480 years for the stars to circle each other. The binary with the shortest period is AM Canum Venaticorum, which takes only 17½ minutes.

Sometimes one star in a binary system will pass in front of the other one, partially blocking off its light. The total light output of the pair will be seen to vary, as regular as clockwork. These are called eclipsing binaries, and are a type of variable star, although the stars themselves usually do not vary.




Star Clusters


The two clusters in Taurus, the Pleiades and the Hyades, are known as Open Clusters or Galactic Clusters. The name 'open cluster' refers to the fact that the stars in the cluster are grouped together, but not as tightly as in globular clusters (see below). The stars appear to be loosely arranged, and this is partly due to the fact that the cluster is relatively close to us, i.e. within our galaxy, hence the alternate name, 'galactic cluster'. These clusters are generally formed from the condensation of gas in a nebula into stars, and some are relatively young.

The photograph below shows a typical open cluster, M7* . It is found in the constellation Scorpius, just below the scorpion's sting. It lies in the direction of our galaxy's centre. The cluster itself is the group of white stars in the centre of the field. Its distance is about 380 parsecs or 1240 light years.

Galactic Cluster M7 in Scorpius

Outside the plane of our galaxy, there is a halo of Globular Clusters. These are very old, dense clusters, containing perhaps several hundred thousand stars. These stars are closer to each other than is usual, and because of its great distance from us, a globular cluster gives the impression of a solid mass of faint stars. Many other galaxies also have a halo of globular clusters circling around them.

The largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky is NGC 5139**, also known as Omega Centauri. It has a slightly oval shape. It is an outstanding winter object, but is also observable in autumn. Shining at fourth magnitude, it is faintly visible to the unaided eye, but is easily seen with binoculars, like a light in a fog. A telescope of 20 cm aperture or better will reveal its true nature, with hundreds of faint stars giving the impression of diamond dust on a black satin background. It lies at a distance of 5 kiloparsecs, or 16 300 light years.

The globular cluster Omega Centauri

The central core of Omega Centauri

There is another remarkable globular, second only to Omega Centauri. About two degrees below the SMC (see below), binoculars can detect a fuzzy star. A telescope will reveal this faint glow as a magnificent globular cluster, lying at a distance of 5.8 kiloparsecs. Its light has taken almost 19 000 years to reach us. This is NGC 104, commonly known as 47 Tucanae. Some regard this cluster as being more spectacular than Omega Centauri, as it is more compact, and the faint stars twinkling in its core are very beautiful. This month, 47 Tucanae is low in the south-south-west, and not clearly visible. By 10 pm Omega Centauri is high enough for detailed viewing.

Observers aiming their telescopes towards the SMC generally also look at the nearby 47 Tucanae, but there is another globular cluster nearby which is also worth a visit. This is NGC 362, which appears to lie above 47 Tucanae as we see it in mid-evening this month. It is less than half as bright as the other globular, but this is because it is more than twice as far away. Its distance is 12.6 kiloparsecs or 41 000 light years, so it is about one-fifth of the way from our galaxy to the SMC. Both NGC 104 and NGC 362 are always above the horizon for all parts of Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn.


*     M42:This number means that the Great Nebula in Orion is No. 42 in a list of 103 astronomical objects compiled and published in 1784 by Charles Messier. Charles was interested in the discovery of new comets, and his aim was to provide a list for observers of fuzzy nebulae and clusters which could easily be reported as comets by mistake. Messier's search for comets is now just a footnote to history, but his list of 103 objects is well known to all astronomers today, and has even been extended to 110 objects.

**    NGC 5139: This number means that Omega Centauri is No. 5139 in the New General Catalogue of Non-stellar Astronomical Objects. This catalogue was first published in 1888 by J. L. E. Dreyer under the auspices of the Royal Astronomical Society, as his New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars. As larger telescopes built early in the 20th century discovered fainter objects in space, and also dark, obscuring nebulae and dust clouds, the NGC was supplemented with the addition of the Index Catalogue (IC). Many non-stellar objects in the sky have therefore NGC numbers or IC numbers. For example, the famous Horsehead Nebula in Orion is catalogued as IC 434. The NGC was revised in 1973, and lists 7840 objects. 

The recent explosion of discovery in astronomy has meant that more and more catalogues are being produced, but they tend to specialise in particular types of objects, rather than being all-encompassing, as the NGC / IC try to be. Some examples are the Planetary Nebulae Catalogue (PK) which lists 1455 nebulae, the Washington Catalogue of Double Stars (WDS) which lists 12 000 binaries, the General Catalogue of Variable Stars (GCVS) which lists 28 000 variables, and the Principal Galaxy Catalogue (PGC) which lists 73 000 galaxies. The largest modern catalogue is the Hubble Guide Star Catalogue (GSC) which was assembled to support the Hubble Space Telescope's need for guide stars when photographing sky objects. The GSC contains nearly 19 million stars brighter than magnitude 15.



Two close galaxies


High in the south, to the left of Achernar, two large smudges of light may be seen. These are the two Clouds of Magellan, known to astronomers as the LMC (Large Magellanic Cloud) and the SMC (Small Magellanic Cloud). The LMC is to the left and above the SMC, and is noticeably larger. They lie at a distance of 160 000 light years, and are about 60 000 light years apart. They are dwarf galaxies, and they circle our own much larger galaxy, the Milky Way. The LMC is slightly closer, but this does not account for its larger appearance. It really is larger than the SMC, and has developed as an under-sized barred spiral galaxy.

From our latitude both Magellanic Clouds are circumpolar. This means that they are closer to the South Celestial Pole than that Pole's altitude above the horizon, so they never dip below the horizon. They never rise nor set, but are always in our sky. Of course, they are not visible in daylight, but they are there, all the same.

The Large Magellanic Cloud - the bright knot of gas to left of centre is the famous Tarantula Nebula (below)

These two Clouds are the closest galaxies to our own, but lie too far south to be seen by the large telescopes in Hawaii, California and Arizona. They are 15 times closer than the famous Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies referred to above, and so can be observed in much clearer detail. Our great observatories in Australia, both radio and optical, have for many years been engaged in important research involving these, our nearest inter-galactic neighbours. 



Why are some constellations bright, while others are faint ?


The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy some 100000 – 120000 light-years in diameter which contains 100 – 400 billion stars. It may contain at least as many planets as well. Our galaxy is shaped like a flattened disc with a central bulge. The Solar System is located within the disc, about 27000 light-years from the Galactic Centre, on the inner edge of one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust called the Orion Arm. When we look along the plane of the galaxy, either in towards the centre or out towards the edge, we are looking along the disc through the teeming hordes of stars, clusters, dust clouds and nebulae. In the sky, the galactic plane gives the appearance which we call the Milky Way, a brighter band of light crossing the sky. This part of the sky is very interesting to observe with binoculars or telescope. The brightest and most spectacular constellations, such as Crux, Canis Major, Orion and Scorpius are located close to the Milky Way.

If we look at ninety degrees to the plane, either straight up and out of the galaxy or straight down, we are looking through comparatively few stars and gas clouds and so can see out into deep space. These are the directions of the north and south galactic poles, and because we have a clear view in these directions to distant galaxies, these parts of the sky are called the intergalactic windows. The southern window is in the constellation Sculptor, not far from the star Fomalhaut. This window is too low in the south-west in the early evenings this month for useful viewing. The northern window is between the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, roughly between the stars Denebola and Arcturus. It begins to rise in the east-north-east at 8 pm at mid-month, and is well placed for viewing at midnight.

Some of the fainter and apparently insignificant constellations are found around these windows, and their lack of bright stars, clusters and gas clouds presents us with the opportunity to look out across the millions of light years of space to thousands of distant galaxies.



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