May  2022

Updated:   1 May 2022

 

Welcome to the night skies of Autumn, featuring Canis Major, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Hydra, Virgo, Carina, Crux and Centaurus

 

Note:  To read this webpage with mobile phones or tablets, please use the landscape format, i.e. the long screen axis should be horizontal.

 

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

The 20-inch 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 created for our site with the telescope itself.

 

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.

The zenith is the point in the sky directly overhead from the observer.

Eclipses always occur in pairs, a lunar and a solar but not necessarily in that order, two weeks apart.

The meridian is a semicircle starting from a point on the horizon that is exactly due north from the observer, and arching up into the sky to the zenith and continuing down to a point on the horizon that is exactly due south. On the way down it passes through the South Celestial Pole which is 26.6 degrees above the horizon at Nambour. The elevation of the South Celestial Pole is exactly the same as the observer's latitude, e.g. from Cairns it is 16.9 degrees above the horizon, and from Melbourne it is 37.8 degrees. The Earth's axis points to this point in the sky in the southern hemisphere, and to an equivalent point in the northern hemisphere, near the star Polaris, which from Australia is always below the northern horizon.

All astronomical objects rise until they reach the meridian, then they begin to set. The act of crossing or 'transitting' the meridian is called 'culmination'. Objects closer to the South Celestial Pole than its altitude above the southern horizon do not rise or set, but are always above the horizon, constantly circling once each sidereal day. They are called 'circumpolar'. The brightest circumpolar star from Nambour is Miaplacidus (Beta Carinae, magnitude = 1.67).  

A handspan at arm's length with fingers spread covers an angle of approximately 18 - 20 degrees. Your closed fist at arm's length is 10 degrees across. The tip of your index finger at arm's length is 1 degree across. These figures are constant for most people, whatever their age. The Southern Cross is 6 degrees high and 4 degrees wide, and Orion's Belt is 2.7 degrees long. The Sun and Moon average half-a-degree (30 arcminutes) across.   

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  =  2.51=  99.625   ..... close enough to100).

 

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. 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.


 

A suggestion for successful sky-watching

Observing astronomical objects depends on whether the sky is free of clouds. Not only that, but there are other factors such as wind, presence of high-altitude jet streams, air temperature, humidity (affecting dew formation on equipment), transparency (clarity of the air), "seeing" (the amount of air turbulence present), and air pressure. Even the finest optical telescope has its performance constrained by these factors. Fortunately, there is an Australian website that predicts the presence and effects of these phenomena for a period up to five days ahead of the current date, which enables amateur and professional astronomers to plan their observing sessions for the week ahead. It is called "SkippySky". The writer has found its predictions to be quite reliable, and recommends the website as a practical resource. The website is at  http://skippysky.com.au  and the detailed Australian data are at  http://skippysky.com.au/Australia/ .

 

 

 

 Solar System

 

Sun:   The Sun begins the month in the constellation of Aries, the Ram. It leaves Aries and passes into Taurus, the Bull on May 14.    

 

 

Partial Solar Eclipse, Sunday, May 1, 2022:


This solar eclipse will be visible only in the south-east part of the Pacific Ocean, and in parts of South America south of Brazil. The best viewing sites will be at the southern extremities of Chile and Argentina, and parts of Antarctica near the Antarctic Peninsula.
Observers in Queensland will not see a partial eclipse of the Sun until the afternoon of Thursday, April 20, 2023. The next total solar eclipse visible from parts of Australia will occur at 13:56 pm on July 22, 2028, the eclipse track running from Wyndham through Alice Springs to Birdsville and then Sydney, before crossing the Tasman Sea to Dunedin in New Zealand's South Island.
 

 

Total Lunar Eclipse, Monday, May 16, 2022:

 

This lunar eclipse will be visible across the world's western hemisphere (North and South America, Europe, Africa and Saudi Arabia), but not from Asia or Australia. We will miss out as it will occur in our daylight hours - the eclipse will end before the Moon is in view. Our next chance to see a total lunar eclipse will be later this year, on November 8.
 

 

Moon: 
 

The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, i.e. it keeps its near hemisphere facing us at all times, while its far hemisphere is never seen from Earth. This tidal locking is caused by the Earth's gravity. The far side remained unknown until the Russian probe Luna 3 went around the Moon and photographed it on October 7, 1959. Now the whole Moon has been photographed in very fine detail by orbiting satellites. The Moon circles the Earth once in a month (originally 'moonth'), the exact period being 27 days 7 hours 43 minutes 11.5 seconds. Its speed is about 1 kilometre per second or 3679 kilometres per hour. The Moon's average distance from the Earth is 384 400 kilometres, but the orbit is not perfectly circular. It is slightly elliptical, with an eccentricity of 5.5%. This means that each month, the Moon's distance from Earth varies between an apogee (furthest distance) of 406 600 kilometres, and a perigee (closest distance) of 356 400 kilometres. These apogee and perigee distances vary slightly from month to month.  In the early 17th century, the first lunar observers to use telescopes found that the Moon had a monthly side-to-side 'wobble', which enabled us to observe features which were brought into view by the wobble and then taken out of sight again. The wobble, called 'libration', amounted to 7º 54' in longitude and 6º 50' in latitude.  The 'libration zone' on the Moon is the area around the edge of the Moon that comes into and out of view each month, due to libration. This effect means that, instead of only seeing 50% of the Moon from Earth, we can see up to 59%.

The animation loop below shows the appearance of the Moon over one month. The changing phases are obvious, as is the changing size as the Moon comes closer to Earth at perigee, and moves away from the Earth at apogee. The wobble due to libration is the other feature to note, making the Moon appear to sway from side to side and nod up and down.  (Credit: Wikipedia)
 

Lunar Phases: 


New Moon:             May 1           06:28 hrs            diameter = 30.1'     Lunation #1229 begins, Annular Solar Eclipse (not visible from Australia, New Zealand or Asia).
First Quarter:          May 9           10:21 hrs            diameter = 30.0'
Full Moon:           
   May 16         14:14 hrs            diameter = 33.0'    
Total Lunar Eclipse (not visible from Australia, New Zealand or Asia).
Last Quarter:          May 23         04:43 hrs            diameter = 31.7'
New Moon:             May 30         21:30 hrs            diameter = 29.6'     Lunation #1230 begins


First Quarter:          June 8           00:48 hrs           diameter = 30.5'
Full Moon:            
  June 14         21:51 hrs           diameter = 33.4'
Last Quarter:          June 21         13:11 hrs           diameter = 31.2'
New Moon:             June 29         12:52 hrs           diameter = 29.4'     Lunation #1231 begins



Lunar Orbital Elements:


May 2:                    Moon at ascending node at 05:54 hrs, diameter = 29.9'
May 5:                    Moon at apogee (405 302 km) at 22:54 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
May 16:                  Moon at descending node at 09:39 hrs, diameter = 33.0'
May 18:                  Moon at perigee (360 303 km) at 01:12 hrs, diameter = 33.2'
May 29:                  Moon at ascending node at 12:34 hrs, diameter = 29.8'

June 2:                   Moon at apogee (406 212 km) at 12:07 hrs, diameter = 29.4'
June 12:                 Moon at descending node at 19:59 hrs, diameter = 32.9'
June 15:                 Moon at perigee (357 453 km) at 09:32 hrs, diameter = 33.4'
June 25:                 Moon at ascending node at 17:11 hrs, diameter = 29.8'
June 29:                 Moon at apogee (406 559 km) at 15:57 hrs, diameter = 29.4'

 

Moon at 8 days after New, as on May 10.

The photograph above shows the Moon when approximately eight days after New, just after First Quarter. A rotatable view of the Moon, with ability to zoom in close to the surface (including the far side), and giving detailed information on each feature, may be downloaded  here.  A professional version of this freeware with excellent pictures from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Chang orbiter (giving a resolution of 50 metres on the Moon's surface) and many other useful features is available on a DVD from the same website for 20 Euros (about AU $ 33) plus postage.

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 !  All these downloads are freeware, although the authors do accept donations if the user feels inclined to support their work.

 


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 if it is important. This month we will discuss a feature that lies between Clavius and Tycho in the Moon's Southern Hemisphere. This ancient walled plain is named Maginus.

The battered walled-plain Maginus occupies most of this image, which was taken on 15 September 2021 at 6:29 pm. South is to the top.
 

Maginus is a walled-plain that is 164 kilometres in diameter. It lies in the heavily-cratered southern uplands of the Moon, between the well-known craters Tycho and Clavius, which are off this image. Circular in shape, it is greatly foreshortened in a north-south direction due to its position at latitude 50º South. Like most others in this area, it is a very ancient crater and in its first billion years of existence it suffered relentless bombardment by space rocks ranging in size from flying mountains to pebbles. On its floor can be seen the summits of small central mountains protruding through the extruded lava plain.
 

Maginus

Giovanni Antonio Magini (1555-1617) was an Italian astronomer who supported Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe, i.e. that the Earth was fixed at the centre, and the Sun, Moon, planets and stars all circled the Earth every 24 hours on transparent, crystalline spheres. He differed from his colleagues in claiming that there were eleven spheres. He rejected the heliocentric view of Copernicus that the Earth was just another planet orbiting the Sun every year. When the chair of mathematics at the University of Bologna became available in 1588, Magini was chosen over another applicant, Galileo Galilei. He stayed there until he died. (Galileo won the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa the following year, and then the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua in 1591.) Magini totally rejected the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler, but lived long enough to see that Galileo's first observations with a telescope in 1609 proved that Copernicus had been on the right track all the time, and that he, Magini, had been barking up the wrong tree, and teaching a fallacy for all of his life.



The area around Maginus is located inside the rectangle.
 

Click here for the  Lunar Features of the Month Archive


 

Geocentric Events:



It should be remembered that close approaches of Moon, planets and stars are only 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 the vantage point of our speeding planet.


May 1:             Venus 14.4 arcminutes south-east of Jupiter at 8:06 hrs
May 1:             Limb of Moon 8 arcminutes north of Uranus at 15:02 hrs
May 3:             Moon 1.7º south of Mercury at 1:08 hrs
May 5:             Uranus in conjunction with the Sun at 17:25 hrs
May 6:             Moon 1.9º north of the star star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum, mv= 3.06) at 5:18 hrs
May 9:             Jupiter 1.9º north of the star 29 Piscium (mv= 5.11) at 1:32 hrs
May 10:           Mercury at eastern stationary point at 21:45 hrs  (diameter = 10.5")
May 15:           Limb of Moon 21 arcminutes north of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha2 Librae, mv= 2.75) at 22:17 hrs
May 16:           Venus at aphelion at 00:38 hrs  (diameter = 15.1")
May 16:           Saturn at western quadrature at 4:44 hrs  (diameter = 16.8")
May 17:           Limb of Moon 32 arcminutes north of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 3:44 hrs
May 17:           Moon 3º south of the star Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.56) at 4:48 hrs
May 18:           Mars 32 arcminutes south of Neptune at 16:32 hrs
May 19:           Moon 1º south of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 9:58 hrs
May 19:           Moon occults the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv= 2.02) between 17:13 and 17:52 hrs
May 20:           Moon 2.2º south of Pluto at 19:01 hrs
May 22:           Mercury at inferior conjunction at 5:09 hrs  (diameter = 12.2")
May 22:           Moon 3.5º south of Saturn at 17:14 hrs
May 24:           Moon 3º south of Neptune at 21:41 hrs
May 25:           Moon 2.2º south of Mars at 7:02 hrs
May 25:           Moon 2.1º south of Jupiter at 13:44 hrs
May 27:           Limb of Moon 19 arcminutes north of Venus at 14:15 hrs
May 28:           Mercury at aphelion at 8:05 hrs  (diameter = 11.9")
May 28:           Moon occults Uranus between 23:05 and 23:37 hrs
May 29:           Moon 3.7º north of Mercury at 21:32 hrs
May 29:           Mars 35 arcminutes south of Jupiter at 19:32 hrs

June 2:            Moon 2.5º north of the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum, mv= 3.06) at 11:57 hrs
June 3:            Mercury at western stationary point at 17:52 hrs  (diameter = 10.9")
June 5:            Saturn at western stationary point at 6:46 hrs  (diameter = 17.4")
June 12:          Limb of Moon 37 arcminutes north of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha2 Librae, mv= 2.75) at 9:08 hrs
June 12:          Venus 1.5º south of Uranus at 9:01 hrs
June 13:          Moon 1.8º north of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 12:42 hrs
June 13:          Moon 1.2º south of the star Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.56) at 13:21 hrs
June 15:          Limb of Moon 41 arcminutes south of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 17:15 hrs
June 16:          Limb of Moon 2 arcminutes south of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv= 2.02) at 5:32 hrs
June 16:          Neptune at western quadrature at 23:44 hrs  (diameter = 2.2")
June 17:          Moon 2.3º south of Pluto at 5:50 hrs
June 17:          Mercury at Greatest Elongation West (22º 57') at 7:05 hrs  (diameter = 8.1")
June 18:          Moon 4º south of Saturn at 23:21 hrs
June 21:          Moon 2.9º south of Neptune at 5:02 hrs
June 21:          Mars at perihelion at 21:29 hrs  (diameter = 6.9")
June 21:          Sun at winter solstice at 19:17 hrs
June 21:          Moon 2.4º south of Jupiter at 23:55 hrs
June 23:          Moon 31 arcminutes south of Mars at 3:20 hrs
June 23:          Mercury 2.9º north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 18:04 hrs
June 25:          Limb of Moon 11 arcminutes north of Uranus at 7:12 hrs
June 26:          Moon 2.9º north of Venus at 19:14 hrs
June 27:          Moon 4.1º north of Mercury at 19:04 hrs
June 28:          Neptune at western stationary point at 12:16 hrs  (diameter = 2.3")
June 29:          Jupiter at western quadrature at 10:55 hrs  (diameter = 40.5")
June 29:          Moon 1.9º north of the star star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum, mv= 3.06) at 20:10 hrs

 

The Planets for this month:

 

Mercury:    The innermost planet will pass through inferior conjunction (between the Earth and the Sun) on May 22, and will then return to the eastern pre-dawn sky. Unfortunately, this appearance will not be very favourable, as Mercury will remain involved in the solar glare the whole time. The best time to observe Mercury will be soon after sunset in the first days of May, when it will be just above the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus, and very low to the west-north-western horizon. The waxing thin crescent Moon will join Mercury and the Pleiades soon after sunset on May 2, but will be difficult to observe. 


Venus:  
 This, the brightest planet, was an 'evening star' for most of 2021. It passed through inferior conjunction (when it overtook the Earth by passing between us and the Sun) on January 9 last, after which it moved to the eastern pre-dawn sky, becoming a 'morning star'. This month it may be found as the brightest one in a spectacular grouping of four planets above the horizon due east, before dawn breaks.

At 5 am on May 1, Venus will be seen very close to Jupiter, which will be on its left. They will be about 15 arcminutes (half the diameter of the Moon) apart.  By May 26, Venus and Jupiter will have separated until they are 24º (one and a third handspans) apart, with the waning crescent Moon between them. See  Planetary alignments   below.

(The coloured fringes to the second, third and fifth images below are due to refractive effects in our own atmosphere, and are not intrinsic to Venus itself. 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.)  

          December 2021                    January 2022                          March 2022                         October 2022                        June 2023               

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 most of 2021, Venus appeared as an 'Evening Star' in the western twilight sky, but last January it moved to the pre-dawn eastern sky to be a 'Morning Star'. It is now quite easy to find high in the east before sunrise. It will not reappear as an 'Evening Star' in the west until next December.

Because Venus is 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.



Venus at 6.55 pm on September 7, 2018. The phase is 36 % and the angular diameter is 32 arcseconds.

 

Mars:  The red planet is now in the eastern pre-dawn sky in the constellation of Aquarius. Mars will remain a morning sky object (only visible after midnight) until it reaches western quadrature on August 27, 2022. It will then gradually become observable in the late evening sky, gradually brightening and moving eastwards through the constellations until it reaches opposition in the constellation of Taurus on December 8. As this month progresses, Mars will pass within 32 arcminutes of Neptune on May 18, and will cross into Pisces on May 19. The waning crescent Moon will be alongside Mars on May 25. The red planet will pass within 35 arcminutes of Jupiter on the night of  May 29/30. On that night, both planets will rise above the theoretical eastern horizon soon after 1:30 am.

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.


Mars near opposition, July 24, 2018


Mars, called the red planet but usually coloured orange, in mid-2018 took on a yellowish tint and brightened by 0.4 magnitude, making it twice as bright as previous predictions for the July 27 opposition. These phenomena were caused by a great dust storm which completely encircled the planet, obscuring the surface features so that they were only seen faintly through the thick curtain of dust. Although planetary photographers were mostly disappointed, many observers were interested to see that the yellow colour and increased brightness meant that a weather event on a distant planet could actually be detected with the unaided eye - a very unusual thing in itself.

The three pictures above were taken on the evening of July 24, at 9:05, 9:51 and 11:34 pm. Although the fine details that are usually seen on Mars were hidden by the dust storm, some of the larger features can be discerned, revealing how much Mars rotates in two and a half hours. Mars' sidereal rotation period (the time taken for one complete rotation or 'Martian day') is 24 hours 37 minutes 22 seconds - a little longer than an Earth day. The dust storm began in the Hellas Desert on May 31, and after two months it still enshrouded the planet. In September it began to clear, but by then the close approach had passed.
 

Central meridian: 295º.
 

 

The two pictures immediately above were taken on the evening of September 7, at 6:25 and 8:06 pm. The dust storm was finally abating, and some of the surface features were becoming visible once again. This pair of images also demonstrates the rotation of Mars in 1 hour 41 minutes (equal to 24.6 degrees of longitude), but this time the view is of the opposite side of the planet to the set of three above. As we were now leaving Mars behind, the images are appreciably smaller (the angular diameter of the red planet had fallen to 20 arcseconds). Well past opposition, Mars on September 7 exhibited a phase effect of 92.65 %.


 
Central meridian: 180º.

 

Jupiter:   This gas giant planet reached conjunction with the Sun on March 6, and is now well above the eastern horizon when dawn begins to break, in the constellation Pisces. See the notes for Venus and Mars above. The waning crescent Moon will be just above Jupiter and Mars before sunrise on May 25.  

     

Jupiter as photographed from Nambour on the evening of April 25, 2017. The images were taken, from left to right, at 9:10, 9:23, 9:49, 10:06 and 10:37 pm. The rapid rotation of this giant planet in a little under 10 hours is clearly seen. In the southern hemisphere, the Great Red Spot (bigger than the Earth) is prominent, sitting within a 'bay' in the South Tropical Belt. South of it is one of the numerous White Spots. All of these are features in the cloud tops of Jupiter's atmosphere.



Jupiter as it appeared at 7:29 pm on July 2, 2017. The Great Red Spot was in a similar position near Jupiter's eastern limb (edge) as in the fourth picture in the series above. It will be seen that in the past two months the position of the Spot had drifted when compared with the festoons in the Equatorial Belt, so must rotate around the planet at a slower rate. In fact, the Belt enclosing the Great Red Spot rotates around the planet in 9 hours 55 minutes, and the Equatorial Belt takes five minutes less. This high rate of rotation has made the planet quite oblate. The prominent 'bay' around the Red Spot in the five earlier images appeared to be disappearing, and a darker streak along the northern edge of the South Tropical Belt was moving south. In June this year the Spot began to shrink in size, losing about 20% of its diameter. Two new white spots have developed in the South Temperate Belt, west of the Red Spot. The five upper images were taken near opposition, when the Sun was directly behind the Earth and illuminating all of Jupiter's disc evenly. The July 2 image was taken just four days before Eastern Quadrature, when the angle from the Sun to Jupiter and back to the Earth was at its maximum size. This angle means that we see a tiny amount of Jupiter's dark side, the shadow being visible around the limb of the planet on the left-hand side, whereas the right-hand limb is clear and sharp. Three of Jupiter's Galilean satellites are visible, Ganymede to the left and Europa to the right. The satellite Io can be detected in a transit of Jupiter, sitting in front of the North Tropical Belt, just to the left of its centre.  
 

Jupiter at opposition, May 9, 2018

     

Jupiter reached opposition on May 9, 2018 at 10:21 hrs, and the above photographs were taken that evening, some ten to twelve hours later. The first image above was taken at 9:03 pm, when the Great Red Spot was approaching Jupiter's central meridian and the satellite Europa was preparing to transit Jupiter's disc. Europa's transit began at 9:22 pm, one minute after its shadow had touched Jupiter's cloud tops. The second photograph was taken three minutes later at 9:25 pm, with the Great Red Spot very close to Jupiter's central meridian.

The third photograph was taken at 10:20 pm, when Europa was approaching Jupiter's central meridian. Its dark shadow is behind it, slightly below, on the clouds of the North Temperate Belt. The shadow is partially eclipsed by Europa itself. The fourth photograph at 10:34 pm shows Europa and its shadow well past the central meridian. Europa is the smallest of the Galilean satellites, and has a diameter of 3120 kilometres. It is ice-covered, which accounts for its brightness and whitish colour. Jupiter's elevation above the horizon for the four photographs in order was 50º, 55º, 66º and 71º. As the evening progressed, the air temperature dropped a little and the planet gained altitude. The 'seeing' improved slightly, from Antoniadi IV to Antoniadi III. At the time of the photographs, Europa's angular diameter was 1.57 arcseconds. Part of the final photograph is enlarged below.

 

Jupiter at 11:34 pm on May 18, nine days later. Changes in the rotating cloud patterns are apparent, as some cloud bands rotate faster than others and interact. Compare with the first photograph in the line of four taken on May 9. The Great Red Spot is ploughing a furrow through the clouds of the South Tropical Belt, and is pushing up a turbulent bow wave.
 

Jupiter at opposition, June 11, 2019

     
    

Jupiter reached opposition on June 11, 2019 at 01:20 hrs, and the above photographs were taken that evening, some twenty to twenty-two hours later. The first image above was taken at 10:01 pm, when the Great Red Spot was leaving Jupiter's central meridian and the satellite Europa was preparing to transit Jupiter's disc. Europa's transit began at 10:11 pm, and its shadow touched Jupiter's cloud tops almost simultaneously. Europa was fully in transit by 10:15 pm. The second photograph was taken two minutes later at 10:17 pm, with the Great Red Spot heading towards Jupiter's western limb.

The third photograph was taken at 10:41 pm, when Europa was about a third of its way across Jupiter. Its dark shadow is trailing it, slightly below, on the clouds of the North Temperate Belt. The shadow is partially eclipsed by Europa itself. The fourth photograph at 10:54 pm shows Europa and its shadow about a quarter of the way across. This image is enlarged below. The fifth photograph shows Europa on Jupiter's central meridian at 11:24 pm, with the Great Red Spot on Jupiter's limb. The sixth photograph taken at 11:45 pm shows Europa about two-thirds of the way through its transit, and the Great Red Spot almost out of sight. In this image, the satellite Callisto may be seen to the lower right of its parent planet. Jupiter's elevation above the horizon for the six photographs in order was 66º, 70º, 75º, 78º, 84º and 86º. As the evening progressed, the 'seeing' proved quite variable.

There have been numerous alterations to Jupiter's belts and spots over the thirteen months since the 2018 opposition. In particular, there have been major disturbances affecting the Great Red Spot, which appears to be slowly changing in size or "unravelling".


It was very fortuitous that, during the evenings of the days when the 2018 and 2019 oppositions occurred, there was a transit of one of the satellites as well as the appearance of the Great Red Spot. It was also interesting in that the same satellite, Europa, was involved both times.

 


Saturn:  
The ringed planet is now in the constellation of Capricornus, where it will remain until it moves into Aquarius on February 14, 2023. Saturn reached conjunction with the Sun on February 5, and is now visible in the eastern sky after midnight. Saturn will reach western quadrature (rising at midnight) on May 16. On May 23, the Last Quarter Moon will be close to Saturn.

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 July 2, 2017. The shadow of its globe can just 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. Ring A also has a gap inside it, but it is much thinner. Called the 'Encke Gap', it is only 325 kilometres wide and can be seen in the image above. 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, 99.9% 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. At bottom centre, the southern hemisphere of the planet can be seen showing through the gap of the Cassini Division. The ring system extends from 7000 to 80 000 kilometres above Saturn's equator, but its thickness varies from only 10 metres to 1 kilometre. The globe of Saturn has a diameter at its equator of 120 536 kilometres. Being made up of 96% hydrogen and 3% helium, it is a gas giant, although it has a small, rocky core. There are numerous cloud bands visible.

The photograph above was taken when Saturn was close to opposition, with the Earth between Saturn and the Sun. At that time, the shadow of Saturn's globe upon the Ring system was directly behind the planet and hardly visible. The photograph below was taken at 7:14 pm on September 09, 2018, when Saturn was near eastern quadrature. At such a time, the angle from the Sun to Saturn and back to the Earth is near its maximum, making the shadow fall at an angle across the Rings as seen from Earth. It may be seen falling across the far side of the Ring to the left side of the globe.


Uranus:
This ice giant planet shines at about magnitude 5.8, so a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required to observe it. Uranus is currently in the constellation of Aries. This month it is about two-thirds of a handspan south-east of the second magnitude star Hamal. Uranus will not be observable this month as it will pass through conjunction with the Sun on May 5.

 

Neptune:   The icy blue planet was in conjunction with the Sun on March 13. It has now reappeared in the eastern pre-dawn sky, and on May 1 it may be found 3.5º above Jupiter and Venus.

Neptune, photographed from Nambour on October 31, 2008


Pluto:
   The erstwhile ninth and most distant planet was in conjunction with the Sun on January 17, so observations this month will best be made in the dark hours after 2 am. Pluto's angular diameter is 0.13 arcseconds, less than one twentieth that of Neptune. Located this year in the eastern end of Sagittarius, it is a 14.1 magnitude object, very small and faint. A telescope with an aperture of 25 cm is capable of locating Pluto when the seeing conditions are right. 

 

  

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:



To enjoy the following phenomena, observers will need to rise about an hour or two before sunrise (before the sky begins to lighten, e.g. 5 am).

On May 1 there will be a fine display in the eastern sky from 5 am until dawn breaks. Brilliant Venus and Jupiter will be close together, 26º above the east-north-eastern horizon at 5 am. A little less than a handspan above these two will be found Mars, much fainter and orange in colour. About a handspan above Mars will be found cream-coloured Saturn, brighter than Mars. The waning crescent Moon will pass through this grouping between May 22 and 27.  Over the course of the month, the grouping will spread out - Venus will move closer to the horizon and the Sun, as it heads towards superior conjunction on October 23. Mars will head towards Venus, passing by Jupiter on May 30 and then leaving it behind. Saturn and Jupiter move through the starry background much more slowly. Saturn will remain in the constellation Capricornus until February 14, 2023, when it will pass into Aquarius. Jupiter, which crossed from Aquarius into Pisces on April 14, will remain in Pisces until it crosses into the non-zodiacal constellation of Cetus on June 25, before returning to Pisces on September 1.

The movements of planets including their alignments and close-up images can be watched using the freeware  Stellarium .

 

 

Meteor Showers:



Alpha Scorpids               May 4                          Waxing crescent Moon, 10% sunlit                      ZHR = 10
                                         Radiant:  Near the star Antares.

Eta Aquariids                  May 5-6                       Waxing crescent Moon, 18% sunlit                      ZHR = 60 in Southern Hemisphere
                                        Radiant: Near the boundary between Aquarius and Pegasus.  Associated with Comet Halley.

                                        **   Predicted to be a good display between 2 am and 4.45 am on May 6 - look north-east.
 

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'. On an 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.



 

Comets:

 

Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3):

Another new comet approached the Sun in mid-2020. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) was three magnitudes brighter than expected as it passed through the constellation of Orion north of the star Betelgeuse. It could be seen with binoculars from the Northern Hemisphere, but was close to the glare of the Sun. It was at its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) on July 3, swinging around the far side and heading outbound. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3)'s nucleus was quite large, recent images revealing it to be about 5 kilometres across. This may account for its survival of the close encounter with the Sun. It had its closest approach to the Earth, 103 505 306 kilometres, on July 23 last year.

Note:  NEOWISE refers to the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite which discovered this comet. This satellite was placed in orbit in December 2009 as the WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). Its mission was to chart the sky in the infrared band, and it discovered thousands of minor planets and star clusters. Having completed its survey in a little over a year, it was placed in hibernation in February 2011. In September 2013 it was reactivated and assigned a new mission - to search the sky for and identify any objects that might present a danger by coming too close to the Earth. Its name was therefore changed to NEOWISE. It studies these Near-Earth Objects through their thermal emissions.


Comet
46P/Wirtanen

In December 2018, Comet 46P/Wirtanen swept past Earth, making one of the ten closest approaches of a comet to our planet since 1960. It was faintly visible to the naked eye for two weeks. Although Wirtanen's nucleus is only 1.2 kilometres across, its green atmosphere became larger than the Full Moon, and was an easy target for binoculars and small telescopes. It reached its closest to the Sun (perihelion) on December 12, and then headed in our direction. It passed the Earth at a distance of 11.5 million kilometres (30 times as far away as the Moon) on December 16.



Comet 46/P Wirtanen was photographed on November 29, 2018 between 9:45 and 9:47 pm.  The comet's position was Right Ascension = 2 hrs 30 min 11 secs, Declination = 21º 43' 13", and it was heading towards the top of the picture. The nearest star to the comet's position, just to its left, is GSC 5862:549, magnitude 14.1. The spiral galaxy near the right margin is NGC 908. The right-hand star in the yellow circle is SAO 167833, magnitude 8.31.

Comet 46/P Wirtanen on November 30, 2018. This image is a stack of five exposures between 8:13 and 9:05 pm. The comet's movement over the 52 minute period can be seen, the five images of the comet merging into a short streak. It is heading towards the upper left corner of the image, and is brightening as it approaches the Sun, with perihelion occurring on December 12. The images of the stars in the five exposures overlap each other precisely. The length of the streak indicates that the comet is presently moving against the starry background at 1.6º per day. The comet at 9:05 pm was at Right Ascension = 2 hrs 32 min 56 secs, Declination = 20º 27' 20". The upper star in the yellow circle is SAO 167833, magnitude 8.31, the same one circled in the preceding picture but with higher magnification. It enables the two photographs to be linked.

Comet 46/P Wirtanen at perihelion on December 12, 2018, at 00:55 am. It was faintly visible to the unaided eye, but easily visible through binoculars.  The circled star has a magnitude of 15.77, and the brighter one just to its left is GSC 60:1162, magnitude 13.8. The comet is moving north-east, or to the right. Its position at the time of the photograph was RA = 3 hr 23 min 13 sec, Declination +4º 34' 31", at the boundary of the constellations Cetus and Taurus.

 

 Comet Lulin

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.

This month, the Eta Carinae Nebula is available for viewing all night, as on May 1 it rises at 9:40 am and culminates at 8 pm.

 




The Stars and Constellations for this month
:


 

This description of the night sky is for 8 pm on May 1 and 6 pm on May 31. They start at Orion, which is due west. No planets will be available in the evenings this month - they are all in the pre-dawn eastern sky.  
 

This month, Orion (see below) will be setting on the western horizon. It will not be visible in June. Canis Major (the Large Dog) is above him, with the brilliant white star Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) showing the Dog's heart. Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the night sky and is about a handspan above the western horizon.

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.


Above the Dog is the constellation, Puppis, the Stern (of the ship, Argo).

Approaching the north-western horizon is the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. The two twin stars at its north-eastern end, Pollux and Castor, are very distinctive, Pollux being brighter than Castor. Both of these stars will have set by 9.30 pm on May 1. This month, faint and distant Mars passes through Gemini and crosses into Cancer on June 8.

A handspan above and to the left of 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 is another zodiacal constellation, Leo, the Lion. The bright star Regulus (Alpha Leonis) marks the Lion’s heart, and is on the left-hand side of the constellation, in the north-north-west. Denebola, the star marking the root of the lion's tail, is approaching culmination.

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 is a good sight in binoculars. Mars will pass through Cancer in June and will enter Leo in July..

Skimming the northern horizon is the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Known in the northern hemisphere as the 'Big Dipper' or 'The Plough', it always appears to us upside-down. We only see Ursa Major at this time of year, and it is always very low in the north, and only partially visible. It can never be seen from the southern states of Australia. The further north an observer goes, the higher Ursa Major will appear above the northern horizon. If the observer travels to Europe or North America, the Great Bear will always be seen in the night sky, circling the Pole Star, Polaris, as it is circumpolar from those latitudes.

High in the north-east is a particularly beautiful orange star with a fine name: Arcturus, meaning 'the follower of the Bear'. This is the third brightest star (after Sirius and Canopus). It is a K2 star of magnitude -0.06, and lies at a distance of 36 light years. It is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman, and therefore has the alternative name of Alpha Boötis.

Just appearing above the horizon, slightly to the east of Boötes, is a circle of stars called Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. The brightest star in the crown is called Alphecca, and it shines at magnitude 2.3.

Between Leo and Arcturus may be seen a large Y-shaped cluster of faint stars. This is Coma Berenices, the Hair of Berenice. Its chief claim to fame is that it is near the northern galactic window (see below), and a small telescope can detect dozens of galaxies in this area. Large telescopes equipped with sensitive cameras can detect millions of galaxies in this part of the sky.

About 60 degrees above the north-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. The Quasi-stellar Object 3C-273 is an extremely remote but powerful energy source in Virgo. It shines at magnitude 13 and looks like a faint blue star. Actually it is a violently exploding galaxy, about 1000 times as far away as the Great Galaxy in Andromeda. It lies about a quarter of the distance from Porrima to Denebola.

 

The Quasi-Stellar Object 3C-273 lies at a distance of 2440 million light years, over one sixth of the way to the edge of the universe.  Click  here  to find the story about how it was identified by the Parkes Radio Telescope in 1962. 


Above Spica and almost directly overhead is the constellation Corvus the Crow, shaped like a small quadrilateral of magnitude 3 stars. A large but faint constellation, Hydra the Water-snake, winds its way from near Procyon west of the zenith and around Corvus and Virgo to Libra, which is now above the eastern horizon. Hydra has one bright star, Alphard, mv=2.2. Alphard is 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. Tonight it is about 25 degrees north-west of the zenith. About a handspan to the south-east of Alphard is a bright planetary nebula, the 'Ghost of Jupiter' NGC 3242. It is the remnant left when the central star exploded (below).

 

The planetary nebula NGC 3242

 

Just above the east-south-eastern horizon is Scorpius, the Scorpion. This famous zodiacal constellation is like a large reclining letter 'S', and, unlike most constellations, is easy to recognise as the shape of a scorpion. At this time of year, he has his tail down and claws raised. The brightest object in Scorpius is the red supergiant star Antares (Alpha Scorpii, mv= 1.05).

East of Scorpius, or underneath it tonight as we see it from Australia, is the bright constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. It takes the form of a Teapot standing on its handle, with its spout pointing upwards. Most of the brightest stars in Sagittarius are found in this 'Teapot' asterism. Below it, but still within the boundary of Sagittarius, is a very bright object, brighter than anything else in the evening sky apart from the Moon. This is the giant planet Jupiter, which is three times brighter than even the brightest star, Sirius. On May 1 it rises at 10:18 pm  Jupiter will reach opposition on June 11. 'Opposition' means that it is opposite the Sun in the sky - as the Sun sets in the west, the planet rises in the east. At opposition the Earth and the planet are at their closest, so the planet appears at its largest and brightest from our vantage point on Earth. The ringed planet Saturn will rise directly below Jupiter at 10:41, but is three magnitudes fainter , i.e. one fifteenth as bright. By May 12, both planets will have risen by 10 pm.

Close to the eastern horizon, just to the left of Scorpius, we find that the faint constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is nearly completely risen. High in the south-south-east, Crux (Southern Cross) is at an angle of about sixty degrees. It will be vertical at 9:15 pm in mid-May, and 7:15 pm in mid-June.

Close by the second brightest star in the Cross (Beta Crucis) is a brilliant small star cluster known as Herschel's Jewel Box. In the centre of the cluster is a red supergiant star, which is just passing through.

Beta Crucis (left) and the Jewel Box cluster

Herschel's Jewel Box

 

Surrounding Crux on three sides is the large constellation Centaurus, its two brightest stars being the Pointers of the Southern Cross, brilliant Alpha and Beta Centauri. Beta is the one nearer to Crux.

At left - the two Pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri. Centre - Crux (Southern Cross) with the dark cloud of dust known as the Coalsack at its lower left. Right - star clusters in the Milky Way and the Eta Carinae nebula.

 

Slightly to the right and below Crux is a small, fainter quadrilateral of stars, Musca, the Fly. Out of all the 88 constellations, it is the only insect. Below Alpha Centauri is a (roughly) equilateral triangle of 4th magnitude stars. This is the constellation Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle. It is well 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).

Two handspans south of Sirius is the second brightest star in the night sky, Canopus (Alpha Carinae). Although appearing almost as bright as Sirius but a little more yellow, the two stars are entirely dissimilar. Sirius is a normal-sized star that is bright because it is close to us - only 8.6 light years away. Canopus, on the other hand, is a F0 type supergiant, over 100 times brighter than Sirius, but 36 times further away (312 light years).

On the border of Carina and Vela is the False Cross, larger and more lopsided than the Southern Cross. The False Cross is two handspans to the right of Crux, and is also lying tilted to the left at this time of year. It has passed culmination, and is beginning to head for the south-south-western horizon. 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.

Between the Southern Cross and the False Cross may be seen a glowing patch of light. This is the famous Eta Carinae Nebula, which is a remarkable sight through binoculars or a small telescope working at low magnification. It is a turbulent area of dark dust lanes and fluorescing gas. The star in its centre, Eta Carinae itself, is an eruptive variable star called a recurrent nova.
 

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

 

Extremely close to the south-south-western horizon and soon to set is Achernar, Alpha Eridani. It is the brightest star in Eridanus the River, which winds its way with faint stars from Achernar around the south-western horizon to Cursa, a mv= 2.9 star close to brilliant Rigel in Orion. At magnitude 0.49, Achernar is the ninth brightest star.

High in the south-south-west, about 25 degrees above the horizon, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is faintly visible as a diffuse glowing patch. It is about a handspan south of Canopus. About a handspan below and to the left of the LMC is the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a smaller glowing patch, not far above the horizon. From Nambour's latitude, these two clouds never set. Each day they circle the South Celestial Pole, which is a point in the sky 26.6 degrees above the horizon's due south point. Objects in the sky that never set are called 'circumpolar'. The LMC and SMC are in actual fact nearby dwarf galaxies and are described below.

The line of the ecliptic along which the Sun, Moon and planets travel passes through the following constellations this month: Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius.

If you would like to become familiar with the constellations, we suggest that you access one of the world's best collections of constellation pictures by clicking  here . To see some of the best astrophotographs taken with the giant Anglo-Australian telescope, click  here .


 

The Season of the Lion

 

We see Leo the Lion upside-down from the Southern Hemisphere. Its brightest star is Regulus, which means 'the King star'. Regulus is the highest star in a pattern called 'The Sickle' (or reaping-hook). It marks the top of the Sickle's handle, with the other end of the handle, the star Eta Leonis, directly underneath. The blade of the Sickle curves around clockwise from Eta Leonis. The Sickle forms the mane and head of the lion. The star Denebola, a handspan east of Regulus, marks the tip of the lion's tail.
 

 

About four degrees to the right and below Eta Leonis is a beautiful double star, Algieba or Gamma Leonis. With a total magnitude of 2.61, the two stars are only 4.3 arcseconds apart, and may be distinguished with a small telescope. Both are orange in colour.

There are also numerous galaxies in this area of the sky. On one of Leo's back legs, the three bright galaxies M65, M66 and NGC 3628 can be viewed together in the same low-power telescopic field.

Between Leo and the northern horizon is a faint grouping of three fourth magnitude stars. This is the small and inconspicuous constellation of Leo Minor, the small lion. Leo Minor is halfway between Leo and Ursa Major.


 

The Hunter and his Dogs

 

Two of the most spectacular constellations in the sky may be seen low in the western sky as soon as darkness falls. These are Orion the Hunter, and his large dog, Canis Major.

Orion:

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.

Orion is quite a symmetrical constellation, with the three similar stars in his 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.

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, rises due east and sets due west. 

The star Mintaka is actually less than 18 arcminutes south of the celestial equator.

At the beginning of May he is close to the horizon. The central part of Orion, popularly called 'The Saucepan', is very easy to recognise and is due west tonight.


Orion has two bright stars marking his shoulders, the red supergiant Betelgeuse and blue-white 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 top to bottom, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. 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 the Sword of Orion. Orion’s two feet are marked by the hot, blue-white stars, 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.


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). Photographs 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.


To the upper left of Orion as twilight ends, 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 he rises, the dog is on his back with his front foot in the air. The star at the end of this foot is called 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 to the upper left of Sirius and tilted. The end of his tail is the upper left corner of the triangle, about one handspan south (to the upper left) of Sirius. It is marked by the star Aludra (Eta Canis Majoris).

Both Sirius and Rigel are bright white stars and each has a tiny, faint white 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, as it is very close to brilliant Sirius and is usually lost in the glare (see above).

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 nose 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, which 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.

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, 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:

At the onset of darkness, this small constellation is about 45 degrees (about two handspans) above the northern horizon. 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. To the left of Orion is a small constellation, Lepus the Hare. Between Lepus and the star Canopus is the star group Columba the Dove. Between Corvus and the star Regulus are two faint constellations, Crater the Cup and Sextans the Sextant. Between the zenith and the south-western horizon are a number of small, faint constellations: above the Milky Way are Antlia and Pyxis, while Volans and Mensa are below it. 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.

To find this point, first locate the Southern Cross. Project a line from the top of the Cross (the red 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.

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, like 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), 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, 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.

Close-up of the star field around Proxima Centauri


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 (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 lies 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, and this month it is readily observable.

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 9 pm Omega Centauri is high enough for detailed viewing.
 

Globular Cluster NGC 104 in Tucana

The globular cluster NGC 6752 in the constellation Pavo.


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-south-west, below and to the left of Canopus, 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 right 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, 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 below the horizon in the early evenings this month. 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 sunset 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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