June  2017

Updated:   8 June 2017



Welcome to the night skies of Winter, featuring Leo, Virgo, Carina, Crux, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Jupiter and Saturn 


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


The 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 year.


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 Taurus the Bull. It leaves Taurus and passes into Gemini, the Twins on June  21.   



Moon Phases:  Lunations (Brown series):  #1169, 1170 


First Quarter:        June 01         22:43 hrs          diameter = 31.0'
Full Moon:             June 09         23:11 hrs          diameter = 29.4'         
Last Quarter:        June 17         21:34 hrs          diameter = 31.3' 
New Moon:           June 24          12:31 hrs         diameter = 33.3'  

First Quarter:        July 01          10:52 hrs          diameter = 30.4'
Full Moon:             July 09          14:08 hrs          diameter = 29.7'
Last Quarter:        July 17          05:27 hrs          diameter = 31.8' 
New Moon:            July 23          19:46 hrs          diameter = 32.9'
First Quarter:        July 31          01:24 hrs          diameter = 29.9'





Lunar Orbital Elements:

June 09:         Moon at apogee (406 372 km) at 08:28 hrs, diameter = 29.4'
June 15:         Moon at descending node at 12:37 hrs, diameter = 30.4'
June 23:         Moon at perigee (357 956 km) at 20:53 hrs, diameter = 33.4'
June 28:         Moon at ascending node at 02:26 hrs, diameter = 32.1'

July 06:          Moon at apogee (405 943 km) at 05:33 hrs, diameter = 29.4'
July 12:          Moon at descending node at 15:16 hrs, diameter = 30.3'
July 22
:          Moon at perigee (361 246 km) at 03:21 hrs, diameter = 33.1'
July 25        Moon at ascending node at 10:46 hrs, diameter = 32.3'


Moon at 9 days after New, as on June 03

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 Apollo 11 landing site, Tranquility Base.

This area was photographed from Starfield Observatory, Nambour on October 7, 2016. East (where the Sun is rising) is to the right, north is to the top. The largest crater in the image above is in shadow near the centre of the left margin, and is called Delambre. The deformed crater in the bottom right corner is named Torricelli.


Tranquility Base is the place where human beings first stepped onto another world. Three astronauts from the USA lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969 in a space vehicle comprising a three-stage Saturn V rocket on which was placed the three-part spacecraft that would travel to the Moon. The three parts were the Service Module (SM, unmanned) to which was attached the Command Module (CM, named "Columbia") in which the astronauts travelled, and the Lunar Module (LM, at the time called the 'Lunar Excursion Module' or LEM, named "Eagle") which was designed to descend to the Moon's surface with two astronauts on board. The LM was housed at lift-off in a 'garage' or adapter on top of the third Saturn V stage and behind the SM. During trans-lunar orbit the SM + CM had to separate from the third rocket stage, use its thrusters to turn through 180 degrees, dock with the LM, and then withdraw it from its 'garage'. The SM + CM +LM then headed for the Moon as a unit, the LM leading. The third Saturn V stage went into orbit around the Sun.

After travelling for four days, the Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin climbed through from the CM into the LM, and the two vehicles separated. The Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in the CM in lunar orbit and did not take part in the landing.

The landing site is on a great lava-plain called Mare Tranquillitatis or the Sea of Tranquility. It is within a degree of the Moon's equator. On a few orbits over the area before the descent, Armstrong and Aldrin were able to identify the landmarks they needed to pinpoint the chosen level landing area. Some of these landmarks were the twin craters of Ritter (32 kilometres diameter) and Sabine (31 kilometres), both seen near the top of the above image about a third of the way in from the left margin. Another was a long rille, double in places with a flat floor, running for nearly 200 kilometres from just south of Sabine in an east-south-easterly direction. This is called the Rimae Hypatia or Hypatia Rille - it was unofficiallty dubbed by NASA "US Highway 1". Just north of this "highway" near its eastern end was a small but bright crater, Moltke (7 kilometres across). It can be seen above, just below the actual landing site, which is shown with a yellow asterisk  *.

Three craterlets in a line north of the landing area were unofficially named Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin, in order from right to left as that was the direction of the LM's flight path. These craters appear in the image above, just below the printed names. The first was 5 kilometres across, the other two were 3 kilometres. These names are now official, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) having made an exception to the rule that craters can only be named after a person posthumously. 

The LM, using the engine in its lower half as a brake, slowed down and landed on the Moon at 6:17:40 am on July 21 (Australian Eastern Standard Time). The touch-down was at the far western end of the planned landing area, about 15 kilometres south of the craterlet Collins.  Six hours and 38 minutes later, Armstrong placed his left foot on the Moon's powdery surface at 12:56:15 pm AEST. Queensland school children watched his "one small step for man" on television during their lunchtime and most of the afternoon's lessons were set aside so that they could participate in the historic event.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21½ hours on the lunar surface, taking pictures, deploying experiments and collecting 21.55 kilograms of rocks and soil. Seven of those hours were spent in resting inside the LM after their strenuous activities. At 3:54 am AEST on July 22 the ascent stage of the Lunar Module lifted off the Moon and docked with the orbiting Command Module, after which the LM was left in orbit around the Moon and subsequently crashed. The LM's descent stage remains on the Moon where it has been photographed occasionally by mapping satellites, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 7, 2012. The three astronauts, now together again in the CM, fired the SM's rocket motor to return them to the Earth. Prior to re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, the SM was jettisoned and the CM turned so that its heat shield was facing forward. The CM splashed down in the mid-Pacific Ocean 24 kilometres from the recovery ship, USS Hornet on July 25 at 2:51 am AEST, after a total trip lasting 8 days 3 hours and 19 minutes. Of the 3000 tonne Saturn V + Apollo space vehicle, only the 5 tonne Command Module returned safely to the Earth. Currently, Michael Collins is 86 and Buzz Aldrin is 87. Neil Armstrong departed this life in 2012 aged 82.

The rectangle shows the location of the Apollo 11 landing area shown in detail above.

Geocentric Events for June and July:


June 3:          Venus at greatest elongation west (45º 49') at 14:59 hrs  (diameter = 23.9")
June 3:          Venus 1.7º south of Uranus at 18:32 hrs
June 4:          Moon 2.7º north of Jupiter at 10:43 hrs
June 4:          Limb of Moon 43 arcminutes north of the star Porrima (Gamma Virginis, mv= 2.74) at 06:49 hrs
June 5:          Neptune at western quadrature at 02:02 hrs  (diameter = 2.2")
June 9:          Jupiter at eastern stationary point at 23:39 hrs  (diameter = 39.7")
June 10:        Moon 3.7º north of Saturn at 11:41 hrs
June 12:        Moon 2.2º north of the star Pi Sagittarii (mv= 2.88) at 08:21 hrs
June 12:        Moon 2.9º north of Pluto at 11:59 hrs
June 13:        Venus at aphelion at 10:04 hrs  (diameter = 21.5")
June 13:        Mars 1.8º north of the star Mu Geminorum (mv= 2.87) at 10:08 hrs
June 15:        Saturn at opposition at 20:00 hrs  (diameter = 18.3")
June 16:        Neptune at western stationary point at 16:55 hrs  (diameter = 2.3")
June 16:        Limb of Moon 14 arcminutes south of Neptune at 21:32 hrs
June 19:        Mercury 2.9º north of the star Alheka (Zeta Tauri, mv= 2.88) at 13:28 hrs
June 19:        Mercury at perihelion at 23:08 hrs  (diameter = 5.1")
June 20:        Moon 3.7º south of Uranus at 02:41 hrs
June 20:        Mars 1.1º south of the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum, mv= 3.06) at 10:45 hrs
June 21:        Winter solstice at 14:23 hrs
June 21:        Moon 1.7º south of Venus at 07:48 hrs
June 22:        Mercury at superior conjunction at 00:05 hrs  (diameter = 5.1")
June 23:        Limb of Moon 24 arcminutes north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 00:02 hrs
June 24:        Mercury 
2.2º north of the star Mu Geminorum (mv= 2.87) at 08:47 hrs
June 24:        Moon 
5º south of Mercury at 19:43 hrs
June 25:        Moon 
4.2º south of Mars at 03:48 hrs
June 26:        Mercury
28 arcminutes south of the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum, mv= 3.06) at 12:18 hrs
June 28:        Uranus 
1º north of the star Omicron Piscium (mv=4.26) at 05:21 hrs
June 28:        Limb of Moon 22 arcminutes north of the
star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv=1.36) at 09:42 hrs
June 29:        Mercury 46 arcminutes north of Mars at 05:51 hrs

July 1:           Moon 2.8º north of Jupiter at 20:29 hrs
July 5:           Earth at aphelion (furthest distance from the Sun) at 11:13 hrs  (diameter of Sun = 31.5')
July 6:           Jupiter at eastern quadrature at 12:30 hrs  (diameter = 36.8")
July 7:           Moon 3.8º north of Saturn at 12:41 hrs
July 9:           Moon 2.4º north of the star Pi Sagittarii (mv=2.88) at 12:34hrs
July 9:           Moon 2.8º north of Pluto at 15:05 hrs
July 10:         Pluto at opposition at 14:09 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
July 14:         Limb of Moon 13 arcminutes south of Neptune at 04:34 hrs
July 17:         Moon 3.5º south of Uranus at 12:46 hrs
July 20:         Moon 1.2º north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 10:25 hrs
July 20:         Moon 
2.6º south of Venus at 21:26 hrs
July 21:         Uranus at western quadrature at 10:10 hrs  (diameter = 3.5")
July 23:         Moon 
2.9º south of Mars at 22:38 hrs
July 25:         Moon
1º north of Mercury at 20:54 hrs
July 25:         Moon occults
the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv=1.36) between 21:45 and 22:14 hrs - Moonset is at 19:16 hours on the Sunshine Coast.
July 26:         Mercury 
1º south of the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv=1.36) at 11:54 hrs
July 27:         Mars in conjunction with the Sun at 11:22 hrs  (diameter = 3.5")
July 27:         Venus 23 arcminutes north of
the star Alheka (Zeta Tauri, mv= 2.88) at 16:54 hrs
July 29:         Moon 
3.6º north of Jupiter at 08:10 hrs
July 30:         Mercury at greatest elongation east (27
º 10') at 07:24 hrs  (diameter = 7.7")

The Planets for this month:   


Mercury:    On June 1, Mercury will be in the eastern pre-dawn sky, rising 100 minutes before the Sun. It will be an easy object for the first week, but as June progresses it will creep closer and closer to the Sun. The best way to find it is to look about midway between brilliant Venus and the estimated position of the Sun below the horizon. After Mercury is in conjunction on June 22, it will move to the twilight sky, but will not leave the solar glare until the second half of July.


Venus:  This, the brightest planet, is now dominating the pre-dawn sky as a 'morning star', and for the next six months will be noticeable to even the most casual observer, rising in the east before the Sun. At the beginning of June, Venus will appear in a small telescope as a tiny 'half Moon', becoming exactly 50% illuminated on June 4, a phenomenon called 'dichotomy'. On that date its magnitude will be -4.3 and its angular size will be 24 arcseconds. With a small telescope it will look very similar to its appearance when the second photograph below was taken. By the end of June its phase will have increased to 62% (like a tiny gibbous Moon) but its diameter will decrease to 18 arcseconds as it moves further away from us. Its brightness will drop slightly to about -4.1. 

On the morning of June 21, the waning crescent Moon will within 2 degrees above and to the right of Venus.

(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).

                           April 2017                              June 2017                         December 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 two months of 2017, Venus appeared as an 'Evening Star', but on March 25 it moved to the pre-dawn sky and became a 'Morning Star'. Each of these appearances lasts about eight to nine months. Venus will pass on the far side of the Sun (superior conjunction) on January 9, 2018, when it will return to the evening sky and become an 'Evening Star' once again.

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 June 1 it has faded to 1.7 (one thirtieth as bright). In the same period, its apparent size has shrunk from 18.4 arcseconds to 4 arcseconds. It is a faint orange object low in the west as soon as twilight fades, in the constellation Taurus. At the beginning of the month Mars will be between the Messier objects M1 and M35, and it will cross into Gemini on June 5. Mars is now approaching the far side of its orbit, about as far away as it can get, and is very difficult to observe. It will reach 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 is now a spectacular evening object as it passed through opposition (directly opposite the Sun in the sky) on April 8. This month it may be easily seen high in the sky, being about one-and-a-half handspans north of the zenith as darkness falls, at mid-month. It is in the constellation Virgo, north of the first magnitude star Spica. The gibbous Moon will be close to Jupiter as night falls on June 4.

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.


Saturn:   The ringed planet is visible all night long this month, as it reaches opposition on June 15. It will be visible low in the east as soon as darkness falls, underneath the huge S-shaped curve of Scorpius, the Scorpion. The Full Moon will be in Saturn's vicinity on June 9 and 10.

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 May 25, 2017. 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.
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.


Uranus:  This ice giant planet is an early morning object in June, as it reached conjunction with the Sun on April 14 and at mid-month rises about 4 hours before the Sun. Uranus  shines at about magnitude 5.8, so a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required to observe it.


Neptune:   The icy blue planet is a morning object this month. It reaches western quadrature on June 5, which means that it rises at midnight. 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 late night 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. Pluto will reach opposition on July 10, when it rises at sunset. 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.



Meteor Showers:

Arietids                       June 8                      Waxing gibbous Moon, 96% sunlit                            ZHR = 60
                                   Radiant: Near the star Hamal

Zeta Perseids            June 10                    Full Moon, 100% sunlit                                               ZHR = 40
                                   Radiant: Between the Hyades and the Pleiades

Beta Taurids              June 29                    Waxing crescent Moon, 24% sunlit                           ZHR = 25.
                                   Radiant: Between the stars Betelgeuse and El Nath 

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.





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.

The Eta Carinae Nebula is nearly a handspan to the right of the Southern Cross at 6 pm in mid-June.




The Stars and Constellations for this month:


These descriptions of the night sky are for 8 pm on June 1 and 6 pm on June 30. They start at the western horizon.


Setting in the west are Orion's big and little dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) is close to the west-south-western horizon, with the large right-angled triangle of the Big Dog's hindquarters above it.

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. The visual brightness or apparent magnitude of Sirius A is  -1.47; that of Sirius B is  8.44. Therefore Sirius B is 63000 times fainter than Sirius A. 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 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 brightest star in Canis Minor, is heading towards the horizon a little to the north of west. Above Canis Major is the constellation, Puppis, the Stern (of the ship, Argo Navis).

Two handspans to the left of Sirius and about a handspan above the south-western horizon is the second brightest star in the night sky, Canopus (Alpha Carinae). Although Canopus appears 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). Tonight, Canopus is above the south-western horizon, following its curving track centred on the South Celestial Pole (a point in the sky due south, and at an altitude equal to the observer's latitude, or 26.6° at Nambour - see below).

Setting in the west-north-west 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.  

Leo the Lion has passed culmination and is beginning to head down towards the north-western horizon. It will have completely disappeared by midnight. We see Leo upside-down from the Southern Hemisphere. Leo's brightest star is Regulus, which means 'the King star'. It is also called Alpha Leonis, and marks the Lion’s heart. It is on the left-hand side of the constellation, in the north-west. A handspan to the right of Regulus is Denebola, a white star marking the tip of the lion's tail. 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, when observed right-way-up. For the last twelve months, Leo has been dominated by the presence of the brilliant planet Jupiter - it is much brighter than any of Leo's stars. It is currently near the Lion's back feet, heading towards Virgo. On August 8 it will cross into Virgo, which it will take 15 months to traverse.

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. On one of Leo's back legs, the three galaxies M65, M66 and NGC 3628 can be viewed together in the same low-power telescope field.

Between Leo and the northern horizon is a faint grouping of 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 Great Bear, whose stomach, legs and tail are the only parts of him that are visible from Nambour. They are best seen low to the northern horizon as soon as darkness falls.

High in the north-east, we can find the third brightest star in the night sky, Arcturus. It is outshone only by Sirius and Canopus. Arcturus differs from those just named, for it is an obvious orange colour, a K2 star of zero magnitude. It is a particularly beautiful star, and, as it is the brightest in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman, it has the alternative name of Alpha Boötis. Boötes is pronounced 'Bo-oh-tees').


East of Boötes and closer to the north-eastern horizon is a fainter circle of fourth magnitude stars, Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. The brightest star in the Crown is named Alphecca, and it shines at magnitude 2.3. 

Between Arcturus and Denebola is a faint Y-shaped cluster of stars called Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair. Most of the stars in this group have a visual magnitude of about 4.5. Originally the tuft at the end of Leo's tail, Coma Berenices was made a separate constellation in 1536 by a mapmaker called Casper Vopel, and adopted by the great Danish naked-eye astronomer of the 16th century, Tycho Brahe. It is the only present-day constellation that represents a real person or part of a person, Queen Berenice II of Egypt who lived in the third century BCE.

To the north of the zenith 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 star, also known as Alpha Virginis, is a hot, blue-white star of spectral type B2. It is the sixteenth brightest star, and the rest of the constellation Virgo lies to the north-west of it. Tonight, Spica is nearly overhead, and is midway between Arcturus and the Southern Cross. For most of this year, Virgo is dominated by the presence of the brilliant planet Jupiter - it is much brighter than any of Virgo's stars. It is currently near the star Spica, heading towards Leo on its retrograde loop, but will reverse direction and head eastwards again towards Libra on June 9. On November 14 it will cross into Libra.

The area of sky between Spica and Coma Berenices is called a 'galactic window'. Being well away from the plane of the Milky Way (which we can see passing from Sirius in the west to Crux high in the south and then to Sagittarius in the east), there are fewer stars and dust clouds to obscure our view, and we can see right out of our galaxy into the depths of intergalactic space. A 20 cm (eight inch) telescope can see numerous galaxies in this region, nearly thirty being brighter than twelfth magnitude. A larger amateur telescope can detect hundreds more. Professional telescopes equipped with sensitive cameras can detect millions of galaxies in this part of the sky.

A handspan west of Spica is the constellation of Corvus the Crow. Corvus is a lopsided quadrilateral of four third-magnitude stars, and is almost directly overhead at this time tonight. 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 about a handspan east of the zenith.

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 40 degrees above the western horizon.

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.

The faint zodiacal constellation of Libra, the Scales has no bright stars, but the second-brightest one, a magnitude 2.75 double star called Zuben Elgenubi, is worth a look through a small telescope. The brightest object in Libra this month is the planet Mars, presently located just inside the eastern boundary of that constellation, having just moved out of the constellation of Scorpius, the Scorpion.

Scorpius is high above the east-south-eastern horizon (see below). This famous zodiacal constellation is like a large 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 star in Scorpius is Antares, a red type M supergiant of magnitude 0.9. Antares is the fifteenth brightest star.

On the eastern horizon, another fainter constellation, Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is nearly completely risen. This constellation is completely outshone by its brilliant neighbours, Scorpius and Sagittarius, but this month it hosts the ringed planet Saturn. At present the brightest object in this part of the sky, Saturn is located near the boundary between Ophiuchus and Sagittarius. At the beginning of June Saturn is part-way through its retrograde loop, heading westwards. It will reach its stationary point on August 25 and then will turn eastwards once again, crossing back into Sagittarius on November 17. It will take until March 17, 2020 to pass through Sagittarius.

Beneath Scorpius and well above the east-south-eastern horizon is another zodiacal constellation, Sagittarius, the Archer, through which the Milky Way passes. Sagittarius teems with stars, glowing nebulae and dust clouds, as it is in line with the centre of our galaxy.

Adjoining Sagittarius to the south (right-hand side), there is a beautiful curve of faint stars. This is Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, and it is very elegant and delicate.

The body of Scorpius is at top, with the two stars in the Sting underneath, just above the centre of the picture. The red supergiant star Antares appears close to the top left corner. The stars in the lower half of the picture are in Sagittarius. Near the lower right margin is a graceful curve of fourth magnitude stars, Corona Australis, the Southern Crown.

High in the south, Crux Australis (Southern Cross, usually abbreviated to Crux) is nearly vertical. The two Pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri lie to its left. Alpha is the one further away from Crux. Whereas Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to our Sun, only 4.2 light years distant, Beta is eighty times further away. Beta Centauri must have an absolute magnitude much greater than Alpha, in order to appear nearly as bright. Crux will be in a vertical position in the early evening tonight. If the night is moonless and the skies are clear, a black dust cloud known as the Coalsack can be seen just to the left of Acrux, the bottom and brightest star of the Cross. Surrounding Crux on three sides is the large constellation of Centaurus, its two brightest stars being the brilliant Alpha and Beta Centauri. The rest of the constellation of Centaurus arches over Crux to its right-hand side, where it adjoins Carina and Vela.

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.

The constellations surrounding the Southern Cross.

Just to the left of 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.

Between Crux and Sirius is a very large area of sky filled with interesting objects. This was once the constellation Argo, 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).

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 brightest star in the nebula, Eta Carinae itself, is a peculiar unstable star which has been known to explode, becoming very bright. It last did this in 1842, and is called a 'cataclysmic variable star', or 'recurrent nova'. It is a very massive star, and when it reaches the end of its life, it will explode in a stupendous blast, a 'supernova' or possibly a 'hypernova'. In these cataclysmic events, all the elements denser than iron are formed. If you have a gold ring, the gold in it was created by a supernova in the distant past - that is the only way that gold, silver, lead and other dense metals can be formed. Like yourself, your wedding ring and everything else on the Earth is made of 'star stuff' - elements created in the interiors of stars.

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.

Below 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 left of Alpha Centauri is a (roughly) equilateral triangle of 4th magnitude stars. This is the constellation Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle. Between Scorpius and Centaurus is an interesting constellation composed of mainly third magnitude stars, Lupus, the Wolf. Midway between Triangulum Australe and Scorpius is an asterism like a small, elongated triangle. This is Ara, the Altar.

Low in the south-south-west, about 20 degrees above the horizon, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is faintly visible as a diffuse glowing patch. It is about a handspan to the left (south) of Canopus. About a handspan to the left of the LMC is the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a smaller glowing patch, not far above the southern 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 26.5 degrees above the horizon's due-south point. The Earth's axis points to the South Celestial Pole. Objects in the sky that never set are called 'circumpolar'. The LMC and SMC are described below.

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

The aborigines had a large constellation which is visible tonight, the Emu. The Coalsack forms its head, with the faint sixth magnitude star in the Coalsack, its eye. The Emu's neck is a dark lane of dust that runs east through the two Pointers, to Scorpius. The whole constellation Scorpius forms the Emu's body. The Emu is sitting, waiting for its eggs to hatch. The eggs are the large star clouds of 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 .



Some fainter constellations

Between Regulus and Alphard is the inconspicuous constellation of Sextans, the Sextant. Between Sextans and the quadrilateral of Corvus, the Crow is another faint star group, Crater, the Cup. Between the Milky Way and the southern horizon may be found the lesser-known constellations of Apus the Bird of Paradise, Chamaeleon, Volans the Flying Fish, Pavo the Peacock, Apus the Bird of Paradise, Octans the Octant, Mensa the Table Mountain, Dorado the Goldfish, Indus the Indian, Tucana the Toucan, Hydrus the Southern Water Snake, Pictor the Painter and Telescopium the Telescope.



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 northern window is between the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, roughly between the stars Denebola and Arcturus.

This window is high above the northern horizon this month soon after darkness falls, so it's an ideal time for observing galaxies in the Virgo cluster. The southern window is in the constellation Sculptor, not far from the star Fomalhaut. This window will not rise until just before 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 across the millions of light years of space to thousands of distant galaxies.



The Milky Way

A glowing band of light crossing the sky is especially noticeable during the winter months. This glow is the light of millions of faint stars combined with that coming from glowing gas clouds called nebulae. It is concentrated along the plane of our galaxy, and this month it is seen crossing the sky, starting from almost due west (between Sirius and Procyon), and passing through Carina to Crux, Centaurus and Scorpius to Sagittarius in the east. 

It is rewarding to scan along this band with a pair of binoculars or small telescope, looking for star clusters and emission nebulae. By midnight in June, the Milky Way crosses the sky through the zenith, almost dividing it in two. It runs from south-west to north-east, and the very centre of our galaxy passes directly overhead.



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 down through its base and continue straight on towards the southern horizon for another 4 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 find the South Celestial Pole from southern Queensland is to choose a time when the Southern Cross is vertical (8.00 pm on June 1, 6.00 pm on June 30), and simply locate that spot in the sky which is midway between the bottom star of the Cross (Alpha Crucis), and the actual (not apparent) southern horizon.

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 Earth's rotation will cause the stars to appear to 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.



The Season of the Scorpion

The spectacular constellation of Scorpius rises at sundown in June. Three bright stars in a gentle curve mark his head, and another three mark his body. Of this second group of three, the centre one is a bright, red supergiant, Antares. It marks the red heart of the scorpion. This star is so large that, if it swapped places with our Sun, it would engulf the Earth and extend to the orbit of Mars. It is 604 light years away and shines at magnitude 1.06. Antares, an M type star, has a faint companion which can be seen in a good amateur telescope.

The rest of the stars run around the scorpion's tail, ending with two blue-white B type stars, Shaula (the brighter of the two) and Lesath, at the tip of the scorpion's sting. These two stars are closest to the eastern horizon tonight, and are near the bottom of the picture below. Above Lesath in the body of the scorpion is an optical double star, which can be seen as two with the unaided eye.

Scorpius, with its head at top left and tail (with sting) at lower right.

Probably the two constellations most easily recognisable (apart from Crux, the Southern Cross) are Orion the Hunter and Scorpius the Scorpion. Both are large constellations containing numerous bright stars, and are very obvious 'pictures in the sky'. Both also contain a very bright red supergiant star, Betelgeuse in Orion and Antares in Scorpius (below).


The ancient Greeks believed that Orion avoided the Scorpion, hurrying to leave the sky in the west when he saw Scorpius rising in the east. This was the basis for their stories of the goddess Artemis, who had Actaeon torn to pieces by dogs for accidentally seeing her unclothed, and who had her paramour Orion stung to death by scorpions for touching her.

From Australia though, we can (at certain times of the year) observe both constellations in the sky at the one time, even though they are on the opposite sides of the celestial sphere. In the early evenings of the first week of June, the stars in Scorpius can be seen rising above the east-south-eastern horizon, while Orion is preparing to set in the west. 



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 Kent (Alpha Centauri) at left, and Beta Cygni (Albireo), 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 or in some cases over a million 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 observable all night. 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


*     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

A little more than a handspan above the south-south-western horizon, and below and to the left of Canopus, two faint 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 SMC is due south and quite low to the horizon (about ten degrees up), and the LMC is above it and to its right. The LMC is noticeably larger and brighter. 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 intergalactic neighbours.  



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