December  2020

Updated:   1 December 2020

 

Welcome to the night skies of Summer, featuring Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Andromeda, Cetus, Aries, Taurus, Orion, Mars, 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 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.

 

 

 Solar System

 

Sun:   The Sun begins the month in the non-zodiacal constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent-bearer. It leaves Ophiuchus and passes into Sagittarius, the Archer on December 18.   

 

 

Total Solar Eclipse, December 14, 2020:


This solar eclipse will occur between 11:34 pm on December 14 and 4:43 am on December 15, Queensland time. As it will occur during our night-time, no part of the eclipse will be visible from the Sunshine Coast. The event will occur over the south-eastern Pacific Ocean and the south Atlantic Ocean. The only sites on land that will experience the eclipse are on a thin eclipse path crossing Chile and Argentina, and a few small islands.

 

 

Moon Phases: 


Last Quar
ter:              December 08          10:37 hrs           diameter = 31.9'
New Moo
n:               December 15          02:17 hrs           diameter = 32.8'     Lunation #1212 begins
First Quarte
r:           December 22          09:42 hrs           diameter = 29.8'
Full Moon
:                December 30          13:29 hrs           diameter = 30.4'

Last Quarter:           January 06              19:38 hrs           diameter = 32.2'
New Moon:
              January 13              15:01 hrs           diameter = 31.9'     Lunation #1213 begins
First Quarter:
          January 21              07:02 hrs           diameter = 29.6'
Full Moon:
               January 29              05:16 hrs           diameter = 31.3'
 


Lunar Orbital Elements:


December 01:           Moon at ascending node at 17:45 hrs, diameter = 29.9'
December 13:           Moon at perigee (361 778 km) at 09:48 hrs, diameter = 33.0'
December 14:           Moon at descending node at 21:02 hrs, diameter = 32.8'
December 25:
           Moon at apogee (405 015 km) at 04:13 hrs, diameter 29.5'
December 29:           Moon at ascending node at 00:59 hrs, diameter = 30.0'

January 10:               Moon at perigee (367 387 km) at 01:27 hrs, diameter = 32.5'
January 11:               Moon at descending node at 06:14 hrs, diameter = 32.5'
January 21:               Moon at apogee (404 371 km) at 23:15 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
January 25:               Moon at ascending node at 07:43 hrs, diameter = 30.0'
 

Moon at 8 days after New, as on December 23.

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 look at the area containing the craters Hippalus, Campanus and Mercator, in the Moon's southern hemisphere.

Hippalus, an ancient crater with a diameter of 58 kilometres, is found in the top left-hand corner of this photograph. It lies at the eastern margin of the Mare Humorum (Sea of Humours), and its south-western wall is missing. Mercator is the 48 kilometre crater near the right margin of the image. Although equally ancient, it has survived largely undamaged since its creation nearly 4 billion years ago. To the left (north-west) of Mercator is a crater nearly as big and almost as old, Campanus. These two are almost twins, except that the floor of Campanus is more interesting. The three craters Hippalus, Campanus and Mercator are the largest craters in this image. Three concentric rilles called the Rimae Hippalus dominate the western half of the area shown. The centre of curvature of these rilles lies in the centre of the Mare Humorum, about 150 kilometres off the left-hand margin of this image, which was taken at 7:04 pm on July 1, 2020.  


Lava spreading out from the impact that created the Mare Humorum (the eastern margin of which is seen along the left edge of the above image) has overwhelmed and destroyed the south-western wall of Hippalus, allowing the lava to enter the previously bowl-shaped crater and completely fill it, creating a flat floor. The north-eastern quadrant of this floor is a pyroclastic zone, the volcanic hills that have formed in this area being related to the 4 km wide rille that crosses the floor from south to north. There are two parallel rilles to the east of Hippalus, each with a total length of about 240 km. The mountain mass in the lower left-hand corner of the image is named the Promontorium Kelvin.

North of Campanus and Mercator is another lava plain, the Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds). In the extreme top-right corner of this image is part of the wall of the 45 kilometre 'ghost' crater, Kies, which also appears in the centre of image No. 44 in the  Lunar Features of the Month Archive  webpage. 21 kilometres to the west (left) of Kies' wall can be seen a slight bulge in the surface of the Mare Nubium. This faint bulge is a shield volcano with very gentle slopes. It is called Kies Pi and is 10 kilometres in diameter across the base, but is only 300 metres high. At its summit there is a volcanic caldera 1500 metres across. It has probably been extinct for at least 3.2 billion years.

 
Hippalus

Hippalus was a Greek navigator who lived in the first century BCE and into the second. He is credited with finding a sea route from the Egyptian port of Berenice near the northern end of the Red Sea, down that sea and the Gulf of Aden and across the Arabian Sea to the west coast of India. This greatly facilitated trade between Egypt (then under Roman control) and the Orient. The crater was named by Mädler in 1837.

Campanus

Giovanni Campano (1220-1296) was an Italian mathematician, astrologer and physician. He is known in history as Campanus of Novara. He served as Chaplain to four Popes. He translated Euclid's Elements into an edition of fifteen books, and 186 years after his death his version was so highly regarded that it was the first one to be printed using the newly-invented printing presses. His name was given to the crater in 1651 by Riccioli.

Mercator

Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), a Flemish map-maker, became very adept at producing accurate maps. He was imprisoned for seven months in 1544 as a heretic, due to his Protestant beliefs and suspicions aroused about his frequent, wide-ranging travels. 43 others were imprisoned with him, but he was the only one to be released, thanks to the intervention of university authorities. Also, various governments needed his maps for planning military campaigns. In 1541 Mercator perfected the method we use today to produce educational globes of the world and sky. Building on the earlier work of his contemporary Johannes Schöner, he used flat paper engravings cut into twelve ‘gores’ that were connected at the equator and tapered to separate points at the poles. He glued these to hollow papier-mâché spheres that were built up with plaster in a wooden mould. Circular metal caps called ‘calottes’ were placed in position over each pole. The globes were then hand coloured and set into innovative four-legged wooden stands with wooden horizon and metal meridian rings.

To produce flat maps, in 1568 he devised the Mercator Projection, in which lines of latitude were drawn as parallel horizontal lines, and lines of longitude as parallel vertical lines. Such maps were distorted, in that they increased dramatically in scale as the Poles were approached. In maps of the world, this resulted in polar regions such as Greenland being greatly exaggerated in area and their shapes deformed, but a real advantage was that such maps were able to show lines of constant sailing course (known as rhumb lines or loxodromes) as straight-line segments with true compass bearings, which was a great benefit to navigators. Mercator’s 1580 book of maps showed a picture of the Titan Atlas (son of Iapetus) holding a celestial globe on his shoulders, and so Mercator's book of maps became known as an ‘Atlas’ – the first usage of the term in that way. He also introduced a form of cursive writing that became popular.




The craters Hippalus, Campanus and Mercator are located inside the rectangle above.

 

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.


December 3:        Moon occults the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum (mv= 3.06) between 10:12 hrs and 10:54 hrs
December 4:        Mercury 2.2º north of Delta Scorpii (mv= 1.86) at 2:20 hrs
December 4:        Venus 1.2º north of Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha Librae, mv= 2.72) at 8:25 hrs
December 4:        Mercury 2.4º south of Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.56) at 10:27 hrs
December 10:      Neptune at eastern quadrature at 5:35 hrs  (diameter = 2.2")
December 13:      Moon 1.3º north of Venus at 5:55 hrs
December 13:      Limb of Moon 40 arcminutes north of the star Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.56) at 19:32 hrs
December 14:      Moon 1.6º north of Mercury at at 21:42 hrs
December 16:      Moon 1.4º north of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 00:28 hrs
December 16:      Moon 1.6º north of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv=2.02) at 9:30 hrs
December 16:      Mercury at aphelion at 12:31 hrs (diameter = 4.6")
December 17:      Limb of Moon 55 arcminutes south of Pluto at 4:33hrs
December 17:      Moon 2.7º south of Jupiter at 16:23 hrs
December 17:      Moon 2.7º south of Saturn at 17:41 hrs
December 18:      Venus 10 arcminutes north of the star Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.56) at 21:06 hrs
December 20:      Mercury at superior conjunction at 13:07 hrs (diameter = 4.6")
December 21:      Moon 3.8º south of Neptune at 8:21 hrs
December 22:      Jupiter 6 arcminutes south of Saturn at 5:24 hrs
December 24:      Moon 4.8º south of Mars at 8:22 hrs
December 25:      Moon 3.1º south of Uranus at 10:09 hrs
December 25:      Mercury 20 arcminutes north of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 12:27 hrs
December 29:      Mercury 1.5º north of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv=2.02) at 6:56 hrs
December 30:      Moon occults the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum (mv= 3.06) between 14:39 hrs and 15:18 hrs

2021:

January 3:           Earth at perihelion at 20:55 hrs
January 5:           Mercury 56 arcminutes south of Pluto at 11:16 hrs
January 10:         Limb of Moon 54 arcminutes north of the star Graffias (Beta-1 Scorpii, mv= 2.59) at 1:49 hrs
January 10:         Mercury 1.6º south of Saturn at 12:41 hrs
January 12:         Mercury 1.4º south of Jupiter at 3:37 hrs
January 12:         Limb of Moon 45 arcminutes south of Venus at 4:29 hrs
January 12:         Limb of Moon 24 arcminutes north of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 10:38 hrs
January 12:         Moon 2.1º north of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv=2.02) at 21:32 hrs
January 12:         Jupiter 1.7º south of the star Rho Capricorni (mv=4.76) at 21:31 hrs
January 13:         Moon 1.2º south of Pluto at 18:41 hrs
January 14:         Moon 2.9º south of Saturn at 6:32 hrs
January 14:         Venus 2.2º north of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 9:24 hrs
January 14:         Uranus at eastern stationary point at 16:26 hrs (diameter = 3.6")
January 14:         Moon 3.1º south of Jupiter at 12:53 hrs
January 14:         Moon 1.6º south of Mercury at 20:45 hrs
January 15:         Pluto in conjunction with the Sun at 00:17 hrs (diameter = 0.1")
January 17:         Moon 3.4º south of Neptune at 20:52 hrs
January 21:         Mars 1.6º north of Uranus at 7:37 hrs
January 21:         Moon 2.5º south of Uranus at 18:28 hrs
January 21:         Moon 4º south of Mars at 19:28 hrs
January 22:         Venus 1.6º south of the star Al Baldah (Pi Sagittarii (mv=2.88) at 5:05 hrs
January 23:         Jupiter 44 arcminutes south of the star Upsilon Capricorni (mv=5.15) at 13:37 hrs
January 24:         Mercury at Greatest Elongation East (18º 34') at 12:01 hrs (diameter = 6.9")
January 24:         Saturn in conjunction with the Sun at 13:12 hrs (diameter = 15.1")
January 25:         Mercury 2.8º north of the star Deneb Algiedi (Delta Capricorni, mv=2.85) at 11:01 hrs
January 26:         Uranus at eastern quadrature at 22:40 hrs (diameter = 3.5")
January 27:         Limb of Moon 8 arcminutes north of the star Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum (mv= 3.06) at 1:44 hrs
January 29:         Venus 44 arcminutes north of Pluto at 2:36 hrs
January 29:         Jupiter in conjunction with the Sun at 11:37 hrs (diameter = 32.4")
January 29:         Mercury at perihelion at 12:08 hrs (diameter = 8.1")
January 31:         Mercury at eastern stationary point at at 1:49 hrs (diameter = 8.5")

 


 

The Planets for this month:

 

Mercury:    This month, the innermost planet is in the eastern pre-dawn sky, rising just before the Sun but hard to find due to the solar glare. It will rise above the east-south-east theoretical  horizon at 4:15 am on December 1, but on each succeeding day it will become closer to the Sun and more difficult to observe until it passes behind the Sun (superior conjunction) on December 20. It will then move from the early morning sky into the western twilight sky, becoming visible in the first week of January 2021. Between January 9 and 11 Mercury will be close to Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Capricornus. The waxing crescent Moon will join these three planets, making a fine grouping on January 14, although the Sun will be less than 10º away. 

  

Venus:    This, the brightest planet, was an 'evening star' in the first five months of 2020. It passed through inferior conjunction (when it overtook the Earth by passing between us and the Sun) on June 4, after which it moved to the eastern pre-dawn sky. It is now a 'morning star', and on December 1 it may be spotted about a handspan above the eastern horizon just before dawn breaks, in the constellation of Libra. It will pass through an outstretched claw of Scorpius between December 18 and 22, after which it will spend the rest of December in the constellation of Ophiuchus. During December Venus rises above the theoretical horizon at about 3:30 am. Venus reached its greatest elongation west (43º 17') on August 14, when it was at its greatest angular distance from the Sun. Shining at around magnitude -4, it is brighter than anything else in the night sky, except for the Moon. Venus is bright enough to cast faint shadows. Venus will remain a 'morning star' until early next year. The waning crescent Moon will be close to Venus on the morning of December 13.

Venus will join a close grouping of Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and the waning crescent Moon in the pre-dawn eastern sky in the second week of February, 2021.

(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).

         early July 2020                     mid-August 2020                      March 2021                      October 2021                       December 2021        

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 all of 2019 up to July, Venus appeared as an 'Morning Star' in the eastern pre-dawn sky, but in August last year it moved to the evening sky to be an 'Evening Star'. It is now quite easy to find in the west as twilight begins to fade.

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 still well-placed for viewing this month, since the Earth overtook it on October 14. On that night it was at its closest to Earth, with a brightness of magnitude -2.6 and an angular size of 22 arcseconds. We are now leaving Mars behind, and on December 1 its brightness will have fallen to magnitude -1.15 and its angular size reduced to 14.5 arcseconds. By the end of the month Mars will have faded to magnitude -0.25 and its size reduced to 10.5 arcseconds.

Mars completed its retrograde S-bend in Pisces on November 14 and has now resumed its eastward movement through the constellations.  It will cross into Aries on January 5, 2021 and into Taurus on February 24, Gemini on April 24, Cancer on June 8 and Leo on July 11. Mars will pass in front of the Praesepe (Bee-hive) star cluster on the night of June 23/24. The waxing gibbous Moon will be in the vicinity of Mars on December 23 and 24. Mars will reach eastern quadrature on February 1, 2021.

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 opposition on July 14, and now is only suitable for viewing in the early evening. On December 1 it will be one-and-a-half handspans (28º) above the west-south-western horizon as night falls (7:30 pm), in the constellation of Sagittarius. The thin crescent Moon will be 4.5º to the left and below Jupiter as darkness falls on December 17, with fainter Saturn 2º above Jupiter. Jupiter will be in conjunction with the Sun on January 29, 2021, after which it will reappear in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

     

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 fifth 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 reached opposition on July 21, and on December 1 it will be one-and-two thirds handspans (30º) above the west-south-western horizon as night falls (7:30 pm), in the constellation of Sagittarius. The thin crescent Moon will be 6.5º to the left and below Saturn as darkness falls on December 17, with brighter Jupiter 2º below Saturn. For the last several years Jupiter has been catching up to Saturn against the background of starry constellations, and both planets will be together in the sky on December 22 next, when they will be only 6.5 arcminutes apart. It will be a spectacular sight in a small telescope on that night, soon after sunset (the Sun will be 30 degrees west of the two planets). Saturn will be in conjunction with the Sun on January 24, 2021, after which it will reappear in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

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 near the junction of the constellations Pisces, Cetus and Aries. This month it is about two-thirds of a handspan south-east of the second magnitude star Hamal. Uranus came to opposition on November 1. The waxing gibbous Moon will be midway between Mars and Uranus around midnight on December 24/25.  

 

Neptune:   The icy blue planet reached opposition (rising at sunset) on September 12 and will reach eastern quadrature (crossing the meridian at sunset) on December 10.  A telescope is required to observe Neptune, as its magnitude is 7.9 and its angular diameter is only 2 arcseconds. It is located near the boundary of Aquarius and Pisces, 8 degrees south of the centre of the asterism known as the Circlet. The First Quarter Moon will be in the vicinity of Neptune in the early evenings of December 20 and 21.

Neptune, photographed from Nambour on October 31, 2008


Pluto:
   The erstwhile ninth and most distant planet reached opposition on July 16. On December 1 it may be found low to the west-south-western horizon soon after sunset. Observations of this small and faint dwarf planet under such conditions are very difficult. Pluto's angular diameter is 0.13 arcseconds, less than one twentieth that of Neptune. Located in the eastern end of Sagittarius, it is a faint 14.1 magnitude object.  A telescope with an aperture of 25 cm is capable of locating Pluto.

 

  

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



The fine conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn that has been on-going in the night sky for the past six months is coming to a climax this month. Both planets will appear close together, about one-and-a-half handspans above the west-south-western horizon as soon as darkness falls. Both begin the month in Sagittarius, but Saturn will cross into Capricornus on December 16, followed by Jupiter on December 19. On the evening of December 17, the thin crescent Moon will join the grouping, adding additional interest.

Jupiter, being closer to the Sun than Saturn, travels around its orbit faster, and has not as far to go as its orbit is smaller in circumference. Jupiter takes 11.8 years to complete one orbit of the Sun, while Saturn, further out, takes 29.45 years. This means that, from our vantage point on the moving Earth, Jupiter appears to catch up and pass Saturn once every 20 years. Such an event will occur this month, and the two planets will be within 30 arcminutes of each other (about the Moon's diameter) soon after sunset in the week of December 17 to 25. Both planets will fit together into the same low power telescopic field of view. The closest approach will be on December 21 and 22, when they will be less than 7.5 arcminutes apart. They will still be close on the following evening. An approach this close is very rare, and if you miss it, the next will occur on October 31, 2040, but that approach will be far less spectacular, as the planets will be over a degree apart (twice the diameter of the Moon).

In the first week of January 2021, Mercury will join Jupiter and Saturn in Capricornus. The best time to look will between January 8 and 11, but all three planets will be hard to find in the solar glare. Mercury will be about 1.4º to the right of the faint crescent Moon, low in the west at 7:15 pm on January 14.  By the end of January Jupiter and Saturn will both have passed through their respective conjunctions (passing behind the Sun), and during February both will have reappeared in the eastern pre-dawn sky. On February 9, brilliant Venus will appear midway between them, outshining both, but the glare of the Sun will make observations difficult.

 

 

Meteor Showers:


 

Phoenicids              December 6/7                         Waxing gibbous Moon, 74% sunlit                   ZHR = 6
                                 Radiant:  Near the star Achernar

Geminids                December 14/15                      Waning Full Moon, 93% sunlit                         ZHR = 90
                                 Radiant: 
Near the star Castor.    Associated with Asteroid 3200 Phaethon.    This will be quite a rich meteor shower.


Ursids                     December 23/24                      Waning crescent Moon, 7% sunlit                   ZHR = 20
                                 Radiant: Near the star Kochab, in the northern constellation Ursa Minor.


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 is heading towards the Sun. Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is approaching the orbit of Mercury and is presently at magnitude 7.4, three magnitudes brighter than expected. Located in the constellation of Orion north of the star Betelgeuse, it can be seen with binoculars from the Northern Hemisphere, but is close to the glare of the Sun. It has been photographed on June 10 by Michael Mattiazzo of Swan Hill, Victoria, but it is heading north and will soon be lost to southern hemisphere observers. 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 is quite large, recent images revealing it to be about 5 kilometres across. This may account for its survival of its close encounter with the Sun. It had its closest approach to the Earth, 103 505 306 kilometres, on July 23.

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
SWAN (C/2020 F8) and Comet ATLAS (2019 Y4)

Both of these comets appeared in the last two months in orbits that would cause them to dive towards the Sun's surface before swinging around the Sun and heading back towards the far reaches of the Solar System. Such comets are called 'Sun grazers', and their close approach to the Sun takes them through its immensely powerful gravitational field and the hot outer atmosphere called the 'corona'. They brighten considerably during their approach, but most do not survive and disintegrate as the ice which holds them together melts. While expectations were high that these two would emerge from their encounter and put on a display as bright comets with long tails when they left the Sun, as they came close to the Sun they both broke up into small fragments of rock and ice and ceased to exist. Comet NEOWISE above is on the same course and may also break up, or we may be third time lucky.


 

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. In the week preceding it was at its brightest at magnitude 4, but this was a cloudy week at Nambour. It passed between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters on the night of December 19-20, but the light of the almost Full Moon made it difficult to see. It then headed towards the star Capella in Auriga, which it passed on December 24-25. It is currently 470 million kilometres away in the constellation Virgo, between Spica and Arcturus, and close to the star Heze (Zeta Virginis), but at 18th magnitude it is too faint for most amateur telescopes. Click  here  for more information and charts.



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. The comet may brighten as it passes by the Earth on December 16. Width of field = 18.6 arcminutes.

 

 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 poorly placed for viewing, but it may be found rising above the south-south-eastern horizon after 10 pm.

 

 

 

The Stars and Constellations for this month:

 
 

These descriptions of the night sky are for 10 pm on December 1 and 8 pm on December 31. Broadly speaking, the following description starts in the west and heads east, then south, then high in the south.  


[ On December 1, the Sun will set at 6:28 pm and twilight will end by 7:30 pm. At this time, three planets will be visible in the constellation Sagittarius, and two are naked-eye objects. All will have set by 10 pm, the time when the constellations described below will be visible:  Jupiter sets at 9:46 pm and Saturn at 9:54 pm.  Tiny, faint Pluto sets at 9:36 pm. More details about the movements of these planets are in the section  The Planets for this month  above. ]


By 10 pm, setting on the western horizon is the zodiacal constellation Capricornus, the Sea Goat.  Above it is Aquarius, the Water Bearer.  There are no stars brighter than third magnitude in this constellation, but it does contain many interesting objects, including a group of four stars known as the 'Water Jar'. Also, this year faint Neptune may be found in its eastern end, between the fifth magnitude star 96 Aquarii and the fourth magnitude 90-Phi Aquarii. The constellation of Pisces, the Fishes crosses the meridian at 7 pm in mid-December, followed by Aries and then Taurus. This month, Mars is still in Pisces, but it will cross into Aries on January 5 next. The Great Square of Pegasus is tilted over on its lower left corner, and is setting in the north-west, being followed by Andromeda. Triangulum is above the north-north-western horizon. These constellations contain the well-known spiral galaxies M31 (in Andromeda, illustrated at the bottom of this webpage), and M33 (in Triangulum, illustrated below).

The Great Spiral M33 in Triangulum.


The three main stars in Andromeda are, from left to right, Alpheratz, Mirach, and Almach, and above them is the faint constellation of Triangulum, a narrow triangle of stars. M31 lies about eight degrees (one third of a handspan) below and slightly to the left of Mirach tonight. These large spirals are members of the Local Group of galaxies (our Milky Way is a third member), and can be easily seen with binoculars. They are the nearest galaxies that can be observed from the large observatories in the Northern Hemisphere. This month they are best seen as soon as darkness falls, for then they will be closer to due north and therefore at their highest elevation.

Above Triangulum is the zodiacal constellation of Aries, now past the meridian in the north-north- west. There are three main stars in Aries, the brightest being a second magnitude orange star called Hamal. The other two are named Sheratan and Mesarthim . M33 lies midway between Hamal and Mirach. Nine and a half degrees (half-a-handspan) to the south-east (above and to the right) of Sheratan is the planet Uranus, but it is not visible without at least a pair of binoculars. At 8:30 pm at mid-month, Uranus will be crossing the meridian (north to south line passing through the zenith). It will be two handspans north of the zenith at the time of culmination, and close to the junction between the constellations Pisces, Cetus and Aries. A well-known asterism in Pisces is the Circlet, a faint circle of seven fourth and fifth magnitude stars.

Cetus (the Whale) lies a little north-west of the zenith. Though this part of the sky has no really bright stars, a little more than a handspan west of the zenith is a mv 2.2 star. This is Beta Ceti, the brightest star in the constellation. Its common name is Diphda, and it has a yellowish-orange colour. By rights, we would expect the star Menkar or Alpha Ceti to be brighter, but Menkar is actually more than half a magnitude fainter than Diphda. Menkar may be seen high in the north-east, halfway between Diphda and Aldebaran.

Cetus is a large constellation, and to the unaided eye it appears unremarkable. But it does contain a most interesting star, which even medieval people noticed. Hevelius named it Mira, the Wonderful (see below). Mira is near its peak brightness this month. Between Cetus and Pegasus is the zodiacal constellation of Pisces (the Fishes).

The spectacular constellations are in the eastern half of the sky tonight. Taurus, with its two star clusters the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters, or Subaru, or Santa's Sleigh) and the Hyades, is high in the north-north-east (see below). The brightest star in Taurus is an orange star dominating the Hyades cluster, but not a member of it. This is Aldebaran, a K5 star with a visual magnitude of 0.87.

Below the Pleiades we can see part of the far-northern constellation of Perseus. The two brightest stars are Mirphak (Alpha Persei) and Algol (Beta Persei). Algol is the higher above the northern horizon of the two. Since ancient times, Algol shows regular variations in brightness. It usually shines at magnitude 2.1, but every 2 days 20 hours 49 minutes it dims to magnitude 3.4 for 10 hours before recovering its original brightness. Because of this clock-like change, early astronomers called it the 'Demon Star'. It marks the head of Medusa, the Gorgon, which is carried in the hand of Perseus.

The Dutch-born Englishman John Goodricke (1764-1786) was a young amateur astronomer. He was profoundly deaf and also restricted in speech after suffering from scarlet fever as a young boy. Goodricke is best known for his explanation of the variations in the star Algol (Beta Persei) in 1782. Although several stars were already known to vary in apparent magnitude, Goodricke was the first to propose a mechanism to account for this. He suggested that Algol is actually a pair of stars circling each other, and the variation in brightness is caused when one passes behind the other. Such a star system is now known as an eclipsing binary. He presented his findings to the Royal Society in May 1783, and for this work, the Society awarded him the Copley Medal for that year.

Goodricke is also credited with discovering the periodic variation of the namesake, Delta Cephei, of the type of variable stars called Cepheids, in 1784. It was the second Cepheid found, the first, Eta Aquilae, being found by Goodricke’s friend Edward Pigott earlier the same year. Goodricke proposed that Cepheids were unstable stars that regularly swell up and then fall back - 'pulsating variables' (see  Mira, the Wonderful  below).

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on April 16, 1786, but never learned of this honour, as he was very ill and died four days later, probably from pneumonia, aged only twenty-one years and seven months.

Between the Hyades and the north-eastern horizon, the large pentagon of Auriga, the Charioteer has risen. The brightest star in this constellation is Capella, which is directly above the north-north-eastern horizon. Just above Capella is a little triangle of stars, known as 'The Kids'. The top star of Auriga's pentagon, Elnath, points towards Orion. Actually, Elnath is the second-brightest star in Taurus, and forms the tip of one of the Bull's horns.

At 10 pm at the beginning of the month, the two bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, are just rising above the theoretical north-eastern horizon. These two first magnitude stars are known as 'The Twins'. If your horizon in this direction is very low, you may be able to glimpse them, both stars rising together about five degrees apart. Pollux is the more easterly of the two. If your horizon is not low, you will have to wait a little to see these stars appear. These two stars are the twins' heads, and their feet point towards Orion. Two-thirds of the way from their heads to their feet, each twin is marked by a star at his hip, third magnitude Mebsuta for Castor, and fourth magnitude Mekbuda for Pollux. 

Orion (see below) is about halfway up the sky in the east, and a bright star in Canis Minor (the Lesser Dog), Procyon, is now about half-a-handspan above the eastern horizon. Around midnight at mid-month, Orion will cross the meridian (the north-south line across the sky, passing through the zenith), at which time the constellation is said to ‘culminate’. The three stars marking Orion's Belt will be about twenty-five degrees (a little more than a handspan) north of the zenith. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is south-east of Orion, in the constellation Canis Major (the Greater Dog).

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 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.

 

Very low in the south, Alpha Crucis (or Acrux), the brightest and most southerly star of Crux (Southern Cross) is beginning to rise. Between Crux and Sirius is a large area of the Milky Way filled with interesting objects. This was once the constellation Argo Navis, named for Jason’s famous ship used by the Argonauts in their search 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).

Above the horizon, just to the left of due south and above Acrux, is the small constellation Musca, the Fly. Musca is a circumpolar constellation, i.e. it is always in our sky, being too close to the South Celestial Pole to set. Out of the 88 constellations, it is the only insect.

High in the south-east and two handspans from Sirius is the second brightest star in the night sky, Canopus (Alpha Carinae). On the border of Carina and Vela is the False Cross, larger and more lopsided than the Southern Cross. 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. At the present time, both Crosses are upside-down.

At about thirty-five degrees above the south-western horizon, the flattened triangle of Grus, the Crane, is swinging down. To its right is the bright star Fomalhaut, a bright, white first magnitude star in the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. Fomalhaut means 'the fish's mouth'. A planet revolving around Fomalhaut was recently photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Midway between -0.71 magnitude Canopus and 1.16 magnitude Fomalhaut is the 0.46 magnitude star Achernar, in the constellation Eridanus, the River.

Eridanus winds its faint way across the sky from Achernar to Cursa, these two stars marking the ends of the river. Cursa (Beta Eridani) is a 2.79 magnitude star about four degrees to the north-west of Rigel (see below).

To the right of Achernar, the faint constellation of Phoenix may be seen. Its brightest star is Ankaa, a mv 2.39 star which is about one third of the way from Achernar to Diphda. About a handspan south of Achernar is a small, faint glowing patch. This is the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). A handspan to its left is a larger glow, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Both of these glowing clouds are galaxies in their own right, separate from our Milky Way galaxy. They are described in greater detail in Two close galaxies below. The LMC bridges two faint constellations, Dorado and Mensa. The SMC is in the constellation Tucana, the Toucan.

The zodiacal constellations visible tonight, starting from the south-western horizon and heading across to the north-east horizon, are Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus and Gemini. Mars is currently in the constellation Libra (the Scales) and does not rise until after 2 am.

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 Winged Horse and the Chained Maiden:  

 

About half-way up the sky from the north-north-western horizon (at the end of twilight on December 1) is a large star group called the Great Square of Pegasus. The Square (actually slightly rectangular) is unusual for the sparcity of bright stars within it. Pegasus was the winged horse of Greek legend, and is used as a symbol by the Mobil Oil Company and TriStar Pictures. By 8.00 pm the Square will be tilted over to the west and it will begin to set in the north-west by 11.00 pm.

The stars making the four corners of the Square, starting from the top left and moving clockwise, are Markab, Algenib, Alpheratz and Scheat. Three of these are in the constellation of Pegasus, but Alpheratz is actually in the constellation Andromeda.

Between Alpheratz and the northern horizon, a very faint glowing oval may be seen if the sky is dark enough. You would need to be away from light pollution caused by bright lights. Binoculars will help you to find it, but it is visible faintly without optical aid. This oval is the Great Nebula in Andromeda (M31), a large spiral galaxy of over 100 million stars. The Andromeda spiral is almost a twin of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Lying at a distance of 2.6 million light years, it is the furthest object that can be seen with the unaided eye (see  The Andromeda Galaxy and the President of the United States  at the bottom of this page).  




The Hunter and his Dogs:


Two of the most spectacular constellations in the sky may be seen rising above the eastern horizon soon after sunset in December. These are Orion the Hunter, and his greater dog, Canis Major. Orion straddles the celestial equator, midway between the south celestial pole and its northern equivalent. This means that the centre of the constellation, the three stars known as Orion's Belt, rise due east and set due west. A smaller constellation, the lesser dog Canis Minor, accompanies them. 

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. You can, though, make him appear upright when high in the sky (near the meridian), by observing him from a reclining chair, with your feet pointing to the south and your head tilted back. 

Orion rising as darkness falls in December

Orion rises south-east of Taurus. If you have a fairly low eastern horizon, you will see most of the constellation rising above the eastern horizon as soon as it gets dark at the beginning of December. The bright Rigel is highest in the sky. The red supergiant Betelgeuse is the last of Orion's bright stars to rise.   

Orion has two bright stars marking his shoulders, the red supergiant Betelgeuse and Bellatrix.

The red supergiant star, Betelgeuse

A little north of a line joining these stars is a tiny triangle of stars marking Orion’s head. In the centre of the constellation are three stars in a line forming Orion's Belt. These are, from west to east, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. These three stars are related, and all lie at a distance of 1300 light years. They are members of a group of hot blue-white stars called the Orion Association.

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

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

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

The stars forming the Belt and Sword are popularly known in Australia as ‘The Saucepan’, with the Sword forming the Saucepan’s handle. This asterism appears upside-down tonight, 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*. A photograph of it appears below:  

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

The central section of M42, the Great Nebula in Orion.

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

Canis Major:

By 8.00 pm in early December, a brilliant white star will be seen rising about one handspan to the south and lower than Orion. 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 above Sirius.

The hindquarters of the Dog are indicated by a large right-angled triangle of stars located to the right of Sirius and tilted. The end of his tail is the lower-right corner of the triangle, about one handspan south (to the right) of Sirius. The star at the root of the Dog's tail is called Wezen, and the one at the tip of his tail is called Aludra. The star Adhara marks his back foot. The Dog's head is shown by a faint outline of fourth and fifth magnitude stars.

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 on a night of good 'seeing', as it is very close to brilliant Sirius and is usually lost in the glare.

Canis Major as it appears in the east soon after sunset in December

Canis Minor:

This small constellation 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. Procyon rises in the east soon after 9.00 pm at the beginning of December.

 

Taurus, the Bull:

What is Orion hunting? About a handspan to the left of Orion's Belt is a bright orange star, Aldebaran. It is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. This orange star appears at the foot of a cluster of stars with the appearance of a capital A or inverted V. This cluster is called the Hyades, and seemed to the ancients like the face of a bull, with Aldebaran as his angry orange eye. Being in the southern hemisphere, we see it upside down. Actually, Aldebaran is not physically connected with the Hyades cluster, being much closer, but in the same line of sight.

Half a handspan to the left of the Hyades cluster, and a little higher above the horizon, is another cluster, smaller and fainter. This is the Pleiades, a small group like a question mark. It is often called the Seven Sisters, although excellent eyes are needed to detect the seventh star without binoculars or telescope. The group is also known as ‘Santa’s Sleigh’, as it appears around Christmas time. All the stars in this cluster are hot and blue. They are also the same age, as they formed as a group out of a single gas cloud or nebula. There are actually more than 250 stars in the Pleiades, and this cluster marks the Bull's shoulder.

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

Wisps of the nebula which surrounds the Pleiades can be seen around the brighter stars in the cluster.

 

 

Mira, the Wonderful:

 

The amazing thing about the star Mira or Omicron Ceti is that it varies dramatically in brightness, rising to magnitude 2 (brighter than any other star in Cetus), and then dropping to magnitude 10 (requiring a telescope to detect it), over a period of 332 days. 

This drop of eight magnitudes means that its brightness diminishes over a period of five and a half months to one six-hundredth of what it had been, and then over the next five and a half months it regains its original brightness. To the ancients, they saw the familiar star fade away during the year until it disappeared, and then it slowly reappeared again. Its not surprising that Hevelius named it 'Mira', meaning 'The Wonderful' or 'The Miraculous One'.

We now know that many stars vary in brightness, even our Sun doing so to a small degree, with a period of 11 years. One type of star varies, not because it is actually becoming less bright in itself, but because another, fainter star moves around it in an orbit roughly in line with the Earth, and obscures part of it on each pass. This type of star is called an eclipsing variable and they are very common.

The star Mira though, varies its light output because of processes in its interior. It is what is known as a pulsating variable. Stars of the Mira type are giant pulsating red stars that vary between 2.5 and 11 magnitudes in brightness. They have long, regular periods of pulsation which lie in the range from 80 to 1000 days.

In 2019, Mira reached a maximum brightness of magnitude 3.4 on October 24, and after fading to a minimum magnitude of 9.3 last June reached its maximum again on September 20 last.  It is now fading again. Each of these cycles lasts 332 days.

    

Mira near minimum, 26 September 2008                  Mira near maximum, 22 December 2008

Astronomers using a NASA space telescope have spotted an amazingly long comet-like tail behind Mira as the star streaks through space. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer - "GALEX" for short - scanned the well-known star during its ongoing survey of the entire sky in ultraviolet light. Astronomers then noticed what looked like a comet with a gargantuan tail. In fact, material blowing off Mira is forming a wake 13 light-years long, or about 20,000 times the average distance of Pluto from the sun. Nothing like this has ever been seen before around a star.   More, including pictures

 

 

Double 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 (Foot of the Centaur, or 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.nt color="#FFFFCC" face="Arial" size="2" style="font-size: 11pt"

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 faster it burns its nuclear fuel and 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 (Acrux, Castor, Antares, Sirius). Even closer double stars cannot be split by the telescope, but the spectroscope can disclose their true nature by revealing clues in the absorption lines in their spectra. These examples are called spectroscopic binaries. In a binary system, closer stars will have shorter periods for the stars to complete an orbit. Eta Cassiopeiae takes 480 years for the stars to circle each other. The binary with the shortest period is AM Canum Venaticorum, which takes only 17½ minutes.

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

 

 

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 well-placed for viewing this month, and many distant galaxies can be observed in this area of the sky. The northern window is between the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, roughly between the stars Denebola and Arcturus. It is below the horizon in the evenings this month.

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.

 

 

Some fainter constellations:

 

Between the two Dogs is the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn, undistinguished except for the presence of the remarkable Rosette Nebula. South of Orion is a small constellation, Lepus the Hare. Between Lepus and the star Canopus is the star group Columba the Dove.  Between the zenith and the south-western horizon are a number of small, faint constellations, Phoenix, Hydrus, Reticulum, Indus and Pavo. Clustered around the South Celestial Pole are Dorado, Octans, Apus, Chamaeleon, Mensa and Volans.

 

 

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

Another way to locate the South Celestial Pole is to draw an imaginary straight line joining Beta Centauri in the south-west to Achernar in the south-east. Bisect this imaginary line to locate the pole.

Neither of these methods will work in Queensland during December evenings as both the Southern Cross and Beta Centauri are below the horizon in the evening. However, they will have risen by midnight.

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 seem to move during the exposure, being recorded on the film as short arcs of a circle. The arcs will be different colours, as the stars are. All the arcs will have a common centre of curvature, which is the south celestial pole.

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

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

 


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 above 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. M7 is not visible tonight.

Galactic Cluster M7 in Scorpius

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

The largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky is NGC 5139**, also known as Omega Centauri. It has a slightly oval shape. It is an outstanding winter object, but this month it is below the horizon for much of the 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

Although Omega Centauri is below the horizon in the evenings this month, there is another remarkable globular, second only to Omega, which is in a good position. Close to the SMC (see Two close galaxies 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 best placed for viewing at 8 pm.

The globular cluster 47 Tucanae

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 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.

The globular cluster NGC 6752 in the constellation Pavo.

 

*     M7:  This number means that this galactic cluster in Scorpius is No. 7 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:

 

At 10 pm on December 1, two faint smudges of light may be seen high in the south. These are the two Clouds of Magellan, known to astronomers as the LMC (Large Magellanic Cloud) and the SMC (Small Magellanic Cloud). The LMC is to the left of the SMC, and is noticeably larger. They lie at distances of 190 000 light years for the LMC, and 200 000 light years for the SMC. They are about 60 000 light years apart. These dwarf galaxies 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.

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 in the northern half of the sky, 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. 

 

 


The Andromeda Galaxy and the President of the United States:

 

In 1901, U.S.A. President William McKinley was assassinated and his Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt, took his place. Theodore became a popular President, and was elected in his own right in 1904 for a second term. He was known as Teddy Roosevelt, and the Teddy Bear is named after him. As President he was a dynamic, vigorous and energetic man, very keen on preserving the wonders of nature through the creation of national parks, forests, and natural monuments such as Rainbow Bridge. 

Teddy made the acquaintance of noted American naturalist, scientist, explorer and author William Beebe who shared his love of nature. They became friends and would meet regularly for dinner and an evening's conversation, sometimes with friends of similar interests. Both men had strong egos, but recognised the dangers of pride in themselves and in their accomplishments. 

It is said that after dinner, Roosevelt, Beebe and their friends would step outside for cigars and lengthy discussions about world affairs. At the conclusion, they would look up at the starry sky. Roosevelt or Beebe would point out a small, faint smudge of light close to the Great Square of Pegasus and they would both recite, almost as a litany, something similar to the following:

"That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred million suns, many larger than our sun." The President would then turn to the others. "Now I think we are small enough," he would say. "Let's go to bed."

Whereas from the latitude of Washington D.C. the Andromeda Galaxy is visible for most of the year, from Australia it is so far north (41 degrees north declination) that it is only visible in the evenings during spring and early summer. For us, this magnificent galaxy is due north at 8 pm on December 1, about one handspan above the horizon.

The Great Galaxy in Andromeda, M31, photographed at Starfield Observatory with an off-the-shelf digital camera on 16 November 2007.

 

 

 

 

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Click here to access a new spectacular picture every day - this link will also provide you with access to a wonderful library of astronomical photographs from telescopes, spacecraft and manned lunar missions.

 

 

Virtual Moon freeware

Study the Moon in close-up, spin it around to see the far side, find the names and physical attributes of craters, seas, ranges and other features, by clicking  here.

 

 

 

Calsky software

Check out where the planets and their moons are, as well as most other sky objects, by clicking  here.


 

 

Stellarium freeware

New version. Check out where the stars and constellations are, as well as most other sky objects, by clicking  here.



 

Observatory Home Page and Index