October  2017

Updated:   9 October 2017



Welcome to the night skies of Spring, featuring Saturn, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Aquila, Lyra and Cygnus 


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


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

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


Explanatory Notes:  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Four Minute Rule:   

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

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

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

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

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



 Solar System


Sun:   The Sun begins the month in the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin. It leaves Virgo and passes into Libra, the Scales on October 31.   



Moon Phases:  Lunations (Brown series):  #1173, 1174 


Full Moon:                October 06                04:40 hrs           diameter = 32.0'   
Last Quarter:          
October 12                22:26 hrs           diameter = 32.2' 
New Moon:              
October 20                05:12 hrs          diameter = 30.4'    
First Quarter:          
October 28                08:22 hrs           diameter = 29.9' 

Full Moon:                November 04             15:23 hrs          diameter = 32.8'
Last Quarter:           November 11             06:37 hrs          diameter = 31.9' 
New Moon:               November 18            21:42 hrs          diameter = 29.7'
First Quarter:           November 27             03:03 hrs          diameter = 30.4'




Lunar Orbital Elements:

October 02:             Moon at descending node at 12:03 hrs, diameter = 30.6'
October 09:             Moon at perigee (366 855 km) at 15:37 hrs, diameter = 32.6'
October 15:             Moon at ascending node at 08:13 hrs, diameter = 31.7'
October 25:             Moon at apogee (405 164 km) at 12:38 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
October 29:             Moon at descending node at 16:38 hrs, diameter = 30.3'

November 06:         Moon at perigee (361 431 km) at 10:03 hrs, diameter = 33.1'
November 11        Moon at ascending node at 08:44 hrs, diameter = 31.8'
November 22:         Moon at apogee (406 112 km) at 04:28 hrs, diameter = 29.4'

November 25
:         Moon at descending node at 18:22 hrs, diameter = 29.9'

Moon at 8 days after New, as on October 29.

The photograph above shows the Moon when approximately eight days after New, just after First Quarter.  A detailed map of the Moon's near side is available here.  A rotatable view of the Moon, with ability to zoom in close to the surface (including the far side), and giving detailed information on each feature, may be downloaded  here.

Click here for a photographic animation showing the lunar phases. It also shows the Moon's wobble or libration, and how its apparent size changes as it moves from perigee to apogee each month. It takes a little while to load, but once running is very cool !  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. Recent photographs from our Alluna RC20 telescope will illustrate the objects. 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 a pair of craters in the Moon's southern hemisphere, Pitatus and Hesiodus.

The largest crater in this image is Pitatus which is 100 km in diameter. To its west (left) is its 44 km diameter neighbour Hesiodus.

Both of these craters have flat floors with multiple rilles around their circumferences. Pitatus has an off-centre mountain massif on its floor, while that of Hesiodus has two newer impact craters, both bowl-shaped. There is an unusual valley joining the floors of Pitatus and Hesiodus. A 12 km 'ghost crater', partially submerged by the lava flows from the north, is about 30 km north of Pitatus, with another to the west. From the western ramparts of Hesiodus, the 309 km long rille called  Rima Hesiodus runs to the south-west and off the image. There are three craterlets visible on this narrow and shallow valley. They are so well-aligned on the rille that they are probably volcanic vents associated with the creation of the rille. It is unlikely that random impacts from space could have landed together exactly on the rille.


This image shows the crater Hesiodus (above centre) when the Sun was higher, reducing the shadows and flattening the contrast. Adjoining Hesiodus to the south-south-west is the 15 km crater Hesiodus A. This crater is remarkable in that it contains two concentric rings like a bulls-eye. The rings only become visible when the Sun is high enough to shine over the steep walls and illuminate them. The picture was taken on September 2, 2017. The rings are only partially visible in the larger picture above, which was taken on August 2, 2017.


Pitatus is named after Pietro Pitati, a 16th century Italian mathematician and astronomer. As the Julian calendar of his time had become out of phase with the seasons and was then running 10 days late, some form of calendar reform was required. Pitati suggested that three out of every four even-century years be made non-leap-years to keep the calendar true. The man who corrected the calendar in one bold step four decades later in 1582, Christoph Clavius, accepted this suggestion, declaring that the even century years 1600, 2000, 2400 etc should remain as leap-years, but the intervening even centuries (1700, 1800, 1900, 2100 etc) should not. This avoided any more accumulating errors. To remedy the existing 10-day lag, Clavius dropped 10 days from the Julian Calendar. Pope Gregory XIII ratified this, and the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was decreed to be Friday, October 15, 1582. This was the beginning of the Gregorian Calendar which we use today. Catholic countries complied immediately, but others were slower to act. Great Britain and her colonies did not adopt it until 1752, and Turkey was the last in 1926.


Hesiodus is named after Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet who was active in the 8th century BCE and was a contemporary of Homer. Hesiod is a major source for our knowledge of Greek mythology, religious customs, agriculture, early astronomy and time-keeping. Some call him the world's first economist.


The rectangle shows the location of Pitatus and Hesiodus. They are also visible in the large picture above of the Moon at 8 days after New, in the lower left-hand corner.


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.


October 3:           Venus at perihelion at 08:28 hrs  (diameter = 11.1")
October 3:           Limb of Moon 6 arcminutes south of Neptune at 22:55 hrs
October 6:           Venus is 12 arcminutes north of Mars at 02:36hrs
October 7:           Moon 3.2º south of Uranus at 05:28 hrs
October 8:           Mars at aphelion at 09:46 hrs  (diameter = 3.7")
October 9:           Mercury in superior conjunction at 06:37 hrs  (diameter = 4.8")
October 10:          Moon 1.3º north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 04:45 hrs
October 10:          Pluto at eastern quadrature at 09:58 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
October 14:          Mercury 2.6º north of the star Spica (Alpha Leonis, (mv= 0.98) at 03:55 hrs
October 15:          Limb of Moon 14 arcminutes north of the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv= 1.36) at 21:11 hrs
October 17:          Moon 2º north of Mars at 21:33 hrs
October 18:          Moon 2.1º north of Venus at 12:54 hrs
October 18:          Mercury 57 arcminutes south of Jupiter at 20:20 hrs
October 20:          Uranus at opposition at 03:19 hrs  (diameter = 3.7")
October 20:          Moon 3.8º north of Jupiter at 16:46 hrs
October 20:          Neptune 33 arcminutes south of the star Hydor (Lambda Aquarii, mv= 3.73) at 19:40 hrs
October 20:          Moon 5.3º north of Mercury at 21:46 hrs
October 21:          Saturn 1.7º north of the star Pi Sagittarii (mv= 3.00) at 21:16 hrs
October 26:          Moon 2.6º north of Pluto at 22:32 hrs
October 27:          Jupiter in conjunction at 04:14 hrs  (diameter = 30.6")
October 27:          Mercury 1.2º south of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha Librae, mv= 2.75) at 11:32 hrs
October 29:          Mercury at aphelion at 22:04 hrs  (diameter = 4.9")
October 31:          Limb of Moon 2 arcminutes south of Neptune at 07:23 hrs

November 1:         Jupiter 1.9º south of the star Kappa Virginis (mv= 4.18) at 14:26 hrs
November 3:         Moon 3.7º south of Uranus at 12:14 hrs
November 6:         Limb of Moon 41 arcminutes north of the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri, mv= 0.87) at 12:43 hrs
November 7:         Moon 1.6º south of the star Zeta Tauri (mv= 2.97) at 13:05 hrs
November 8:         Mercury 1.8 arcminutes south of the star Delta Scorpii (mv= 2.29) at 03:56 hrs
November 11:       Mercury 1.8º north of the star Sigma Scorpii (mv= 2.90) at 21:47 hrs
November 12:       Moon 1.1º north of the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv= 1.36) at 01:48 hrs
November 13:       Jupiter 31 arcminutes north of the star Lambda Virginis (mv= 4.51) at 02:17 hrs
November 13:       Mercury 2.2º north of the star Antares (Alpha Scorpii, mv= 1.06) at 05:47 hrs
November 13:       Venus 15.7 arcminutes north of Jupiter at 18:12 hrs
November 15:       Moon 3.1º north of Mars at 14:49 hrs
November 17:       Moon 4.2º north of Jupiter at 10:09 hrs
November 17:       Moon 4.1º north of Venus at 19:46 hrs
November 18:       Saturn 44.7 arcminutes south of the star 58 Ophiuchi (mv= 4.86) at 23:58 hrs
November 20:       Venus 46.6 arcminutes north of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha Librae, mv= 2.75) at 03:17 hrs
November 20:       Moon 7.3º north of Mercury at 22:04 hrs
November 21:       Moon 3.3º north of Saturn at 08:57 hrs
November 22:       Neptune at eastern stationary point at 21:27 hrs  (diameter = 2.3")
November 23:       Moon 1.8º north of the star Pi Sagittarii (mv= 2.88) at 02:43 hrs
November 23:       Moon 2.6º north of Pluto at 04:21 hrs
November 24:       Mercury at greatest elongation east (21º 52') at 12"23 hrs  (diameter = 6.6")
November 27:       Limb of Moon 44 arcminutes south of Neptune at 14:38 hrs
November 28:       Mercury 3.1º south of Saturn at 19:38 hrs
November 30:       Moon 3.4º south of Uranus at 22:33 hrs


The Planets for this month:   


Mercury:     On October 1, Mercury will be in the eastern pre-dawn sky, too close to the Sun to be easily observed. Each day it will be closer in angular distance to the Sun, until it passes on the far side of the Sun on October 9. It will then enter the evening sky, being just above the Sun at sunset, but still too overwhelmed by the solar glare to be seen. On October 18 Mercury will be just to the left of Jupiter, and on October 20 the thin crescent Moon will join them. The three objects will still be less than eight degrees or half a handspan from the Sun on that day. By the beginning of November Mercury will be increasing its angular separation from the Sun, but it will not become an easy object until the second half of that month.


Venus:  This, the brightest planet, is still to be found in the pre-dawn sky as a 'morning star', although its angular distance from the Sun continues to diminish day by day. For example, on October 1 Venus will be 25 degrees from the Sun, and by October 31 its elongation will have fallen to 17 degrees, taking it into the solar glare. This process will continue as speeding Venus curves around towards the far side of the Sun. Venus will pass behind the Sun (superior conjunction) on January 9 next year. After that, Venus will return to the western sky as an 'evening star'. In mid-October, Venus will appear in a small telescope as a tiny 'Full Moon' with a magnitude of -3.9 and an angular size of 11 arcseconds. Its phase will be 93%.

On the morning of October 6, the planet Mars will be only 13 arcminutes above Venus. On October 18, the waning crescent Moon will be just to the left of Venus in the sky.

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

                           April 2017                              June 2017                         December 2017                      

Click here for a photographic animation showing the Venusian phases. Venus is always far brighter than anything else in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. For the first two months of 2017, Venus appeared as an 'Evening Star', but on March 25 it moved to the pre-dawn sky and became a 'Morning Star'. Each of these appearances lasts about eight to nine months. Venus will pass on the far side of the Sun (superior conjunction) on January 9, 2018, when it will return to the evening sky and become an 'Evening Star' once again.

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


Mars:   Having passed through conjunction with the Sun on July 27, the red planet is becoming easier to observe this month. On October 1 it will be a little more than a handspan from the Sun, and a little less than three degrees below and to the right of Venus. As the weeks pass it will increase its angular separation from the Sun and will grow in size each day, as our Earth, travelling faster, begins to catch it up. We will overtake Mars on July 27 next year. This will be a very favourable opposition, as Mars will appear bigger (24.2 arcseconds in diameter) and brighter (magnitude -2.8) than it has for many years. It will be particularly favourable for us in the southern hemisphere, as during the month of opposition it will be in the constellation of Capricornus, almost directly overhead each night from the Sunshine Coast.

Mars will approach brighter Venus in the first week of October, passing within 13 arcminutes of that planet on the morning of October 6. Then Mars will move away from Venus, and by the end of the month they wioll be about a handspan apart. When they are together on October 6, both Venus and Mars will be in the constellation of Leo, but after their apparent close encounter the faster moving Venus will head east towards the Sun, passing into Virgo (where the Sun will be) on October 10. Slower Mars will cross into Virgo on October 13. The waning crescent Moon will appear between Venus and Mars in the hour before dawn on October 18.

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

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


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


Jupiter:   We will be losing this gas giant planet as a spectacular evening object soon, as it passed through eastern quadrature (due north and crossing the meridian at sunset) on July 6. On the first day of October Jupiter will be only a handspan from the Sun, so by the time darkness falls it will be quite close to the western horizon. It is in the constellation Virgo, to the right of the first magnitude star Spica. The crescent Moon will be close to Jupiter as night falls on October 20. Jupiter will be involved in the twilight glow all through the month, and will reach conjunction with the Sun on October 27. It will move to the morning sky, rising before the Sun, and becoming visible in the second-half of November as a pre-dawn object.

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 is 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 has 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 appears to be disappearing, and a darker streak along the northern edge of the South Tropical Belt is moving south. 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. 


Saturn:   The ringed planet is visible in the evenings this month, as it reached opposition on June 15. On October 1 it will be three handspans above the western horizon as darkness falls, 7 pm. The waxing crescent Moon will be close by Saturn on October 24. Saturn will be in conjunction with the Sun on December 22.


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 on September 18, 2017, 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 is a late night object in October, as it reached western quadrature (rising at midnight) on July 21. This month Uranus rises above the theoretical horizon at 7:07 pm on October 1 and 5:03 pm on October 31. It reaches opposition (being in the opposite direction to the Sun, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west) on October 20. In the weeks around opposition, a planet is visible all night long. Uranus shines at about magnitude 5.8, so a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required to observe it. It is currently in the constellation Pisces, near the south-west corner of Aries. The Full Moon will be in the vicinity of Uranus on October 6 and 7. i


Neptune:   The icy blue planet is an evening object this month. It reached opposition on September 5, and in mid-October it is nearly overhead at 9 pm. Neptune is located in the constellation of Aquarius, between the magnitude 3 star Skat (Delta Aquarii) and the four-star asterism known as the Water-Jar. As it shines at about magnitude 8, a small telescope is required to observe Neptune. The waxing gibbous Moon will be extremely close to Neptune on the evening of October 3. i

Neptune, photographed from Nambour on October 31, 2008

 The erstwhile ninth and most distant planet can be observed in the evenings this month, as it reached opposition on July 10, when it rose at sunset. Pluto's angular diameter is 0.13 arcseconds, less than one twentieth that of Neptun
e. Located just east of the 'Teaspoon' which is north-east of the Sagittarius 'Teapot', it is a faint 14.1 magnitude object near the centre of Sagittarius.
This month it is within a degree of the magnitude 2.88 star Pi Sagittarii. A telescope with an aperture of 25 cm or more is necessary to observe 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:


Venus and Mars will be seen to be coming together in the pre-dawn sky in the first week of the month, and they will be only 12 arcminutes apart on October 6. Venus will head east towards the solar glare, passing behind the Sun on January 9, 2018. Mars will continue to travel east through the constellations at a slower speed than Venus, passing the first magnitude star Spica on November 29, and Jupiter on January 7, 2018.



Meteor Showers:

Orionids                      October 22                                  Thin waxing crescent Moon, 6% sunlit                                         ZHR = 20
                                    Radiant:   Near the bright star Betelgeuse.  Associated with Comet Halley

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

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

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





Comet Lulin

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

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


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

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

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

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




Deep Space



Sky Charts and Maps available on-line:

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

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

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

latitude:   26.6o South                      longitude:   153o East

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


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

Click here for a different real-time sky chart.

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

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

View horizon at this observing site

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

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

October is not a good month to observe the Eta Carinae Nebula, as it is close to the south-south-western horizon as darkness falls and remains below the horizon at Nambour for most of the night. It will become visible as an evening object again, early in 2018.




The Stars and Constellations for this month:


These descriptions of the night sky are for 9 pm on September 1 and 7 pm on September 30. Broadly speaking, the following description starts low in the north-west and follows the horizon to the right, heading round to the east, then south, then west, then overhead.


Corona Borealis and Hercules are setting in the north-west, with bright Vega in the small constellation Lyra to their right. This constellation contains the famous Ring Nebula, M 57.

The Ring Nebula was ejected from the central Sun-sized star towards the end of its life, as powerful stellar winds blew away the outer layers of its atmosphere to form a ring.

Approaching due north is the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, but to us in the southern hemisphere it appears this month upside-down and tilted to the left. The star at the bottom of the Cross, or the highest one above the horizon as we see it tonight, is a beautiful double star or binary, called Albireo (see below).

Whereas most binaries are a pair of similar stars, there are many in which the two stars are very different, such as brilliant Sirius the Dog Star with its tiny white dwarf companion known as 'The Pup'. Albireo's two components have a marked colour contrast, the brighter star being a golden yellow, and the fainter companion being a vivid electric blue. It is a wonderful object to view with a small telescope. 

At the top of the Northern Cross (which is the star closest to the horizon as we see it) is the bright first magnitude star Deneb, or Alpha Cygni. Deneb is a white star, and is the nineteenth brightest in the sky. It will be due north at about 9.00pm at mid-month. Its name means 'The Tail', as it marks the tail of the Swan. Deneb, although bright, is one of the most distant individual stars we can see with the unaided eye. It lies at a distance of about 2600 light-years. This means that the light entering your eye tonight actually left Deneb in the 6th century BC, about the time when the world's first 'scientist', Thales of Miletus, was studying the night sky from ancient Ionia, part of today's Turkey. Everything you see in the night sky is a view into the past, due to the finite speed of light.

Vega is the brightest star at centre left, with the stars of Lyra to its right. Deneb is the brightest star near the bottom edge. Cygnus, or the 'Northern Cross', stretches up vertically from Deneb to Albireo, above centre. We see the Northern Cross upside-down. The three bright stars of Aquila form a line at upper right, with Altair, the brightest, being the middle one. The small diamond-shaped constellation of Delphinus, the Dolphin, is above centre-right.

In the north-east, the Great Square of Pegasus has cleared the horizon, and is standing on one corner. It is very large, each side being around 15 degrees long. It is about as large as a fist held at arm's length. The Great Square is remarkable for having few naked-eye stars within it. 

The names of the four stars marking the corners of the Square (starting at the uppermost one and moving in a clockwise direction) are Markab, Algenib, Alpheratz and Scheat. Although these four stars are known as the Great Square of Pegasus, only three are actually in the constellation of Pegasus, the Winged Horse. In point of fact, Alpheratz is the brightest star of the constellation Andromeda, the Chained Maiden.

In the east, a mv 2.2 star is about a handspan above the horizon. This is Beta Ceti, the brightest ordinary star in the constellation Cetus, the Whale. Its common name is Diphda, and it has a yellowish-orange colour. By rights, the star Menkar or Alpha Ceti should be brighter, but Menkar is actually more than half a magnitude fainter than Diphda. Menkar does not rise at the beginning of September until about 11 pm. 

Cetus is a large constellation, running around the eastern horizon tonight, and to the unaided eye it appears unremarkable. But it does contain a most interesting star, which even men of old noticed, naming it Mira, the Wonderful (see below). Between Cetus and Pegasus is the faint zodiacal constellation of Pisces, the Fishes, which contains a faint ring of stars known as the 'Circlet'. Near this asterism, this year, Pisces is distinguished by the presence of the planet Uranus, about a handspan east of the Circlet.

Above Diphda is Fomalhaut, a bright, white first magnitude star in the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. The first planet to be photographed circling another star is embedded in the dust ring surrounding Fomalhaut. Above Fomalhaut and to the right is a large, flattened triangle of stars, Grus, the Crane.

A little more than a handspan above the south-eastern horizon is Achernar, which is the ninth brightest star. From locations south of Newcastle, Achernar is circumpolar, i.e. it never dips below the horizon but is always in the sky. A hot blue-white star, Achernar is the main star in the constellation Eridanus the River, which winds its way from Achernar towards the south-eastern horizon and then turns along the horizon to the east towards Cetus. It then continues below the horizon all the way to Orion, which this month will not rise above the eastern horizon until a little after midnight.

Achernar's visual magnitude ( mv) is  0.45, and it is a hot blue-white star of B3 spectral type. The width of the field is 24 arcminutes and the faintest stars are mv 15.

To the left and higher than Achernar, the faint constellation of Phoenix may be seen. Its brightest star is Ankaa or Alpha Phoenicis, a mv 2.39 star which is halfway between Diphda and Achernar, but slightly above. One-and-a-half degrees to the right of Ankaa is a fourth magnitude star, Kappa Phoenicis.

Due south, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is a faint, diffuse glowing patch low to the horizon, only eight degrees up from the latitude of Nambour. The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is about a handspan above it, and to the right of Achernar. Both of these Clouds appear as faint smudges of light, but in reality they are dwarf galaxies containing millions of stars. 

From Nambour's latitude, these two clouds never set. Each day they circle the South Celestial Pole, which is a point in our sky 26.6 degrees above the horizon's due south point. Objects in the sky that never set are called 'circumpolar'. The LMC and SMC are described below.

The Southern Cross (Crux) is setting low in the south-west, with the two Pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri vertically above it. Alternative names for these two Pointers are Rigil Kentaurus and Hadar. The two pointers are eight degrees apart. Alpha is the one further away from Crux. Whereas Alpha Centauri (see below) is the nearest star system to our Sun, only 4.2 light years distant, Beta is eighty times further away. Beta Centauri must have an absolute magnitude much greater than Alpha, in order to appear nearly as bright.

At top - the two Pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri. Centre - Crux (Southern Cross) with the dark cloud of dust known as the Coalsack above Alpha Crucis. Bottom - star clusters in the Milky Way with the Eta Carinae nebula near the lower edge.

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

Beta Crucis (left) and the Jewel Box cluster

Herschel's Jewel Box

If the night is dark and the skies are clear, a black dust cloud known as the Coalsack can be seen just above Acrux, the left-most and brightest star of the Cross. Surrounding Crux on three sides is the large constellation Centaurus, its two brightest stars being the brilliant Alpha and Beta Centauri. The rest of the constellation of Centaurus arches over Crux from above it, to its right-hand side, and then underneath it, where it adjoins Carina and Vela.

Adjoining Crux on its left-hand side is a small, fainter quadrilateral of stars, Musca, the Fly. Out of all the 88 constellations, it is the only insect. To the upper left of Alpha Centauri is a (roughly) equilateral triangle of 4th magnitude stars. This is the constellation Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle.

Six of the zodiacal constellations are overhead tonight. The faint constellation of Libra is low in the west. Starting from Libra and looking above it, we see the bright constellation of Scorpius, the Scorpion, with the red-supergiant star Antares marking the Scorpion's heart. This famous zodiacal constellation is like a large letter 'S', and, unlike most constellations, is easy to recognise as the shape of a scorpion. Antares is the brightest star in Scorpius, and is a red type M supergiant of magnitude 0.9. Antares is the fifteenth brightest star. 

Another very distant star that is easily seen with the unaided eye is Zeta Scorpii, which, like Deneb, also lies at a distance of 2600 light years. It can be found by following the line of the tail of Scorpius, and is the fourth star from Antares, heading south. It lies at the point where the tail takes a sharp turn east. Actually, there are two stars there, Zeta 1 and Zeta 2. Zeta 1, the distant star, is a blue-white B1 type, while Zeta 2 is an orange K type, and at a distance of only 151 light years is 17 times closer.

Zeta 1 Scorpii is the upper star in the bright group of three at centre right. Zeta 2 is below it.

Between Scorpius and Centaurus is an interesting constellation composed of mainly third magnitude stars, Lupus, the Wolf. Midway between Triangulum Australe and Scorpius is an asterism like a small, elongated triangle. This is part of Ara, the Altar.

The constellations surrounding the Southern Cross

High in the north-west, between Scorpius and Hercules, are two large but faint constellations, Serpens, the Snake, and Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.
Though Ophiuchus is not as spectacular as Scorpius, this year it is favoured by the presence of the ringed planet Saturn, which is brighter than any of the stars in that part of the sky. Saturn will cross into Sagittarius on November 19, and in the week between Christmas and New Year it will skirt the Trifid Nebula (M20) and will pass across outlying stars of the open cluster, M21.

The Trifid Nebula, M20, in Sagittarius. The blue cloud is made up of neutral hydrogen atoms reflecting light from a nearby star.  Such clouds are typically bluish and are called "reflection nebulae". They are also known as H I regions (pronounced "aitch one"). The red and pink cloud is made of hydrogen atoms that have been ionised (stripped of their electrons and are free protons). The powerful ultraviolet radiation from the twin blue stars in this cloud's centre cause the hydrogen atoms to ionise. They soon capture free electrons, and the electrons fall from excited states to lower energy levels in each atom, giving up their energy by emitting photons in the red light of the H-alpha line. The cloud therefore fluoresces, glowing in its own right, like the gas in a fluorescent light tube. This gives the cloud its distinctive red colour. Such clouds are called H II regions, and are "emission nebulae". The dark lanes are dense molecular clouds that hide the glowing gas and stars behind them. These dark clouds are called "absorption nebulae".  

East of Scorpius is Sagittarius the Archer, which is almost directly overhead, having just passed the meridian. The 'Teapot' asterism in this constellation is illustrated below.

The Milky Way passes through Sagittarius, and the centre of our galaxy is close to the zenith at this time. Sagittarius teems with stars, glowing nebulae and dust clouds, as it is in line with the centre of our galaxy. Adjoining Sagittarius to the south, there is a beautiful curve of faint stars This is Corona Australis, the Southern Crown, and it is very elegant and delicate. The brightest star in this constellation has a magnitude of only 4.1.

The body of Scorpius is at right, with the two stars in the Sting to the left, at centre right of picture. The red supergiant star Antares appears close to the top right corner. The stars in the left half of the picture are in Sagittarius. The well-known 'Teapot' shape may be seen. Near the lower left margin is a graceful curve of fourth magnitude stars, Corona Australis, the Southern Crown. To see this view, stand facing south and look directly overhead at 7.00 pm at the beginning of the month. Later in the month, the stars will be further to the west at the same time.

Antares, a red supergiant star

The star which we call Antares is a binary system. It is dominated by the great red supergiant Antares A which, if it swapped places with our Sun, would enclose all the planets out to Jupiter inside itself. Antares A is accompanied by the much smaller Antares B at a distance of between 224 and 529 AU - the estimates vary. (One AU or Astronomical Unit is the distance of the Earth from the Sun, or about 150 million kilometres or 8.3 light minutes.)  Antares B is a bluish-white companion, which, although it is dwarfed by its huge primary, is actually a main sequence star of type B2.5V, itself substantially larger and hotter than our Sun. Antares B is difficult to observe as it is less than three arcseconds from Antares A and is swamped in the glare of its brilliant neighbour. It can be seen in the picture above, at position angle 277 degrees (almost due west or to the left) of Antares A. Seeing at the time was about IV on the Antoniadi Scale, or in other words below fair. Image acquired at Starfield Observatory in Nambour on July 1, 2017.

The centre of our galaxy is teeming with stars, and would be bright enough to turn night into day, were it not for intervening dust and molecular clouds. This dark cloud is known as 'The Snake'. A satellite passed through the field of view at right.

East of Sagittarius and approaching the zenith is Capricornus, the Sea-Goat. This constellation is lacking in any bright stars, and is fairly unremarkable.

Between Capricornus and Pisces is another rather faint constellation, 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 centre, about a handspan east of the star Deneb Algedi.

Culminating high in the north, between Capricornus and Albireo, is the constellation of Aquila, the Eagle (see picture). The centre of this constellation is marked by a short line of three stars, of which the central star is the brightest. These stars, from north to south, are Tarazed, Altair and Alshain, and they indicate the Eagle's body. A handspan to the east of bright, first magnitude Altair is a faint but easily recognised diamond-shaped group of stars, Delphinus the Dolphin.

The line of the ecliptic along which the Sun, Moon and planets travel, passes through the following constellations this month: Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius and Pisces.

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

More photographs of the amazing sights visible in our sky this month are found in our Gallery.

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.



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. In the mid-17th century, the astronomer Johannes Hevelius watched the star fade away during the year until it disappeared, and then it slowly reappeared again. Its not surprising that he 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 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.

This year, Mira reached a maximum brightness of magnitude 3.4 on February 23 and has now dropped well below naked-eye visibility (magnitude 6) again. It will reach its minimum brightness of magnitude 9.3 on September 22. The next maximum will occur on January 19, 2018.


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

Astronomers using a NASA space telescope, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, have spotted an amazingly long comet-like tail behind Mira as the star streaks through space.  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 and multiple stars


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

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


The binary stars Rigil Kentaurus (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.

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

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 separate them (Acrux, 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.



The Milky Way


A glowing band of light crossing the sky is especially noticeable during September. This glow is the light of millions of faint stars combined with that coming from glowing gas clouds called emission nebulae. It is concentrated along the plane of our galaxy, and this month it is seen crossing the sky, starting from the south-south-west and passing through Crux to Centaurus, Scorpius, Sagittarius and Aquila to Cygnus in the north-east.

The plane of our galaxy from Scutum (at left) through Sagittarius and Scorpius (centre) to Centaurus and Crux (right). The Eta Carinae nebula is at the right margin, below centre. The Coalsack is clearly visible, and the dark dust lanes can be seen. Taken with an ultra-wide-angle lens.

It is rewarding to scan along this band with a pair of binoculars, looking for star clusters and emission nebulae. Dust lanes along the plane of the Milky Way appear to split it in two in some parts of the sky. One of these lanes can be easily seen, starting near Alpha Centauri and heading towards Antares. At sunset in mid-September, the Milky Way crosses the zenith, almost dividing the sky in two. It runs from south-west to north-east, and the very centre of our galaxy passes directly overhead.

The centre of our galaxy. The constellations partly visible here are Sagittarius (left), Ophiuchus (above centre) and Scorpius (at right). The planet Jupiter is the bright object below centre left. This is a normal unaided-eye view.



The Season of the Scorpion


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

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


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

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

The Lagoon Nebula, M8, in Sagittarius, adjacent to Scorpius

The centre of the Lagoon Nebula



Why are some constellations bright, while others are faint ?


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

If we look at ninety degrees to the plane, either straight up and out of the galaxy or straight down, we are looking through comparatively few stars and gas clouds and so can see out into deep space. These are the directions of the north and south galactic poles, and because we have a clear view in these directions to distant galaxies, these parts of the sky are called the intergalactic windows. The northern window is between the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, roughly between the stars Denebola and Arcturus. It is out of sight this month.

The southern window is in the constellation Sculptor, just south of the star Fomalhaut. This window is low in the south-east in the early evening, but later in the night it will rise high enough for distant galaxies to be observed. 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.



Finding the South Celestial Pole: 


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

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

Another way to locate the South Celestial Pole is to draw an imaginary straight line joining Beta Centauri high in the south-west to Achernar low in the south-east. Both stars will be at about the same elevation above the horizon at 8 pm in the middle of September. Find the midpoint of this line to locate the pole.

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

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

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



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 the disc of our galaxy, hence the alternate name, 'galactic cluster'. These clusters are generally formed from the condensation of gas in a nebula into stars, and some are relatively young.

The photograph below shows a typical open cluster, M7*. It lies in the constellation Scorpius, just below the scorpion's sting, 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, also known as 'Ptolemy's Cluster, is one of the most spectacular galactic clusters, and is visible tonight.

Galactic Cluster M7 in Scorpius, known as Ptolemy's cluster

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 almost a solid mass of faint stars. Most other galaxies also have a halo of globular clusters circling around them.

The largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky is NGC 5139**, also known as Omega Centauri. It has a slightly oval shape. It is an outstanding winter object, and this month it is observable before midnight. 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 millions 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. Omega Centauri is not a typical globular cluster, being much larger than any other in our Galaxy, with millions of stars. It is also slightly oval in shape.

The globular cluster Omega Centauri

The central core of Omega Centauri

There is another remarkable globular, second only to Omega Centauri. Close to the SMC (see below), binoculars can detect a fuzzy star. A telescope will reveal this faint glow as a magnificent globular cluster, lying at a distance of 5.8 kiloparsecs. Its light has taken almost 19 000 years to reach us. This is NGC 104, commonly known as 47 Tucanae. Some regard this cluster as being more spectacular than Omega Centauri, as it is more compact, and the faint stars twinkling in its core are very beautiful. This month, neither Omega Centauri nor 47 Tucanae is at its best position for viewing, but both are observable.

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 Ptolemy's 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. As Messier had quite a small telescope, his list is an excellent guide to the brightest and most spectacular objects in the sky, although he did not include any of our excellent southern objects such as 47 Tucanae, Omega Centauri and Eta Carinae, as they were never visible from his home in Paris.

**    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. It contained only objects that needed a telescope to be seen. It was an updated version of the previous General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars of 1864, compiled by John Herschel from observations made by his father, himself, Nicolas de Lacaille at Capetown and James Dunlop at Governor Brisbane's Parramatta Observatory in New South Wales. Soon after it appeared, the new technique of astrophotography became available, revealing thousands more faint objects in space, and also dark, obscuring nebulae and dust clouds. This meant that the NGC had to be supplemented with the addition of two Index Catalogues (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 HI Parkes All-Sky Survey (HIPASS:  HI = clouds of neutral hydrogen in space), 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 Galaxies 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


Very low in the south, two faint smudges of light may be seen. These are the two Clouds of Magellan, known to astronomers as the LMC (Large Magellanic Cloud) and the SMC (Small Magellanic Cloud). The LMC is above 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.


Astronomers have recently reported the largest star yet found, claimed to have 300 times the mass of the Sun, located in a cluster of stars embedded in the Tarantula Nebula (above). Such a huge star would be close to the Eddington Limit, and would have a short lifespan measured in only a couple of million years.

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




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