October  2023

Updated:   1 October 2023


Welcome to the night skies of Spring, featuring Scorpius, Ophiuchus, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Aquila, Lyra, Cygnus,  Grus, Pegasus, Saturn and Jupiter


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


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

The 20-inch telescope is able to locate and track any sky object (including Earth satellites and the International Space Station) with software called TheSkyX Professional, into which is embedded a unique T-Point model created for our site with the telescope itself.


Explanatory Notes:  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 to 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. This 24 hours is a little longer than one complete rotation, as the curve in the Earth's orbit means that it needs to turn a fraction more (~1 degree of angle) in order for the Sun to cross the meridian again. It is called a 'solar day'. The stars, clusters, nebulae and galaxies are so distant that most appear to have fixed positions in the night sky on a human time-scale, and for a star to return to the same point in the sky relative to a fixed observer takes 23 hours 56 minutes 4.0916 seconds. This is the time taken for the Earth to complete exactly one rotation, and is called a 'sidereal day'.

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

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

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

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


A suggestion for successful sky-watching

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




 Solar System


Sun:   The Sun begins the month in the zodiacal constellation of Virgo, the Virgin. It leaves Virgo and passes into Libra, the Scales on November 1. It leaves Libra and crosses into a claw of Scorpius, the Scorpion on November 24. It passes out of the claw and into the non-zodiacal constellation of Ophiuchus, the Serpent-bearer, on November 30. It transits Ophiuchus and crosses into Sagittarius, the Archer on December 19.   Note: the Zodiacal constellations used in astrology have significant differences with the familiar astronomical constellations both in size and the timing of the passage through them of the Sun, Moon and planets. 


Annular Solar Eclipse, October 15 (AEST):

This annular eclipse of the Sun will only be visible from North, Central and South America. The path of totality will strike the US west coast near Salem, Oregon (north of San Francisco) and head south-east, passing near Boise in Idaho, Salt Lake City in Utah, Albuquerque in New Mexico, and Houston in Texas before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. It crosses the Belize Peninsula at Belmopan, then passes through Managua in Nicaragua, San Jose in Costa Rica, Panama City, Bogota in Colombia before entering Brazil. It turns east across the Amazon jungle and reaches the South Atlantic coast in the vicinity of Recife. The eclipse ends before reaching Equatorial Africa.

This eclipse will not be visible from Australia as it occurs when the Sun is below our horizon.

Observers on Queensland's Sunshine Coast will have a chance to see a total solar eclipse at 12:56 pm on July 22, 2028, the eclipse track running from Wyndham in Western Australia through Alice Springs to Birdsville and then Sydney, before crossing the Tasman Sea to Dunedin in New Zealand's South Island. They will need to travel to the eclipse track to experience totality. The biggest town close to the Sunshine Coast which will be in the path of totality is Dubbo, easily reached via the Newell Highway. At Dubbo this eclipse of the Sun will last from 12:34 pm until 3:12 pm, and the total phase will last for 3 minutes 51 seconds. There is a 57% chance that the day will not be cloudy. The path of totality will pass over Sydney, which will be a great thrill for the 5.4 million people living there, if it is a clear day (53% chance).


Partial Lunar Eclipse, October 29 (AEST):

This eclipse as seen from eastern Australia (east of a line joining Townsville in Queensland to Mount Gambier in South Australia) will be only partial, with no umbral phase, i.e. the Moon will only be partially immersed in the Earth's penumbra, and not at all in its umbra. Its timing is also inconvenient for observers in eastern Australia. From Brisbane, on October 28 the Full Moon will rise a little brighter than normal at 4:47 pm (1 hour and 18 minutes before sunset), and will continue to shine as usual until it begins to enter the Earth's penumbra at 4:01 am. This phenomenon may not be noticeable for casual observers as the Moon will be only 11 degrees above the west-north-western horizon.  The Moon will set at 4:53 am, before the eclipse is half-way through.

Observers in Perth with a two-hour time difference will see the penumbral eclipse begin at 2:01 am AWST. The umbral phase will begin at 3:35 am AWST. Mid-eclipse will be at 4:14 am AWST, but only 12.2% of the Moon will be in the Earth's umbra. The Moon will set in Perth at 5:23 am AWST, but the eclipse will not end until 6:26 am AWST. All observers on the night side of the Earth will be able to see this eclipse, but people in England will be able to see it in its entirety from 7:01 pm (their time) to 11:26 pm. However, it is only a partial eclipse and people who are able to see all of it will still be limited to the sight of only 12.2% of the Moon being in shadow.

The next total eclipse of the Moon visible from the Sunshine Coast will be on September 8, 2025, in the hours before dawn. Here are the circumstances:

Moon enters Earth's penumbra:  1:28 am AEST;    Partial eclipse begins at 2:27 am;    Total eclipse begins at 3:31 am;    Mid-eclipse is at 4:12 am;    Totality ends at 4:53 am;    Partial eclipse ends at 5:56 am;    Eclipse ends at 6:55 am;    Sun rises at 5:54 am;    Moon sets at 5:55 am.




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

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

(Credit: Wikipedia)

Lunar Phases: 

Last Quarter:           
   October 6              23:48 hrs           diameter = 30.0'
New Moon:                 October 15            03:56 hrs           diameter = 30.1'     Lunation #1247 begins, annular solar eclipse     
First Quarter:          
    October 22            13:30 hrs           diameter = 32.1'
Full Moon:                   October 29            06:24 hrs           diameter = 32.3'     Partial lunar eclipse

Last Quarter:              November 5           18:38 hrs           diameter = 29.6'
New Moon:                 November 13         19:28 hrs           diameter = 30.9'     Lunation #1248 begins     
First Quarter:          
    November 20         20:50 hrs           diameter = 32.3'
Full Moon:                   November 27         19:17 hrs           diameter = 31.4'

Lunar Orbital Elements:

October 1:                  Moon at ascending node at 02:53 hrs, diameter = 32.7'
October 10:                Moon at apogee (405 427 km) at 14:18 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
October 15:                Moon at descending node at 11:09 hrs, diameter = 30.2'
October 26:                Moon at perigee (364 870 km) at 13:13 hrs, diameter = 32.7'
October 28:                Moon at ascending node at 13:14 hrs, diameter = 32.5'

November 7:              Moon at apogee (404 563 km) at 07:38 hrs, diameter = 29.5'
November 11:            Moon at descending node at 18:46 hrs, diameter = 30.3'
November 22:            Moon at perigee (369 826 km) at 06:33 hrs, diameter = 32.3'
November 24:            Moon at ascending node at 21:02 hrs, diameter = 32.1'

Moon at 8 days after New, as on October 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.

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 longest rille (narrow valley) on the Moon, the Rima Sirsalis.

North is to the right. This image was taken on 25 May 2021.

With a length variously stated as between 330 and 400 kilometres, the Rima Sirsalis is the longest rille on the Moon and one of the straightest.

The Rima Sirsalis originates near the red dot which lies at the mid-point of the left-hand (southern) margin and heads north-west into a large, un-named walled plain east of a similar-sized walled plain called Darwin. The Rima Sirsalis immediately curves around to the right and heads north-east. It is crossed by four large but shallow rilles called the Rimae Darwin, which begin as a single rille to the west of the 46 kilometre flat-floored crater plain called Cruger, and then enters the 131 kilometre diameter Darwin, where the single rille splits into four which head south-east and cross the Rima Sirsalis. This latter rille runs north across the moonscape, passing the overlapping twin craters Sirsalis (41 kilometres diameter) and Sirsalis A (42 kilometres). Nearby, two new, bright craters Sirsalis F (13 kilometres) and Sirsalis J (12 kilometres) have struck the rille and severely damaged it. Further on, the rille reaches the Oceanus Procellarum where lava flows have swept over and obliterated the end of the rille, which is marked by a second red dot.


About halfway along its length, the Rima Sirsalis splits into two branches, the smaller branch heading towards the crater Sirsalis A, but soon fading away.

The northern half of the Rima Sirsalis, showing where it has been partially demolished by two later impactors, Sirsalis F and Sirsalis J, and its terminus under the Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms).


Gerolamo Sersale (1584-1654) was a Jesuit priest who was one of the first Italians to follow in Galileo's footsteps by using an early telescope to study the surface of the Moon. In 1650 he drew a fairly accurate map of the lunar features but did not name any of them. Another selenographer, Michael van Langren, had mapped and named features on the Moon five years earlier in 1645 - see image  #19  on the  Lunar Features of the Month Archive  webpage. Sersale published his map as an engraving in 1651, the same year that RiccioIi and Grimaldi published their Moon map - (see image  #38  on the  Lunar Features of the Month Archive  webpage). Riccioli praised Sersale's map in his great book Almagestum novum (New Astronomy), and named the crater after him, Latinising the name to "Sirsalis".

The area around the Rima Sirsalis is located inside the rectangle.

Click  here  for the  Lunar Features of the Month Archive



Geocentric Events:

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

October 2:               Moon 3.4º north of Jupiter at 12:09 hrs
October 3:               Moon 3.4º north of Uranus at 1:37 hrs
October 3:               Limb of Moon 43 arcminutes south of the star Alcyone ((Eta Tauri, mv= 2.85) at 15:21 hrs
October 3:               Mars 2.4º north of the star Spica (Alpha Virginis, mv= 1.02) at 22:33 hrs
October 5:               Limb of Moon 13 arcminutes south of the star Elnath (Beta Tauri, mv= 1.65) at 10.33 hrs
October 7:               Moon 1.3º south of Pollux (Beta Geminorum, mv= 1.15) at 20:01 hrs
October 10:             Venus 2.3º south of the star Regulus (Alpha Leonis, mv= 1.33) at 13:32 hrs
October 11:             Moon 6.4º north of Venus at 00:41 hrs
October 11:             Pluto at eastern stationary point at 4:22 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
October 14:             Limb of Moon 11 arcminutes south of Mercury at 20:32 hrs
October 16:             Limb of Moon 1 arcminute south of Mars at 1:29 hrs
October 18:             Limb of Moon 34 arcminutes south of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 9:38 hrs
October 18:             Limb of Moon 31 arcminutes north of the star Alniyat (Sigma Scorpii, mv= 2.9) at 22:09 hrs
October 19:             Moon 1.4º north of the star Antares (Alpha Scorpii, mv= 0.88) at 01:01 hrs
October 19:             Mercury 3º north of the star Spica (Alpha Virginis, mv= 1.02) at 5:33 hrs
October 20:             Mercury in superior conjunction at 15:21 hrs  (diameter = 4.7")
October 20:             Moon 1.8º north of the star Kaus Media (Delta Sagittarii, mv= 2.72) at 22:03 hrs
October 21:             Moon 1.8º south of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 22:03 hrs
October 21:             Moon 6.4º north of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv= 2.02) at 10:06 hrs
October 21:             Pluto at eastern quadrature at 23:58 hrs  (diameter = 0.1")
October 22:             Moon 2.2º south of Pluto at 11:17 hrs
October 24:             Venus at Greatest Elongation West (46º 25') at 8:47 hrs  (diameter = 24")
October 24:             Moon 2.4º south of Saturn at 19:29 hrs
October 26:             Moon 1.1º south of Neptune at 11:29 hrs
October 29:             Moon 2.9º north of Jupiter at 15:25 hrs
October 30:             Mercury 20 arcminutes south of Mars at 00:33 hrs
October 30:             Moon 2.9º north of Uranus at 11:18 hrs
October 31:             Moon occults the star Merope (23 Tauri, mv= 4.13) between 00:34 and 1:27 hrs
October 31:             Moon occults the star Alcyone ((Eta Tauri, mv= 2.85) between 1:29 and 2:09 hrs

November 1:           Mercury 49 arcminutes south of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha2 Librae, mv= 2.75) at 4:55 hrs
November 1:           Limb of Moon 38 arcminutes south of the star Elnath (Beta Tauri, mv= 1.65) at 17.22 hrs
November 3:           Jupiter at opposition at 14:48 hrs  (diameter = 49.4")
November 4:           Limb of Moon 27 arcminutes south of the star Pollux (Beta Geminorum, mv= 1.15) at 5:07 hrs
November 4:           Saturn at eastern stationary point at 15:23 hrs  (diameter = 17.6")
November 4:           Mars 18 arcminutes south of the star Zuben Elgenubi (Alpha2 Librae, mv=2.75) at 1:52 hrs
November 7:           Mercury at aphelion at 3:38 hrs
November 9:           Moon 1.2º north of Venus at 20:45 hrs
November 11:         Uranus 2.15º south of the star Botein (Delta Arietis, mv=4.34) at 5:30 hrs
November 12:         Mercury 20 arcminutes north of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 14:51 hrs
November 13:         Mercury 2.7º south of the star Graffias (Beta2 Scorpii, mv= 2.59) at 00:51 hrs
November 13:         Moon 1.75º south of Mars at 22:51 hrs
November 14:         Uranus at opposition at 2L56 hrs (diameter = 3.8")
November 14:         Moon 1.5º north of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 19:12 hrs
November 15:         Limb of Moon 38 arcminutes south of Mercury at 00:24 hrs
November 15:         Moon 1.2º north of the star Alniyat (Sigma Scorpii, mv= 2.9) at 2.35 hrs
November 15:         Moon 1.5º north of the star Antares (Alpha Scorpii, mv= 0.88) at 5:20 hrs
November 16:         Mercury 2.1º north of the star Alniyat (Sigma Scorpii, mv= 2.9) at 3:22 hrs
November 17:         Moon 2.3º north of the star Kaus Media (Delta Sagittarii, mv= 2.72) at 2:25 hrs
November 17:         Moon 2.1º south of the star Kaus Borealis (Lambda Sagittarii, mv= 2.82) at 4:23 hrs
November 17:         Mercury 2.9º north of the star Antares (Alpha Scorpii, mv= 0.88) at 10:32 hrs
November 18:         Moon 1.6º south of the star Nunki (Sigma Sagittarii, mv= 2.02) at 16:18 hrs
November 18:         Mars in conjunction with the Sun at 15:46 hrs
November 18:         Moon 2.1º south of Pluto at 19:41 hrs
November 20:         Moon 1.9º south of the star Deneb Algedi ((Delta Capricorni, mv= 2.85) at 12:34 hrs
November 21:         Moon 1.7º south of Saturn at 2:38 hrs
November 22:         Moon 1.1º south of Neptune at 18:15 hrs
November 23:         Saturn at eastern quadrature at 19:37 hrs (diameter = 17.1")
November 25:         Moon 2.7º north of Jupiter at 18:22 hrs
November 26:         Moon 2.7º north of Uranus at 16:35 hrs
November 27:         Limb of Moon 43 arcminutes south of the star Alcyone ((Eta Tauri, mv= 2.85) at 11:14 hrs
November 28:         Venus at perihelion at 18:40 hrs
November 28:         Mars 1.7º north of the star Dschubba (Delta Scorpii, mv= 1.86) at 21:37 hrs
November 29:         Limb of Moon 7 arcminutes south of the star Elnath (Beta Tauri, mv= 1.65) at 5.12 hrs
November 29:         Mars 1.2º south of the star Graffias (Beta2 Scorpii, mv= 2.59) at 19:37 hrs


The Planets for this month:


Mercury:    The innermost planet passed through inferior conjunction (between the Earth and the Sun) and disappeared from the western twilight sky on September 6. It then reappeared in the eastern pre-dawn sky, joining Venus, but never moved clear of the glare of the Sun. It attained a maximum angular distance from the Sun of less than 18º on September 22, but then swung back into the solar glare. Mercury will return to the western twilight sky after it passes on the far side of the Sun (superior conjunction) on October 20.

 This, the brightest planet, was an 'morning star' for most of 2022.  On October 23 last year it passed through superior conjunction (on the far side of the Sun), and remained in the north-western twilight sky as an 'evening star' until it passed between the Earth and the Sun (inferior conjunction) on August 13 last. Then it returned to the pre-dawn eastern sky as a 'morning star' as we see it this month. During October, Venus will be a brilliant object rising above the east-north-eastern horizon from 3:20 am on, in the constellation Leo. It is much brighter than any other object in the night sky except for the Moon. Venus will spend all of the month moving from Leo's front (October 10), past his heart (the bright star Regulus) on October 11 and along his back to his hind leg (October 27). It will pass the tip of his tail (the star Denebola) on November 2 and will cross into Virgo on November 3. Through a small telescope. Venus will appear as a beautiful tiny half Moon, as in the fifth image of the series of five below.

The waning crescent Moon will be just to the left of Venus on the morning of October 10.

(The coloured fringes to the first, third and fourth 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.)  

                October 2022                        June 2023                             July 2023                         September 2023                     October 2023               

Click here for a photographic animation showing the Venusian phases. Venus is always far brighter than anything else in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. For most of 2023, Venus appeared as an 'Evening Star' in the western twilight sky, but last August it moved to the pre-dawn eastern sky to be a 'Morning Star'. It is now very easy to find before sunrise. It will not reappear as an 'Evening Star' in the west until next June.

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

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


Mars:  The red planet is now cruising through the constellation Virgo, heading eastwards. It will cross into Libra on October 24 and Scorpius on November 26. When it reached opposition on December 8 last, Mars had a diameter of 17 arcseconds and shone at magnitude -1.9 (half as bright as Jupiter, but brighter than any night-time star). From then on it has faded and shrunk in size as the Earth leaves it behind, so that on January 1 Mars had a diameter of 14.6  arcseconds and shone at magnitude -1.2.  On February 1, Mars had a diameter of only 11 arcseconds and shone at magnitude -0.3. By March 1, the red planet's diameter was only 8 arcseconds, and its brightness had fallen to magnitude 0.43. It crossed into Gemini on March 26. On April 1, its diameter had shrunk to 6.4 arcseconds and its brightness had faded to magnitude 1. By May 1, its diameter was only 5.4 arcseconds and its magnitude had dropped to 1.34. On October 1, its diameter will have shrunk to 3.68 arcseconds and its brightness fallen to magnitude 1.67. The waxing crescent Moon will be just below Mars on October 16. Mars will be in conjunction with the Sun (on the far side of its orbit) on November 18, after which it will move to the pre-dawn eastern sky.


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:   Jupiter is now found in the eastern sky, rising in the east-north-east soon after 7:30 pm at mid-month. It passed through western quadrature (rising at midnight) on August 7. As the month progresses it will rise earlier, reaching opposition (rising at sunset) on November 3. It is in the constellation Aries. The waning gibbous Moon will be close by Jupiter at 9 pm on October 1 and 29.


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

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

Jupiter at opposition, May 9, 2018


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

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


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

Jupiter at opposition, June 11, 2019


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

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

There have been numerous alterations to Jupiter's belts and spots over the thirteen months since the 2018 opposition. In particular, there have been major disturbances affecting the Great Red Spot, which appears to be slowly changing in size or "unravelling".  It was very fortuitous that, during the evenings of the days when the 2018 and 2019 oppositions occurred, there was a transit of one of the satellites as well as the appearance of the Great Red Spot. It was also interesting in that the same satellite, Europa, was involved both times.

Jupiter's moon Europa has an icy crust with very high reflectivity, which accounts for its brightness in the images above. On the other hand, the largest moon Ganymede (seen below) has a surface which is composed of two types of terrain: very old, highly cratered dark regions, and somewhat younger (but still ancient) lighter regions marked with an extensive array of grooves and ridges. Although there is much ice covering the surface, the dark areas contain clays and organic materials and cover about one third of the moon. Beneath the surface of Ganymede is believed to be a saltwater ocean with two separate layers.

Jupiter is seen here on 17 November 2022 at 8:39 pm. To its far right is its largest satellite, Ganymede. This "moon" is smaller than the Earth but is bigger than Earth's Moon. Its diameter is 5268 kilometres, but at Jupiter's distance its angular diameter is only 1.67 arcseconds. Despite its small size, Ganymede is the biggest moon in the Solar System. Jupiter is approaching eastern quadrature, which means that Ganymede's shadow is not behind it as in the shadows of Europa in the two sequences taken at opposition. In the instance above as seen from Earth (which is presently at a large angle from a line joining the Sun to Ganymede), the circular shadow of Ganymede is striking the southern hemisphere cloud tops of Jupiter itself. The shadow is slightly distorted as it strikes the spherical globe of Jupiter. If there were any inhabitants of Jupiter flying across the cloud bands above, and passing through the black shadow, they would experience an eclipse of the distant Sun by the moon Ganymede.

Above is a 7X enlargement of Ganymede, showing markings on its rugged, icy surface. The dark area in its northern hemisphere is called Galileo Regio.

Saturn:   The ringed planet is now in the constellation of Aquarius, having crossed into that constellation from Capricornus on February 14 last. It will remain there until it crosses into Pisces on April 19, 2025. Saturn passed through opposition (rising in the east at sunset) on August 27, so is visible from sunset to 2 am this month. It will reach eastern quadrature (high overhead at sunset) on November 23.  The waxing gibbous Moon will be close by Saturn on the night of October 24.


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.

The photograph above was taken at 8:17 pm on November 03, 2022, when Saturn was again near eastern quadrature. The shadow of the planet once again falls across the far side of the rings, but in the intervening four years the angle of the rings as seen from Earth has been greatly reduced. The shadow of Ring B across the globe of Saturn is much darker from this angle.

The change in aspect of Saturn's rings is caused by the plane of the ring system being aligned with Saturn's equator, which is itself tilted at an angle of 26.7 degrees to Saturn's orbit. As the Earth's orbit around the Sun is in much the same plane as Saturn's, and the rings are always tilted in the same direction in space, as we both orbit the Sun, observers on Earth see the configuration of the rings change from wide open (top large picture) to half-open (bottom large picture) and finally to edge on (small picture above). This cycle is due to Saturn taking 29.457 years to complete an orbit of the Sun, so the complete cycle from "edge-on (2009) → view of Northern hemisphere, rings half-open (2013) → wide-open (2017) → half-open (2022) → edge-on (2025) → view of Southern hemisphere, rings half-open (2029) → wide-open (2032) → half-open (2036) → edge-on (2039)" takes 29.457 years. The angle of the rings will continue to reduce until they are edge-on again in 2025. They will appear so thin that it will seem that Saturn has no rings at all. The rings will be wide-open again in 2032.


This ice giant planet shines at about magnitude 5.8, so a pair of binoculars or a small telescope is required to observe it. Uranus is currently in the constellation of Aries, and it passed through conjunction with the Sun on May 10, and through western quadrature (rising at midnight) on August 16. Therefore, meaningful observations this month are restricted to the dark hours after 10 pm. At mid-month Uranus will be culminating (at its highest, above the northern horizon) at 1:30 am, when it will be about half-a-handspan east of Jupiter, or midway between Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. Uranus will reach opposition on November 14. The waning gibbous Moon will be just to the left of Uranus at 10 pm on October 2 and 29.


Neptune:   The icy blue planet was in opposition with the Sun (rising at midnight) on September 19 (last month), and can now be viewed for most of the night. It is currently between Saturn and Jupiter, in the constellation Pisces. It culminates above the northern horizon at 10 pm at mid-month. The waxing gibbous Moon will be near Neptune on the evenings of October 25 and 26.

Neptune, photographed from Nambour on October 31, 2008

   The erstwhile ninth and most distant planet came to opposition this year on July 22, and so it is reasonably well-placed for viewing in the early evenings this month. It will reach eastern quadrature (crossing the meridian at sunset) on October 21. it will be 65 degrees above the western horizon at 8 pm. Pluto's angular diameter is 0.13 arcseconds, less than one twentieth that of Neptune. Located in Sagittarius, it is close to the border with Capricornus. It is a 14.1 magnitude object, very small and faint. A telescope with an aperture of 25 cm is capable of locating Pluto when the seeing conditions are right. The First Quarter Moon will be just east of Pluto on October 22.



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

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


Meteor Showers:

Orionids                      October 22                                  Waxing gibbous Moon, 56% sunlit                                   ZHR = 20
                                     Radiant:   Near the bright star Betelgeuse.  Associated with Comet Halley

e 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.



Green Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3)

This comet was discovered on 2 March 2022 at the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Hale Observatory on Mount Palomar. It was found on CCD images taken by the famous 48-inch Schmidt Telescope. It was not be very bright, and in the first weeks of February it was only faintly visible to the unaided eye from sites far from the light pollution of cities and towns.

The comet had two tails, the brighter being green in colour, probably due to the presence of diatomic carbon in its coma. Its last visit was 50 000 years ago, when it may have been observed by early aborigines. It made its closest approach to Earth on February 2, when it was only 42 million kilometres away. On February 1 it was be in the vicinity of the star Polaris (the 'North Star') which is never visible from Australia. In the next days it moved south, and was close to the bright star Capella on February 5, but the tails were rapidly fading. Comet ZTF was in the vicinity of the planet Mars on February 10 and 11, when the photograph below was secured. It continues to move south, but is now too faint to be seen.

Comet ZTF (C/2022 E3), photographed from Nambour at 9 pm on February 11, 2023.

The same comet, photographed the following night, showing its rapid movement through the constellation Taurus.

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

Both of these comets appeared recently in orbits that caused 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 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, 2018.

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.

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 ideally placed for viewing, being high in the south-south-east as darkness falls. It culminates at 9 pm at mid-month, and is visible until 13 am.


The Stars and Constellations for this


These descriptions of the night sky are for 9 pm on October 1 and 7 pm on October 31. 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 and back to the north-west. The only naked-eye planets visible at these times will be Jupiter and Saturn.

Setting towards the north-west is the constellation of Lyra, the Lyre. It contains the white main sequence star Vega, which is the fifth brightest star. To its right is the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross, but to us in the southern hemisphere it appears this month lying on its right-hand side. The star at the bottom of the Cross, or on its upper left as we see it tonight, is a beautiful double star or binary, called Albireo.

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 is the brightest star in the constellation. It appears close to the north-north-western horizon tonight. This star is the first magnitude star Deneb, or Alpha Cygni. Deneb is a white giant star, and is the nineteenth brightest in the sky. Its name is Arabic for 'tail'. It will be due north at about 7.00 pm at mid-month. Deneb is about 200 000 times brighter than the Sun, and would outshine most of the other stars were it not for the fact that it is extremely distant, lying over 2600 light years away. It is possibly the most distant star we can see with our unaided eyes.

High in the sky and approaching culmination is the Great Square of Pegasus. It will be standing directly above the northern horizon at 9.45 pm at mid-month. It is very large, each side being around 15 degrees long. It is about as large as a fist held at arm's length, and is a similar distance above the horizon. 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 top-left one and moving in a clockwise direction around the Square) 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.

Andromeda trails down from Alpheratz below the north-eastern horizon. To its right is the zodiacal constellation of Aries, now risen in the north-east. The brightest star in Aries is a second magnitude orange star called Hamal. Above it is the white star Sheratan, slightly fainter. Both of these stars are faint compared with brilliant Jupiter which is about half-a-handspan east of Hamal. The planet Uranus is right on the east-north-eastern horizon at the above times, about halfway between Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.

In the east, a mv 2.2 star is about halfway up the sky. 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 being also known as Alpha Ceti should be brighter, but Menkar is actually more than half a magnitude fainter than Diphda. Menkar may be seen rising above the east-north-eastern horizon.

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 ancient peoples noticed. The astronomer Hevelius named it Mira, the Wonderful (see below). Between Cetus and Pegasus is the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, the Fishes. Pisces is found just above Aries, and contains a faint ring of stars, known as the 'Circlet', where Neptune is presently located.

Above Diphda is Fomalhaut, a bright, white first magnitude star in the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. Above Fomalhaut and to the right is a large, flattened triangle of stars, Grus, the Crane. Fomalhaut and Grus are both almost directly overhead at this time. A handspan to the north of Fomalhaut is the ringed planet Saturn, much brighter than any star in that part of the sky.

Very high in the south-east is Achernar, which is the ninth brightest star. It is the main star in the constellation Eridanus the River, which winds its way from Achernar towards the eastern horizon below 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 10.00 pm.

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.


Between Achernar and the south-eastern horizon can be seen the brilliant supergiant Canopus rising in the south-east. Canopus is the second-brightest star in the night sky, being outshone only by Sirius, which is smaller but much closer.

To the left of Achernar, the faint constellation of Phoenix may be seen. Its brightest star is Ankaa, a mv 2.39 star which is halfway between Diphda and Achernar, but slightly above.

A little to the east of due south, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is gaining altitude. 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 our latitude both Magellanic Clouds are circumpolar. This means that they are closer to the South Celestial Pole than that Pole's altitude above the horizon, so they never dip below the horizon. They never rise nor set, but are always in our sky. Of course, they are not visible in daylight, but they are there, all the same.

The Southern Cross is almost out of sight below the southern horizon, and Alpha and Beta Centauri are setting nearby. Near the west-south-western horizon, we see the bright S-shaped constellation of Scorpius, the Scorpion, with the red supergiant star Antares marking the Scorpion's heart.

The adjoining constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer is about 45º above the south-western horizon, just above Scorpius. The star clouds in the centre of our Milky Way galaxy lie behind the stars of Sagittarius. Jupiter and Saturn will spend all of October slowly moving eastward through Sagittarius.

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 Trifid Nebula, M20, in Sagittarius, is composed of a reflection nebula (blue), an emission nebula (pink), and dark lanes of dust.

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 was discovered by Edward Emerson Barnard in 1905 and is known as B72, 'The Snake'. A satellite passed through the field of view at right.

East of Sagittarius and a little to the west of the zenith is Capricornus, the Sea-Goat. Between Capricornus and Pisces is a rather faint constellation, Aquarius, the Water Bearer. Aquarius is almost directly overhead at this time, and this year contains the faint planet Saturn, which lies about two-thirds of a handspan south-east of the asterism known as the 'Water Jar'.

The constellations Sagittarius (top) and Scorpius (bottom), with the elegant curve of Corona Australis to the left of Sagittarius. They are high in the west at 8.00 pm this month.


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

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.


The zodiacal constellations visible tonight, starting from the west-south-western horizon and heading north-east, are Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries.

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


The Season of the Scorpion

The spectacular constellation of Scorpius is about a handspan above the western horizon at about 8.00 pm in mid-October. Three bright stars in a gentle curve mark his head, and another three mark his body. Of this second group of three, the centre one is a bright, red supergiant, Antares. It marks the red heart of the scorpion. This star is so large that, if it swapped places with our Sun, it would engulf the Earth and extend to the orbit of Mars. It is 604 light years away and shines at magnitude 1.06. Antares, an M type star, has a faint companion which can be seen in a good amateur telescope.

The rest of the stars run around the scorpion's tail, ending with two blue-white B type stars, Shaula (the brighter of the two) and Lesath, at the tip of the scorpion's sting. These two stars are at the eastern end of the constellation, and are near the top 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 lower right, and the tail (with sting) at upper left.


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. 

A very distant star that is easily seen with the unaided eye is Zeta Scorpii, in the tail of the Scorpion. Actually, there are two stars there, Zeta 1 and Zeta 2. Zeta 2 is an orange K-type giant star which is only 150 light years away. Zeta 1, though, is a blue-white B1 hypergiant, and at a distance of 2600 light years is over 17 times further away than Zeta 2. The light from Zeta 1 left it around 600 BC, when the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato were alive. 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.

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

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

The eastern half of the Lagoon Nebula, M8, showing dark Bok globules where protostars are forming

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, not far from the star Fomalhaut. This window is 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.



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.

The seventeenth century Polish astronomer Johannes 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 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 2022, Mira reached a maximum brightness of magnitude 2 on July 16, and after fading to a minimum magnitude of 9.3 last April reached a maximum again of 3.5 on June 13 (four months ago). Each of these cycles lasts 332 days. Mira rises above the due-east horizon soon after 6:40 pm at mid-month, and is well-placed for viewing by 10 pm.


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

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

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


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


The binary star Rigel (Beta Orionis, left) 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. 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 offs 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 the winter months, and to a lesser extent in the spring, when it appears more to the west. This glow is the light of millions of faint stars combined with that coming from glowing gas clouds called nebulae. It is concentrated along the plane of our galaxy, and this month it is seen crossing the western half of the sky, starting from the south-south-west and passing through Crux to Norma, Ara, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Scutum and Aquila to Cygnus in the north-north-west.

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.

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.



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 in the south-west to Achernar in the south-east. Both stars will be at about the same elevation above the horizon at 7.00 pm at the beginning of October. 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 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 is 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 is difficult to observe in October. 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.

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, 47 Tucanae will be observable all night.

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.


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

**    NGC 5139:   This number means that Omega Centauri is No. 5139 in the New General Catalogue of Non-stellar Astronomical Objects. This catalogue was first published in 1888 by J. L. E. Dreyer under the auspices of the Royal Astronomical Society, as his New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars. It contained only objects that could be seen through a telescope. 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 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

Low in the south-south-east, 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 directly below 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, and are linked to it by the Magellanic Stream. 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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