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Star Struck - Gerard Keyzer

Our astromony reporter keeps us up to date with celestral happenings.


February 2014

The new year ahead promises much for casual and more determined amateurs.

Firstly there is the annual progression of our Milky Way as it turns slowly over our heads.

Starting in the south east and arcing high to the north west we see the summer Milky Way (summer for southern hemisphere observers) constellations throughout the early evening and into the small hours of morning.

The Great Hunter Orion, most prominent in the north, holds his shield up against Taurus the Bull in the northwest. Taurus in turn appears to be in pursuit of the fleeing Pleiades or Seven Sisters, sparkling blue-white towards the west.

The Pleiades are both a good barometer for the quality of seeing and a good test of your own eyesight.

If the number of stars you see constantly varies from minute to minute, now four or even seven visible, the atmosphere may be too unsteady for good telescope views.

If the sky is steady and clear and you can always see five stars, then your eyes are about average.

Let them adapt to the dark on a moonless night and see if you can pick up seven; it is quite a sight and a wondrous reveal of the majesty the night sky has on offer.

The Pleiades were the inspiration for these lines by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Locksley Hall:

  "Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising through the mellow shade,

  Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid".

To the right or easterly you will see a bright orange-red star amongst another loose cluster. This is Aldebaran and the Hyades, Aldebaran the angry eye of the bull Taurus.

Looking up, further to the east you find Orion, the Hunter, easily identified by three brilliant stars in line, the "belt" of Orion or, to many, the base of the "saucepan".

Of course the handle of the saucepan is the "sword" of Orion and in the sword we find one of the most beautiful sights of the sky, the Great Orion Nebula, or M42. 

One view through a good telescope shows the observer it truly deserves the title of Great. The belt of Orion is also used as a pointer to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, high up toward the zenith by 9pm.

Sirius marks the eye of Canis Major, the Large Hunting dog of Orion.

Follow that line further toward the southern horizon and you find Canopus, another very bright star marking Canis Minor, the Small Hunting Dog.

The feet of Orion (who appears up-side down to observers in the southern hemisphere) straddle the prone figure of Lepus, the Hare.

If you look to the north-east after twilight you will find the king of the planets, the gas giant Jupiter, shining steady and bright yellow about one third of the way up from the horizon.

Jupiter currently resides in the constellation of Gemini with the stars Castor and Pollux lower down toward the horizon.

Jupiter has just passed opposition where a planet outside the orbit of Earth is directly opposite the Sun (as viewed from Earth).

To the observer this means two things: Jupiter will be approximately due north at midnight and also our planet is at its closest to Jupiter in our annual orbit, which means it will appear at its largest diameter this year. This means more detail and contrast of markings under good conditions. Jupiter in fact is now the subject of extensive "amateur" research and dedicated observers with sophisticated imaging techniques and software are doing work that has long been considered the job of professionals.

They are discovering Jupiter weather events, impact markings (in the cloud bands), changes in pattern and colour across the visible features of the planet.

Some have even been able to gain suggestions of surface detail on Jupiter moons. As professional astronomers gain access to ever more sensitive equipment and look further back into our known universe, so the amateur is starting to be the king of the Solar System backyard.

There is some very good reading on this subject in the February edition of Australian Sky and Telescope, which includes images by Australian amateur Anthony Wesley, among others.

Coincidentally the magazine has an observing feature on both Lepus and Canis Major.

The final thing I would like to mention this month is that on Saturday, February 22nd at about 10am the Moon will occult or pass in front of the planet Saturn.

This will not be easy to see and a telescope will be required.

The Moon will be about 90° away from the Sun, so if the Sun appears to be at the ten o'clock position the Moon should be faintly visible around the two o'clock position.

Do not point your telescope anywhere near the Sun! The Moon is waning toward last quarter, so the "lit up" side of the Moon will engage the planet first at approximately 10am. You will need to be looking at the Moon and using it to find Saturn, which will be right in the middle of the eastern edge.

If you miss it, be patient and you will see the planet slowly re-emerge around 11.10am.

A rare and interesting celestial event is in the wings.

Gerard Keyse