The night sky 15 to 21 January 2018

Next week will be great to get some better views of Mars and Jupiter and maybe a last glimpse of Mercury before it disappears into the dawn. It’s also the last reasonable chance to have a look at Uranus. The Moon is mostly absent for washing out the sky next week so it’s a great chance to get out there and hunt some of the fainter objects.

Planets

It’s not as exciting as last week when Mars and Jupiter got very close to each other and Mercury was in a good viewing position. The planets continue to be a game of two halves, with Uranus and Neptune the only visible planets in the early evening and Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury visible just before dawn. As the week progresses Neptune disappears below the horizon from its already low position as Aquarius is swallowed up by the Western horizon at about 11pm. Uranus is in Pisces, so a little more favourable to view but it is getting low and by the end of the week it will be nearly 4 degrees lower towards the horizon for the same time, and by midnight it’ll be disappearing from view – unless you’re operating your very own airborne telescope, or live in a latitude well further north of Wellington.

At the other end of the night in the rising Libra and then Sagittarius it is a better story for having a look at the planets. First with Mars and Jupiter being in a much better position than last week with them rising around 1:30am. By about 4:30am they’ll both be in quite a favourable position for observing at about 33 degrees in altitude by the end of the week and it won’t be too light, with the Sun still over an hour away. So if you’re motivated to get up early you’ll be treated by nice views of both those planets. It’s a bit more marginal for viewing Saturn and Mercury though, with both of them in Sagittarius. Saturn gets in a better position throughout the week but will still be quite low on the predawn horizon, still worth a look to see that beautiful planet. Mercury slowly gets in a worse position during the week so best viewed at the start of the week, very low on the horizon in the South East just before dawn. Be careful not to get caught by the Sun though, the last thing you want is permanent eye damage, so have a quick look at Mercury and then get ready for work.

Moon

Make the most of it deep sky observers, the Moon hardly puts in an appearance next week, just briefly in the later part of the week before following closely behind the Sun and disappearing a little after dusk.

Deep Sky

As mentioned above, no Moon, yay! This is your week deep sky observes so get your light buckets out and go hunting for those ancient photons. If you want to have another go that Minor Messier Marathon that I mentioned last week then they are still in a good position above Cancer and to the right of Orion. Throughout the week, the interesting sights of M87 and Omega Centauri get higher in the predawn sky so will also offer increasingly better views. This week I thought it might be good to highlight a few interesting objects in the to the right of Achernar, up near Acamer and just below the zenith – you big dob users might have to bust out the step ladder to reach the eyepiece.

A huge spider

First though, it worth stopping by the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) to have a look at the Tarantula Nebula, only because it’s such an amazing sight. To see the LMC, you’ll need a nice dark sky with hardly any light pollution. If you do have a dark sky, then it’s really easy to spot because it’s the bigger of the two clouds to the right of the Milky Way, directly to the South. If you make a line between the Southern Cross and Achernar then both clouds are on each side of the line about 2/3 of the way to Achernar. On the left side of the LMC should be a fuzzy patch, that looks a bit like a globular cluster, though not so round, and that’s the Tarantula Nebula. Easily visible with binoculars, even in our light polluted Wellington sky. It lies about 160,000 light years away and if it was as close as the Orion Nebula it would dominate the sky. In a telescope you can start seeing the spidery shape of the nebula, which lead to its name.

Image with Stellarium

A faint globular cluster

If you head back to Achernar and imagine a line to Canopus then there’s a star just over half way along and higher, this star is Alpha Doradus, the brightest star in the constellation Doradus. If you imagine a line between this star and Achernar then half way along and a little to the right is a globular cluster called NGC 1261, which is quite dense and easily seen in an 8″ telescope, if you want to resolve stars then you’ll need some more aperture. It’s not really a binocular target, though you might see something that looks like a faint fuzzy star.

A couple of galaxies

The next couple of objects will need a bigger telescope, though an 8″ will probably work. About 15 degrees up and to the right a bit from Achernar is Acamar, in Eridanus. About 5 degrees from this star diagonally up and to the right is a bright elliptical galaxy called Fornax A. It’ll be a circular blob of fuzzy and not much more spectacular than that, though given its about 70 million light years away the photons you get in your eye are very very old. The final object to try and see in another galaxy about 10 degrees to the right of Acamar. This galaxy, NGC 1097 is a bit fainter but you might be able to see its core as a fuzzy brightish blob. In that fuzzy core there is a super massive black hole and the galaxy has also witnessed a large number of supernovae in recent decades. This galaxy is only 50 million light years away, so a bit closer.

Image with Stellarium

So there’s a few objects to keep you going for the week between stints of planet viewing that bookend the night. Make the most of the moonless sky for finding those faint fuzzies.