The night sky this week, 19-25 March 2018

It’s been a little while since we’ve had a close look at the night sky and now the planets are getting into more favourable positions as well as the nights are starting to get a bit longer and still not too cold. The good news is that Jupiter is going to get higher and higher throughout the next few weeks so you won’t have to stay up all night to get good views of this amazing planet. Hot on the heals of Jupiter is Mars, Saturn and Pluto as well, so get ready for a planet (and minor planet) smorgasbord.

Deep Sky

Given the Moon is still not going to be too annoying for deep sky observers this week, we can have a look at some of the galaxies that are going to be quite prominent. Though if it’s cloudy and you’re missing the Moon, you can read about the Moon here. The first is the majestic and very photogenic Sombrero Galaxy, M104 on Charles Messier’s not a comet list (NGC 4594). This galaxy sits just above Virgo in the night sky to the East, a little to the left and up from the bright star Spica about 11 degrees away. The galaxy is one of the few that look very good in the eyepiece and it is even visible with a pair of binoculars – though to get a bit more detail and to see the classic shape of this galaxy, a 8” or bigger is really required. The name for this galaxy comes from the distinctive dark dust lane and the, not far off edge on, profile that makes the galaxy look a bit like the famous Mexican hat. M104 is about 30 million light years away so is one of the most distant objects that you can see with a pair of binoculars. At the core of this galaxy is a Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH) that is about one billion Solar masses. This one is well worth a look at and is one of my favourite objects of the night sky.

A little bit closer to Virgo is the elliptical galaxy NGC 4697. These sorts of galaxies are not as popular to look at or photograph as the big spirals because there’s not much nice detail to woo people. The stars in this galaxy are very old and there’s not a lot of star formation going on. Astromers have observed a lot of x-ray emissions from the many neutron stars and like M104, there’s a large black hole at the centre. Visually this will be a diffuse blob in the eyepiece of 8” telecopes or greater about three finger widths from M104 down and to the left, towards the horizon, though still high enough in altitude angle to not be obscured by the messy atmosphere.

About where the three galaxies mentioned are (Credit: Sky Safari and me)

The other galaxy that is well worth a look and is getting into a good high position is M83. This is one of the most amazing sights of the night sky, it is bright and it is big and should be easy to spot. This galaxy is easily visible with a pair of binoculars and with a telescope of reasonable power you can start seeing more and more detail. I first saw this galaxy in a 16” dobsonian and it was amazing, the spiral arms were visible and the bar in the bright core also stood out. It is relatively easy to find by imagining a line from Spica to Alpha Centauri and it’s located about 1/3 of the way along that line. At this time of the year around midnight it is just above 40 degrees above the horizon.

M83 Galaxy (Credit: ESA)

The Planets

As mentioned above the highlight of the night sky for the planets is the increasing height of Jupiter, in Libra, which is putting it into a great viewing position. At midnight it is still very low at about 10 degrees above the horizon, but if you set your alarm clock to wake up at 4am it’ll be nice and high at about 50 degrees above the horizon – and the air will be nicely settlesd so you should have reasonably good seeing. At that time both Mars and Saturn, in Sagittarius, are also visible a reasonable height above the horizon, and getting better as dawn approaches. Mars is going to be fantastic this year as it approaches closer than it’s been for a long time. If you spend a good hour soaking up the delights of Jupiter then Mars will be about 35 degrees high, with Saturn just a bit lower. This is also the time to see Mars almost right in the galactic centre and, of course, in very close proximity to the Milky Way Kiwi! You can read about some of the missions whizzing around Mars here, here and here.

The Milky Way panorama

So get out there and enjoy the last of the warm evenings (sometimes warm and sometimes freezing in Wellington lol).