The night sky this week will be dominated by the full Moon on Tuesday which will wash out any chance of catching those illusive deep sky objects. Plus it will make it tricky to see the Milky Way which nearly has the galactic centre at the zenith this week, and of the course the Milk Way Kiwi! There are a bunch of planets starting to grace the night sky with Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn all visible. This Winter is going to be the season of the planets and we’re almost there! You can get an early sneaky peak just by staying up later this week, though Winter kicks off this week as well (here anyway).
Venus looks stunning at the moment and it hangs around long enough after sunset to give a reasonably good view. Unfortunately it is close to the horizon so the atmosphere will limit the quality of viewing, the seeing. This is because when you’re looking at something close to the horizon, you’re looking through considerably more atmosphere than something straight up. Because we sit outside of the orbit of Venus, we get to see phases of the planet, much like the Moon. At the moment Venus is about 80% illuminated and it’s slowly decreasing. During the week it crosses Gemini so you’ll see it get closer and closer to the bright stars of Castor and Pollux. Venus is a tough target to get much detail out of. I had a look last week through a fairly powerful telescope but the conditions were atrocious and the planet was just too close to the horizon. Hopefully this week I’ll get a chance to have another look, if the weather behaves!
Jupiter still dominates the night sky at the moment as it is easily viewed throughout most of the night. It really is in a perfect viewing spot at the moment being nice and high and very close to the star Zubenelgenubi or Alpha Librae in the constellation of Libra. We have a strong southerly blowing through the country early this week so hopefully behind that there will be a nice cold and clear pocket of air which should give an outstanding opportunity to have a nice crisp view of Jupiter. If you’re lucky and the weather has cleared by Tuesday evening then we should see the transit of Io across Jupiter. Ganymeade also does a transit during the early evening of Monday. On Sunday evening, Europa has its turn at passing in front of Jupiter in the early evening so it’s the perfect chance to get out there and see if you can make a little movie with one of Jupiters moons doing a transit.
Saturn gets very high in the night sky this week as well as it gets to a more convenient time for viewing approaching the late evening. You’ll still have to stay up until after midnight to make the most of the altitude to maximise your chances of getting a great view of Saturn’s magical rings. Unfortunately, in New Zealand, we miss out on seeing the Moon pass in front of Saturn which happens after Saturn sets on Friday morning, New Zealand time. Nonetheless we get to have fantastic views as the planet sits in Sagittarius, close to the galactic centre. The angle that the rings are at should make it a bit easier to see the Cassini division too. So hopefully we’ll be able to make the most of some settled air later in the week to really get some amazing views of this real jewel of a planet. While you’re taking a look at Saturn you could always have a quick look at the very nice Globular Cluster, M22, which is quite close to Saturn and well worth a look. Later in the week the Moon will really ruin the chance to get much detail out of M22 but if you get a chance earlier in the week then you’ll get a rewarding view of this great glob.
If you don’t mind staying up even later then you’re in for a treat with Mars. The red planet is due to get as close as it gets to us on about the 1st of August so it’s starting to offer some fantastic views. Despite what some nutters will claim on Facebook and Twitter, it won’t get any closer than about 57,750,000km. Not close enough to disrupt the conspiracy theorists, but close enough to give better than usual views of the planet. Unfortunately this week it is still 94,000,000km away, but improving.
If the weather improves then get out there with your telescopes and binoculars and you’ll be in for a treat with the four planets visible for viewing and all reaching a good altitude that gets them out of the turbulent atmosphere, except Venus.