The best way to describe the night sky for this week is to go outside on a night like tonight with a big telescope and just have a look around. That’s exactly what I did. The planets are all in perfect positions for viewing and the Moon isn’t too bright, at least in the early part of the week so you can have a look at some deep sky objects – which you hopefully did tonight, because tomorrow night won’t be as good! This week’s night sky is described totally from what we did tonight, so nice and early and inside with a hot cup of chocolate by 10pm.
This really is the season of the planets, they are magnificent! the brightest of them all is quite high and in a perfect position to get some fantastic views. Venus is nearly as bright as it gets and not far from being the farthest from the Sun (from our particular angle of viewing on Earth) which means it is a bit higher in the sky than the usual gloop that it hangs around in near the horizon just after sunset or before sunrise. At the moment Venus is about half illuminated so has a real elongated look to it, like a half moon shape. We couldn’t see anything on the planet – though weren’t really expecting to. It’s really awesome to be able to see Venus in such a great position. The cool thing about looking at Venus is that if you follow ecliptic back to the other side of the sky you can see Mars rising before Venus dips below the horizon, and off course there’s Saturn and Jupiter between them – so there’s the four brightest planets all visible in the sky and in the early evening, so there’s no excuse to miss seeing them.
Early in the evening on Saturday we were driving just out of Wellington and caught a glimpse of the Moon just appearing with the tiniest of slithers of illuminated limb, it looked amazing. Tonight it was considerably more illuminated with earthshine just making the rest of it visible. The Moon is great to look at and just browse the craters along the terminator, especially early on in it’s phases. We didn’t spend too long looking at the Moon because I was really keen to look at Jupiter. The giant gas planet is normally the second brightest planet in the sky but at the moment this spot has been taken by Mars, relegating Jupiter to the number three spot. Jupiter looked fantastic with the four moons visible and Ganymede quite close to the planet. We didn’t see the Great Red Spot but if we stuck around until about midnight we would expect to see it coming into view.
With the awesome planet show still continuing we thought it would also be compulsory to have a look at Saturn. With the huge 16″ telescope we could easily see the Cassini Division and even some of the planets including Titan as well as Enceladus, Tethys and Dione, which were all really close together. Mars was the next obvious target to look at and being so bright it was hard to miss. Unfortunately it was not in the best position being a bit close to the horizon but if you leave it a bit later in the evening you might get some fantastic views. The dust storm is apparently starting to subside but I don’t think that it helped out our seeing. I think I caught a glimpse of something on the disk, maybe the hint of some of the darker surface features but it was hard to tell. Leaving it later in the evening is a better option.
Just because the Moon is out doesn’t meant that you can’t have a look at some deep sky objects. One object that I really enjoy is the open cluster M7. This sits just between Scorpius and Sagittarius, and if you’ve been reading these for the last couple of months you may have worked out that this is one of my most favourite parts of the sky. I really like M7 and I think it is one of the best open clusters, purely a subjective opinion. Quite close to M7 is the globular cluster NGC6441 near the bright star HR6630, which is actually a double star but the 3rd magnitude star is considerably brighter than it’s 13th magnitude partner. NGC6441 is a nice looking globular cluster though quite hard to resolve the stars. On the topic of globular clusters, the one that is hard to beat and easy to spot at the moment is Omega Centauri – even with the Moon out it is a majestic sight and well worth a look (if your in the Southern Hemisphere).
The Lagoon nebula was just visible tonight and will be easily washed out by the Moon later in the week so worth having a look at, though no later than tomorrow night (Wednesday). A bit higher up in Scorpius is the Cat’s Paw Nebula which is a little more prominent than the Lagoon. The bright nebulae in this part of the sky are puny when compared to the huge Eta Carina Nebula which is amazing in any telescope but simply brilliant in a larger instrument. The size of the nebula is massive and worth having a browse around to appreciate just how huge it is. Hopefully the weather remains good for the rest of the week so everyone can get outside and look at the planet show each evening!