January – March
No matter what the day, it is always a rewarding experience to gaze into the mysteries of the night’s sky and lose oneself in the potentially infinite possibilities of space. However, throughout the year various phenomena will be visible to add some substance to this great abyss.
- The Orion Nebula (M42)
The Orion Nebula is the most famous area of star forming activity in our night’s sky. Look at the ‘sword’ of Orion through binoculars and you will notice that the central star is actually a hazy patch. This colossal cloud of dust is about 24 light years across and is a stellar nursery, encapsulating thousands of new born stars as the dust collapses under its own gravity.
- The Pleides (M45)
To the west of Orion lies Taurus, the Bull. This constellation houses the well-known open cluster known as the Pleides or 7 Sisters. This is a group of young stars that were all created in the same nebula and are thus the same age and now drift through space gravitationally bound to each other. On very clear conditions up to 14 stars are visible to the naked eye although only 6 are considered prominent.
- The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC)
Found between the southern hemisphere constellations of Mensa and Dorado, the LMC is now classified as an irregular dwarf galaxy. Sitting like a cloud in an otherwise clear sky, the LMC is about the size of 20 full Moons and resides a massive 163,000 light years away! This galaxy, containing roughly 10 billion stars is distorted due to the gravitational influence of our own, much larger, Milky Way galaxy. It is quite possible that in the distant future, the Milky Way will cannibalize its cosmic neighbour.
- Annular Solar Eclipse
On February 26th, observers in the southern tip of South America and Angola will experience the fabled ‘Ring of Fire’ as the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth. The Moon does not always keep the same distance from the Earth and in this instance will be too far away to completely block out the Sun. In this case, the only the outer edge of the Sun will be visible around the silhouetted Moon, dramatically illuminating the Sun’s outer atmosphere known as the Corona.
- The Coal Sack Nebula
Viewers looking at the Southern Cross, or Crux, as it is officially known, will notice a jet-black region of space close to Alpha Crusis in stark contrast to the surrounding Milky Way star field. This is not an empty region of space however, but rather a dense cloud of gas and dust that blocks out the light from behind it.
- Omega Centauri (NGC 5139)
In the middle of the constellation of Centaurus lies the mighty Omega Centauri. This ‘fuzzy star’ is actually a collection of ancient stars known as a Globular Cluster. Containing over 10 million stars, Omega Centauri is a largest and brightest in our sky. It is thought to be the remnant of a dwarf galaxy that strayed too close to our Milky Way and was stripped of most of its mass, leaving only the core behind.
- The Beehive Cluster (M44)
Situated in the unassuming constellation of Cancer, the Beehive Cluster is another collection of related young stars that are travelling through galaxy as one. Estimated to be 600 million years old, this one of the youngest and closest open clusters to Earth (The Sun is about 4.5 billion years old!)
Venus is currently the brightest object in the sky in the southern hemisphere. Named after the Roman goddess of beauty, our sister planet would be anything but a pleasant place to live. Venus’ thick atmosphere has created a run-away greenhouse effect, causing temperatures to reach over 460°C (860°F). That is hot enough to melt lead! Sulphuric acid rain clouds and a surface pressure equivalent to 1km beneath our oceans makes Venus one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system.
Blog by Head Trainer, Ben Coley