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This page, updated monthly, will let you know some of the things that you can look out for in the night sky. It lists the phases of the Moon, where you will see the naked-eye planets and describes some of the prominent constellations in the night sky during the month.
The author's: Astronomy Digestwhich, over time, will provide useful and, I hope, interesting articles for all amateur astronomers. A further aim is to update and add new material to link with the books recently published by Cambridge University Press and which are described on the home page of the digest. It now includes well over 30 illustrated articles.
NGC 6369 - a Planetary Nebula in Ophiuchus
Image HST, NASA/ESA
This is a Hubble Telescope image of NGC 6369, The Little Ghost Nebula. It was discovered by Sir William Herschel in the constellation Ophiuchus. It is a so-called "Planetary Nebula" but is, of course, the remnants of a dying star like our Sun. The gas clouds that resulted from the stellar explosion are excited by ultraviolet light from the central white dwarf star which is the remains of the nuclear fusion reactor at the originating star's core. Some 2,000 light-years away, it gives us a feel of what the remnants of our Sun will look like about 5 billion years from now.
In the evening, the galaxy M31 in Andromeda is visible in the south The chart provides two ways of finding it:
1) Find the square of Pegasus. Start at the top left star of the square - Alpha Andromedae - and move two stars to the left and up a bit. Then turn 90 degrees to the right, move up to one reasonably bright star and continue a similar distance in the same direction. You should easily spot M31 with binoculars and, if there is a dark sky, you can even see it with your unaided eye. The photons that are falling on your retina left Andromeda well over two million years ago!
2) You can also find M31 by following the "arrow" made by the three rightmost bright stars of Cassiopeia down to the lower right as shown on the chart.
Around new Moon (18th December) - and away from towns and cities - you may also be able to spot M33, the third largest galaxy after M31 and our own galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies. It is a face on spiral and its surface brightness is pretty low so a dark, transparent sky will be needed to spot it using binoculars (8x40 or, preferably, 10x50). Follow the two stars back from M31 and continue in the same direction sweeping slowly as you go. It looks like a piece of tissue paper stuck on the sky just a bit brighter than the sky background. Good Hunting!
The early mornings of December 14th and 15th will give us the chance, if clear, of observing the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. Pleasingly, this is a great year to observe them as the thin waning crescent moon will not affect our view. The Geminids can often produce near-fireballs and so the shower is well worth observing if its clear. An observing location well away from towns or cities will pay dividends. The relatively slow moving meteors arise from debris released from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This is unusual, as most meteor showers come from comets. The radiant - where the meteors appear to come from - is close to the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini as shown on the chart. If it is clear it will be cold - so wrap up well, wear a woolly hat and have some hot drinks with you.
An interesting valley on the Moon: The Alpine Valley
These are good nights to observe an interesting feature on the Moon if you have a small telescope. Close to the limb is the Appenine mountain chain that marks the edge of Mare Imbrium. Towards the upper end you should see the cleft across them called the Alpine valley. It is about 7 miles wide and 79 miles long. As shown in the image a thin rill runs along its length which is quite a challenge to observe. Over the next two nights following the 26th the dark crater Plato and the young crater Copernicus will come into view. This is a very interesting region of the Moon!
Spiral galaxy M109, imaged by Daniel Duggan.
This image was taken using the Faulkes Telescope North by Daniel Duggan - for some time a member of the Faulkes telescope team. M 109 is a Barred Spiral some 83 million light years away that lies is a loose collection of Galaxies called the Ursa Major Cloud that may contain over 50 galaxies.
Learn more about the Faulkes Telescopes and how schools can use them: Faulkes Telescope"
Use the link below to find when the space station will be visible in the next few days. In general, the space station can be seen either in the hour or so before dawn or the hour or so after sunset - this is because it is dark and yet the Sun is not too far below the horizon so that it can light up the space station. As the orbit only just gets up the the latitude of the UK it will usually be seen to the south, and is only visible for a minute or so at each sighting. Note that as it is in low-earth orbit the sighting details vary quite considerably across the UK. The NASA website linked to below gives details for several cities in the UK. (Across the world too for foreign visitors to this web page.)
Note: I observed the ISS three times recently and was amazed as to how bright it has become.
Find details of sighting possibilities from your location from: Location Index
See where the space station is now: Current Position
|new moon||first quarter||full moon||last quarter|
|December 18th||December 26th||December 3rd||December 10th|
Some Lunar Images by Ian Morison, Jodrell Bank Observatory: Lunar Images
To mark International Year of Astronomy, a team of British astronomers have made the largest lunar image in history and gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records! The whole image comprises 87.4 megapixels with a Moon diameter of 9550 pixels. This allows details as small as 1km across to be discerned! The superb quality of the image is shown by the detail below of Plato and the Alpine Valley. Craterlets are seen on the floor of Plato and the rille along the centre of the Alpine valley is clearly visible. The image quality is staggering! The team of Damian Peach, Pete lawrence, Dave Tyler, Bruce Kingsley, Nick Smith, Nick Howes, Trevor Little, David Mason, Mark and Lee Irvine with technical support from Ninian Boyle captured the video sequences from which 288 individual mozaic panes were produced. These were then stitched together to form the lunar image.
Please follow the link to the Lunar World Record website and it would be really great if you could donate to Sir Patrick Moore's chosen charity to either download a full resolution image or purchase a print.
Jupiter is now a pre-dawn object rising some 2 hours before the Sun at the beginning of the month with its 31 arc second disk, shining at a magnitude of -1.7, to be seen under clear skies. As the month progresses, its apparent diameter increases to 33 arc seconds and it brightens to magnitude -1.8. The low elevation will hinder our view, but the equatorial bands and up to four of its Gallilean moons should be visible.
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Saturn will not be visible this month as it leaves the evening sky on its way to superior conjunction (passing behind the Sun) on December 21st before it reappears in the pre-dawn sky next year.
Mercury, just visible in the evening sky at the end of November, will not be seen for the first three weeks of December as it passes between the Earth and the Sun on December 13th (inferior conjunction). From the 20th or so it brightens rapidly in the pre-dawn sky to reach a magnitude of -0.3 by month's end when some 23 degrees away from the Sun. As the ecliptic makes quite a steep angle to the horizon, it will then have a reasonable elevation so making the end of the month an excellent time to observe Mercury. It will then have a magnitude of -0.3 and a disk 6.9 arc seconds across.
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Mars. At the start of the month Mars lies in Virgo just 3 degrees up to the left of Spica, Alpha Virginis. Now a morning object at the start of its new apparition, it rises four hours or so earlier than the Sun. During the month, Mars has a magnitude increasing from 1.7 to 1.5 and an angular size of just 4.2 (increasing to 4.8) arc seconds so no details will be seen on its salmon-pink surface. Mars crosses from Virgo into Libra on the 21st, moving eastwards to closely approach Jupiter on New Years Eve before a very close conjunction with it on the 7th of January.
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Venus,was seen in a close conjunction with Jupiter on the 13th November. Moving back towards the Sun, it rises just 45 minutes before the Sun at the start of December and is lost in the Sun's glare around the 12th of the month on its way towards superior conjunction (on the far side of the Sun) on January 9th. In its final week of visibility, it will have a magnitude of -3.9 and disk 9.9 arc seconds across.
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Find more planetary images and details about the Solar System: The Solar System
This maps shows the constellations seen towards the south in early and late evening. Setting towards the west in early evening is the beautiful region of the Milky Way containing both Cygnus and Lyra. Below is Aquilla. The three bright stars Deneb (in Cygnus), Vega (in Lyra) and Altair (in Aquila) make up the "Summer Triangle". East of Cygnus is the great square of Pegasus - adjacent to Andromeda in which lies M31, the Andromeda Nebula. To the north lies "w" shaped Cassiopeia and Perseus. The lower map shoesthe constellation Taurus, with its two lovely clusters, the Hyades and the Pleaides, and is also described in more detail below. as the evening draws on, Orion, the Hunter, follows Taurus into the eastern sky with the constellations Auriga, above, and Gemini, to the upper left. Later Sirius, in Canis Major will be seen to the lower left of Orion. Due to its brightness and scintillations caused by the atmosphere it often appears as a rainbow of colours flashing in the sky.
The Square of Pegasus is in the south during the evening and forms the body of the winged horse. The square is marked by 4 stars of 2nd and 3rd magnitude, with the top left hand one actually forming part of the constellation Andromeda. The sides of the square are almost 15 degrees across, about the width of a clentched fist, but it contains few stars visibe to the naked eye. If you can see 5 then you know that the sky is both dark and transparent! Three stars drop down to the right of the bottom right hand corner of the square marked by Alpha Pegasi, Markab. A brighter star Epsilon Pegasi is then a little up to the right, at 2nd magnitude the brightest star in this part of the sky. A little further up and to the right is the Globular Cluster M15. It is just too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars show it clearly as a fuzzy patch of light just to the right of a 6th magnitude star.
The stars of Andromeda arc up and to the left of the top left star of the square, Sirra or Alpha Andromedae. The most dramatic object in this constellation is M31, the Andromeda Nebula. It is a great spiral galaxy, similar to, but somewhat larger than, our galaxy and lies about 2.5 million light years from us. It can be seen with the naked eye as a faint elliptical glow as long as the sky is reasonably clear and dark. Move up and to the left two stars from Sirra, these are Pi amd Mu Andromedae. Then move your view through a rightangle to the right of Mu by about one field of view of a pair of binoculars and you should be able to see it easily. M31 contains about twice as many stars as our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and together they are the two largest members of our own Local Group of about 3 dozen galaxies.
M33 in Triangulum
If, using something like 8 by 40 binoculars, you have seen M31 as described above, it might well be worth searching for M33 in Triangulum. Triangulum is
the small faint constellation just below Andromeda. Start on M31, drop down to Mu Andromedae and keep on going in the same direction by the same distance as you have moved from M31 to Mu Andromedae. Under excellent seeing conditions (ie., very dark and clear skies) you should be able to see what looks like a little piece of tissue paper stuck on the sky or a faint cloud. It appears to have uniform brightness and shows no structure. The shape is irregular in outline - by no means oval in shape and covers an area about twice the size of the Moon. It is said that it is just visible to the unaided eye, so it the most distant object in the Universe that the eye can see. The distance is now thought to be 3.0 Million light years - just greater than that of M31.
Taurus is one of the most beautiful constellations and you can almost imagine the Bull charging down to the left towards Orion. His face is delineated by the "V" shaped cluster of stars called the Hyades, his eye is the red giant star Aldebaran and the tips of his horns are shown by the stars beta and zeta Tauri. Although alpha Tauri, Aldebaran, appears to lie amongst the stars of the Hyades cluster it is, in fact, less than half their distance lying 68 light years away from us. It is around 40 times the diameter of our Sun and 100 times as bright.
More beautiful images by Alson Wong : Astrophotography by Alson Wong
To the upper right of Taurus lies the open cluster, M45, the Pleiades. Often called the Seven Sisters, it is one of the brightest and closest open clusters. The Pleiades cluster lies at a distance of 400 light years and contains over 3000 stars. The cluster, which is about 13 light years across, is moving towards the star Betelgeuse in Orion. Surrounding the brightest stars are seen blue reflection nebulae caused by reflected light from many small carbon grains. These relfection nebulae look blue as the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The grains form part of a molecular cloud through which the cluster is currently passing. (Or, to be more precise, did 400 years ago!)
Close to the tip of the left hand horn lies the Crab Nebula, also called M1 as it is the first entry of Charles Messier's catalogue of nebulous objects. Lying 6500 light years from the Sun, it is the remains of a giant star that was seen to explode as a supernova in the year 1056. It may just be glimpsed with binoculars on a very clear dark night and a telescope will show it as a misty blur of light.
Its name "The Crab Nebula" was given to it by the Third Earl of Rosse who observed it with the 72 inch reflector at Birr Castle in County Offaly in central Ireland. As shown in the drawing above, it appeared to him rather lile a spider crab. The 72 inch was the world's largest telelescope for many years. At the heart of the Crab Nebula is a neutron star, the result of the collapse of the original star's core. Although only around 20 km in diameter it weighs more than our Sun and is spinning 30 times a second. Its rotating magnetic field generate beams of light and radio waves which sweep across the sky. As a result, a radio telescope will pick up very regular pulses of radiation and the object is thus also known a Pulsar. Its pulses are monitored each day at Jodrell Bank with a 13m radio telescope.
Orion, perhaps the most beautiful of constellations, will be seen in the south at around 11 - 12 pm during January. Orion is the hunter holding up a club and shield against the charge of Taurus, the Bull up and to his right. Alpha Orionis, or Betelgeuse, is a read supergiant star varying in size between three and four hundred times that of our Sun. The result is that its brightness varies somewhat. Beta Orionis, or Rigel, is a blue supergiant which, at around 1000 light years distance is about twice as far away as Betelgeuse. It has a 7th magnitude companion. The three stars of Orion's belt lie at a distance of around 1500 light years. Just below the lower left hand star lies a strip of nebulosity against which can be seen a pillar of dust in the shape of the chess-board knight. It is thus called the Horsehead Nebula. It shows up very well photographically but is exceedingly difficult to see visually - even with relativly large telescope.
Beneath the central star of the belt lies Orion's sword containing one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens - The Orion Nebula. It is a region of star formation and the reddish colour seen in photographs comes from Hydrogen excited by ultraviolet emitted from the very hot young stars that make up the Trapesium which is at its heart. The nebula, cradling the trapesium stars, is a beautiful sight in binoculars or, better still, a telescope. To the eye it appears greenish, not red, as the eye is much more sensitive to the green light emitted by ionized oxygen than the reddish glow from the hydrogen atoms.