RSSArchive for January, 2012

Northern Lights put on a show

THE NORTHERN LIGHTS have been in the news lately, with some impressive displays reported this week. Here’s a plain-language Q&A on the Lights and when and where they can be seen.

Also called the “aurora borealis”, the Northern Lights are big patches of glowing air molecules high up in our atmosphere. The Southern Hemisphere equivalent is the “aurora australis” or Southern Lights.

To see the Northern Lights you have to be located in far northern latitudes, eg. UK, Scandinavia, northern Europe. Likewise, to see the Southern Lights you have to be located in far southern latitudes, eg. Tasmania, New Zealand and the tip of South America. The best view of the Southern Lights is to be had in Antarctica.

The Northern Lights get their name from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas.

The video above shows what the aurora looks like from space.

What causes them?

They’re caused by an interaction between particles from the Sun, Earth’s magnetic field and Earth’s atmosphere.

The Sun sends out waves of electrically charged particles, sometimes in big clumps. Those particles get caught in Earth’s magnetic field and are funnelled downward from space and toward our north and south poles.

When they hit the molecules in our upper atmosphere, those molecules give off light—a bit like a giant fluorescent tube in the sky.

They occur very high up, in the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere called the “thermosphere”—essentially, right on the edge of space

The different colours are caused by the different molecules in the air: oxygen produces a green or brownish glow, nitrogen produces a red or blue glow. The glows from oxygen and nitrogen can combine to produce a pink glow.

Here’s a very good video that explains how the aurora is produced:

Can we see them from Australia?

Yes, but you have be far south and away from city lights. During the time of solar maximum (see below), they’re often seen from Tasmania, southern Victoria and southern Western Australia. In the past, I’ve even heard reports of sightings from the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.

Because the Southern Lights occur down near Antarctica, from Australian latitudes they will be seen way down toward our southern horizon (if at all).

I understand that the next 12 months should be good to see them?

Yes. The Sun has an 11-year cycle of activity, and we’re coming up to “solar maximum” sometime in the next 12-18 months. So we can expect many more auroral reports.

Apart from a pretty light show, do they have any other effects on us?

The aurorae themselves don’t have any other effect, but the space weather that causes them can.

Those charged particles from the Sun, and the effect the solar wind can have on Earth’s magnetic field, can cause:

  • Damage or disruption to satellites, eg. GPS, communications, weather, military
  • Disruption to radio communications networks
  • Damage or disruption to electricity grids (due to currents induced into the grid by the changing magnetic field)
  • Damage or disruption to long pipeline systems (ditto)
  • Disruption to mineral exploration (which often relies on magnetic field information)

More information:

Space Weather.com

Aurora Watch

Aurora Alert

Aurora Forecast

Space Weather Prediction Centre

Ionospheric Prediction Service (Australian Government)

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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Mini-Solar System has smallest planets found so far

Artist's concept of the KOI-961 system

This artist's concept depicts an itsy bitsy planetary system -- so compact, in fact, that it's more like Jupiter and its moons than a star and its planets. Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission and ground-based telescopes recently confirmed that the system, called KOI-961, hosts the three smallest exoplanets known so far to orbit a star other than our Sun.

ASTRONOMERS USING DATA from NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our Sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth but orbit close to their star, making them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist.

Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars, called exoplanets, only a handful are known to be rocky.

“Astronomers are just beginning to confirm the thousands of planet candidates uncovered by Kepler so far,” said Doug Hudgins, Kepler programme scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Finding one as small as Mars is amazing, and hints that there may be a bounty of rocky planets all around us.”

Dramatic revision of planets sizes

Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by crossing, or transiting, planets. At least three transits are required to verify a dip as a planet.

Follow-up observations from ground-based telescopes also are needed to confirm the discoveries.

The latest discovery comes from a team led by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The team used data publicly released by the Kepler mission, along with follow-up observations from the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Artist's conception comparing the KOI-961 system to the Jupiter system

In many ways the KOI-961 planetary system is similar to Jupiter and the largest four of its many moons. (Artist's conception)

Their measurements dramatically revised the sizes of the planets from what was originally estimated, revealing their small nature.

The three planets are very close to their star, taking less than two days to orbit around it. The KOI-961 star, which is located about 130 light-years away, is a red dwarf with a diameter one-sixth that of our Sun, making it just 70 percent bigger than Jupiter.

Mini-Solar Systems could be everywhere

“This is the tiniest [planetary] system found so far,” said John Johnson, the principal investigator of the research from NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“It’s actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy.”

Red dwarfs are the most common kind of star in our Milky Way galaxy. The discovery of three rocky planets around one red dwarf suggests that the galaxy could be teeming with similar rocky planets.

“These types of systems could be ubiquitous in the universe,” said Phil Muirhead, lead author of the new study from Caltech. “This is a really exciting time for planet hunters.”

First Earth-sized planets

The discovery follows a string of recent milestones for the Kepler mission. In December 2011, scientists announced the mission’s first confirmed planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star: a planet 2.4 times the size of Earth called Kepler-22b.

Later in the month, the team announced the discovery of the first Earth-size planets orbiting a Sun-like star outside our Solar System, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f.

Chart comparing the smallest known exoplanets with Mars and Earth

The smallest known exoplanets, or planets outside the Solar System, compared with Mars and Earth.

For the latest discovery, the team obtained the sizes of the three planets (called KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02 and KOI-961.03) with the help of a well-studied twin star to KOI-961, Barnard’s Star.

By better understanding the KOI-961 star, they could then determine how big the planets must be to have caused the observed dips in starlight.

In addition to the Kepler observations and ground-based telescope measurements, the team used modelling techniques to confirm the planet discoveries.

Prior to these confirmed planets, only six other planets had been confirmed using the Kepler public data.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Earth from Space: Sideways view of Antarctica

Oblique ISS view of Livingston Island and Deception Island

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station took this photo at a highly oblique angle. It shows a small part of the Antarctic coastline.

THE INCLINED EQUATORIAL ORBIT of the International Space Station (ISS) limits astronauts to nadir views of Earth—looking straight down from the spacecraft—between approximately 52 degrees North latitude and 52 degrees South.

However, when viewing conditions are ideal, the crew can obtain detailed oblique images—looking outwards at an angle—of features at higher latitudes, such as Greenland or, in this image, Antarctica.

While the bulk of the continent of Antarctica sits over the South Pole, the narrow Antarctic Peninsula extends like a finger towards the tip of South America. The northernmost part of the Peninsula is known as Graham Land, a small portion of which (located at approximately 64 degrees South latitude) is visible at the top left in this astronaut photograph.

Off the coast of Graham Land to the north-northwest, two of the South Shetland Islands—Livingston Island and Deception Island—are visible. Both have volcanic origins, and active volcanism at Deception Island has been recorded since 1800. (The last verified eruptive activity occurred in 1970.)

Closer to the coastline of Graham Land, Brabant Island (not part of the South Shetlands) also includes numerous outcrops of volcanic rock, attesting to the complex tectonic history of the region.

The ISS was located over the South Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1,800 kilometres to the northeast when this image was taken. This long viewing distance, combined with the highly oblique angle, accentuates the shadowing of the ground and provides a sense of the topography similar to the view you get from an airplane.

It also causes foreshortening of features in the image, making them appear closer to each other than they actually are. For example, the distance between Livingston and Deception Islands is approximately 20 kilometres.

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Text adapted from information issued by William L. Stefanov, Jacobs/ESCG at NASA-JSC.

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Gallery: The Omega Nebula

The Omega Nebula

This image of the Omega Nebula (Messier 17), captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), is one of the sharpest of this object ever taken from the ground. It shows the dusty, rosy central parts of the famous star-forming region.

A NEW IMAGE OF THE HEART of the Omega Nebula, captured by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), is one of the sharpest of this object ever taken from the ground.

It shows the dusty, rose-colored central parts of this famous stellar nursery and reveals extraordinary detail in the cosmic landscape of gas clouds, dust and newborn stars.

The colourful gas and dark dust in the Omega Nebula serve as the raw materials for creating the next generation of stars.

In this particular section of the nebula, the newest stars on the scene—dazzlingly bright and shining blue-white—light up the whole ensemble. The nebula’s smoky-looking ribbons of dust stand in silhouette against the glowing gas.

The dominant reddish colours of this portion of the cloud-like expanse, arise from hydrogen gas, glowing under the influence of the intense ultraviolet rays from the hot young stars.

The Omega Nebula goes by many names, depending on who observed it when and what they thought they saw. These other titles include the Swan Nebula, the Horseshoe Nebula and even the Lobster Nebula. The object has also been catalogued as Messier 17 (M17) and NGC 6618.

The nebula is located about 6,500 light-years away and is a popular target for astronomers, as it ranks as one of the youngest and most active stellar nurseries for massive stars in the Milky Way.

A wider view of the Omega Nebula

A wider view of the Omega Nebula.

Download wallpapers of the Omega Nebula:

1024×768 (286.1 KB)

1280×1024 (450.0 KB)

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1920×1200 (707.6 KB)

Adapted from information issued by ESO.

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Earth from Space – Eruption in the Red Sea

Satellite image of a volcanic eruption in the Zubair Group

NASA Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite image of a volcanic eruption in the Zubair Group of islands in the Red Sea.

AN ERUPTION OCCURRED in the Red Sea in December 2011. According to news reports, fishermen witnessed lava fountains reaching up to 30 metres tall on December 19.

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites observed plumes on December 20 and December 22. Meanwhile, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite detected elevated levels of sulphur dioxide, further indicating an eruption.

The activity in the Red Sea included more than an eruption. By December 23, 2011, what looked like a new island had appeared.

The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured these high-resolution, natural-colour images on December 23, 2011 (above), and October 24, 2007 (below).

Satellite image of Zubair Group islands

A satellite image of the same region, taken in 2007, shows no sign of the new volcanic island.

The image from December 2011 shows an apparent island where there had previously been an unbroken water surface. A thick plume rises from the island, dark near the bottom and light near the top, perhaps a mixture of volcanic ash and water vapour.

The volcanic activity occurred along the Zubair Group, a collection of small islands off the west coast of Yemen. Running in a roughly northwest-southeast line, the islands poke above the sea surface, rising from a shield volcano.

This region is part of the Red Sea Rift where the African and Arabian tectonic plates pull apart and new ocean crust regularly forms.

Wider satellite image of a volcanic eruption in the Zubair Group

This wider view shows more of the islands in the Zubair Group.

Close up satellite image of a volcanic eruption in the Zubair Group

And this close up gives a better view of the new island and the huge plume of smoke and steam.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Text adapted from information issued by Michon Scott.

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Earth from Space – Cocos (Keeling) Islands

NASA satellite image of the South Keeling Islands

NASA satellite image of the South Keeling Islands, part of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands archipelago in the Indian Ocean between Australia and Sri Lanka.

THE COCOS (KEELING) ISLANDS lie in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 2,900 kilometres northwest of Perth, Western Australia. It is about halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Comprised of coral atolls and islands, the archipelago includes North Keeling Island and the South Keeling Islands. Total human population is about 600.

The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this natural-colour image of South Keeling Islands on July 31, 2009.

Coral atolls—which are largely composed of huge colonies of tiny animals such as cnidaria—form around islands. After the islands sink, the coral remains, generally forming complete or partial rings. Only some parts of South Keeling Islands still stand above the water surface. In the north, the ocean overtops the coral.

Along the southern rim of this coral atoll, the shallow water appears aquamarine. Water darkens to navy blue as it deepens toward the central lagoon. Above the water line, coconut palms and other plants form a thick carpet of vegetation.

In 2005, the Australian government issued a report on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, summarising field research conducted between 1997 and 2005. It found that hard corals, which play a primary role in reef building, were not the only corals at South Keeling Islands. Soft corals were also thriving at study sites throughout the reef. Although coral and rock predominated, the researchers also found varying amounts of silt, sand, rubble, sponges, and seaweed

Some of the coral had recently died, and coral predators appeared in high densities at some sites. But overall, the report noted, “the coral reef community at Cocos (Keeling) Islands is very healthy and in a stable period, with little impact from anthropogenic activities.”

The Cocos Islands are served by regular Virgin Australia flights, which land on and depart from the single 2,438-metre-long runway shown in the enlargement below:

Cocos (Keeling) Islands runway

Close up satellite image of the runway on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

For a full-size version of the main image, click here (3MB)

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team. Text adapted from information issued by Michon Scott.

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Galaxy at the dawn of time

Galaxy GN-108036

One of the most distant galaxies known, called GN-108036, is seen 750 million years after the Big Bang. The galaxy's light took 12.9 billion years to reach us. Infrared observations taken by NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes show it to be surprisingly bright, thought to result from an extreme burst of star formation

  • Galaxy seen as it was 750 million years after the Big Bang
  • Observations suggest it is forming stars at a furious rate

ASTRONOMERS USING NASA’S Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have discovered that one of the most distant galaxies known is churning out stars at a shockingly high rate. The blob-shaped galaxy, called GN-108036, is the brightest galaxy found to date at such great distances.

The galaxy, which was discovered and confirmed using ground-based telescopes, is 12.9 billion light-years away.

Data from Spitzer and Hubble were used to measure the galaxy’s high star production rate, equivalent to about 100 Suns per year.

For reference, our Milky Way galaxy is about five times larger and 100 times more massive than GN-108036, but makes roughly 30 times fewer stars per year.

“The discovery is surprising because previous surveys had not found galaxies this bright so early in the history of the universe,” said Mark Dickinson of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona. “Perhaps those surveys were just too small to find galaxies like GN-108036.”

“It may be a special, rare object that we just happened to catch during an extreme burst of star formation.”

Seen shortly after the Big Bang

The international team of astronomers, led by Masami Ouchi of the University of Tokyo, Japan, first identified the remote galaxy after scanning a large patch of sky with the Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Its great distance was then carefully confirmed with the W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Mauna Kea.

“We checked our results on three different occasions over two years, and each time confirmed the previous measurement,” said Yoshiaki Ono of the University of Tokyo, lead author of a new paper reporting the findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

Spitzer (left) and Hubble space telescopes

The Spitzer (left) and Hubble space telescopes were used to measure the galaxy's redshift, a indication of how far away it is.

GN-108036 lies near the very beginning of time itself, a mere 750 million years after our universe formed 13.7 billion years ago in an explosive “Big Bang.”

Its light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach us, so we are seeing it as it existed in the very distant past.

Remarkable redshift

Astronomers refer to an object’s distance by a number called its “redshift,” which is a measure of how much its light has been stretched to longer, redder wavelengths due to the expansion of the universe.

Objects with larger redshifts are farther away and are seen further back in time.

GN-108036 has a redshift of 7.2. Only a handful of galaxies have confirmed redshifts greater than 7, and only two of these have been reported to be more distant than GN-108036.

Infrared observations from Spitzer and Hubble were crucial for measuring the galaxy’s star-formation activity. Astronomers were surprised to see such a large burst of star formation because the galaxy is so small and from such an early cosmic era.

Back when galaxies were first forming, in the first few hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, they were much smaller than they are today, having yet to bulk up in mass.

During this epoch, as the universe expanded and cooled after its explosive start, hydrogen atoms permeating the cosmos formed a thick fog that was opaque to ultraviolet light. This period, before the first stars and galaxies had formed and illuminated the universe, is referred to as the “dark ages.”

The era came to an end when light from the earliest galaxies burned through, or “ionised,” the opaque gas, causing it to become transparent. Galaxies similar to GN-108036 may have played an important role in this event.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI / University of Tokyo.

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Giant star-jet astounds astronomers

Sanduleak's star

Sanduleak's star and the jet of matter shooting out from it at more than 5 million kilometres per hour. The jet is now 400 million million kilometres long.

  • Star shooting out jet of material 400 million million km long
  • Thought to occur due to interaction between two stars
  • Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy

ASTRONOMERS HAVE FOUND a star spitting matter into a “jet” that stretches for more than 400 million million kilometres across space.

That’s about ten times the distance between the Sun and its nearest neighbouring star (proxima Centauri).

It’s the biggest jet known from a star, and “challenges our current understanding,” said Dr Francesco Di Mille (Australian Astronomical Observatory and the University of Sydney), a member of the team that made the finding.

Theoretical models don’t deal with it, he said, “simply because nobody would ever have bet that such a giant stellar jet could exist”.

In a galaxy not so far away

The star making the jet is called Sanduleak’s star, having been discovered by astronomer Nicholas Sanduleak in 1977.

Sanduleak noted that the star varied in brightness, but didn’t see the jet.

That’s not surprising. The star is shrouded by dust, and it’s not even in our Galaxy—it’s in a small neighbouring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 160 thousand light-years away.

Finding the jet fell to Dr Di Mille’s team, led by Italian astronomer Rodolfo Angeloni (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), which turned the 6.5-m Magellan Telescopes in Chile on the star.

Magellan Telescopes

Observations were made with the Magellan Telescopes in Chile.

Outburst 10,000 years old

Dust surrounding the star makes it hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but it seems that actually two stars are involved: a red giant and a white dwarf, tangoing closely.

The red giant’s hot “breath”—transferred matter—curls into a belt around the white dwarf’s belly. From time to time a jet shoots up and down from this disc of material, along the star’s axis of rotation.

Artist's impression of a system like Sanduleak's star

An artist's impression of a system like Sanduleak's star—a red giant star transferring matter onto a white dwarf star.

Astronomers have worked out that the current outburst has been going on for about ten thousand years, and that the material in the jet is travelling at more than 5 million kilometres per hour (1,500 km per second).

“Because we know the distance to this star we’ll be able to make good estimates of most of the jet’s properties,” Dr Di Mille said.

“It will be the best test-case for understanding jets from stars.”

The researchers have published their finding in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Adapted from information issued by AAO. Magellan Telescopes image courtesy Francisco Figueroa. Sanduleak’s star image courtesy R. Angeloni et al. Artist’s impression courtesy Dana Berry (STScI).

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What’s up? Night sky for January 2012

Stargazers with telescopes at night

Summer nights are perfect for stargazing.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

January 1

It is First Quarter Moon today at 5:15pm AEDT. First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains  throw nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

January 3

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit from the Earth, which is called apogee. It’s distance from our planet will be 404,578 kilometres.

While you’re out looking at the Moon, you’ll notice a bright looking star above and to the left. Well, that’s not a star; it’s actually the planet Jupiter. If you have access to a telescope, or even a pair of 7×50 (or better) binoculars, train them on Jupiter and you should see up to four tiny pinpoints of light on either or both sides of the planet—these are the moons Galileo discovered, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. If you take a look again tomorrow night, you’ll see that their positions will have changed as they whiz around the planet.

And in fact, we’re only a few days away from the anniversary of their discovery. On the 7th of this month, it will be 402 years since Galileo spotted them!

January 5

Today the Earth reaches perihelion in its orbit around the Sun. Perihelion is the point in a solar orbit when the body in question (eg. Earth) is at its closest to the Sun. Perihelion occurs today at midday AEDT, at a distance between Earth and Sun of about 147,098,000 kilometres. (The opposite of perihelion is aphelion, which for Earth will occur on July 5, 2012 at a distance of about 152,098,000 kilometres.)

If you have a pair of binoculars, you’ll see a pretty sight tonight, with the soon-to-be-full Moon appearing to sit above a beautiful star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. When the Moon is not around and the sky is dark, most people can make out 6 to 7 of the Pleiades stars, although eagle-eyed stargazers can see a few more. There are actually hundreds of stars in this beautiful open star cluster, and it is also filled with beautiful whispy gas clouds, although the stars and the gas are not actually related to each other—we just happen to be seeing them at a time when the stars are drifting through the gas.

Diagram of Moon near Pleiades in January 5's night sky

This is the view in the evening of January 5, with the Moon sitting above the beautiful star cluster known as the Pleiades. A pair of binoculars will show the scene well. Tomorrow night the Moon will have shifted east, and will be near to Albebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

January 6

Tonight you might notice a fairly bright, reddish-looking star just above the Moon. This is Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.

January 9

Full Moon occurs today at 6:30pm AEDT.

January 12

Tonight, the Moon will appear above and to the right of a bright blue star. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

January 14

In this morning’s pre-dawn sky out to the east, the Moon will appear above and to the left of the planet Mars, which looks like a ruddy-coloured star. As you gaze at it, spare a thought for the Mars Science Laboratory, which was launched a little under two months ago and which is due to reach the Red Planet on August the 6th this year.

January 16

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 8:08pm AEDT.

January 17

In this morning’s sky, the Moon will be just above and to the right of the planet Saturn, which looks like a bright star. Nearby is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

Diagram showing the Moon near Spica and Saturn in January 17's night sky

The Moon will be near to both the star Spica and the planet Saturn (the bright yellowish "star" below the Moon) on January 17. If you have access to a small telescope, take a look at both the craters and mountains on the Moon and Saturn and its glorious rings.

January 18

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 369,887 kilometres.

January 20

In the early dawn sky, take a look for the Moon and you should see a reddish-looking star just above it. This is Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Compare Antares with Mars—do you think they look similar? The ancients thought so, and in fact the name Antares means “rival of Mars”.

January 23

New Moon occurs today at 8:39pm AEDT.

January 27

Tonight, there’ll be a lovely sight in the evening sky out to the west, with the crescent Moon paired with the bright planet Venus (about 20 Moon widths to its left).

January 30

This evening, the Moon meets up with Jupiter again, appearing below the planet in the northwestern part of the sky.

Also today, the Moon will again reach apogee again, at a distance from Earth of 404,323 kilometres.

Diagram showing the Moon near Jupiter in January 30's night sky

The Moon will sit just below the planet Jupiter in the evening sky of January 30.

January 31

And finally for January, we have a second First Quarter Moon, which occurs today at 3:10pm AEDT.

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Main image courtesy IAU.

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Gallery – The Sculptor Galaxy

Galaxy NGC 253

Bright regions of ongoing star formation are spread throughout the Sculptor Galaxy, which is pumping out new stars at a furious pace.

ELEVEN AND A HALF MILLION light-years away in the direction of the southern constellation Sculptor, lies the beautiful galaxy NGC 253. Also known as the Sculptor Galaxy, it has been given the names Silver Coin Galaxy or Silver Dollar Galaxy by amateur astronomers.

Indeed it is a popular target for amateurs, and can even be glimpsed through binoculars. It is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky after the Milky Way’s closest, big galactic neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy.

But professional astronomers are interested in it too, having noted widespread active star formation within it, hence its other label as a “starburst” galaxy.

The many bright clumps dotted throughout the galaxy are “stellar nurseries” where hot, young stars have just ignited. The radiation streaming from these giant blue-white baby stars makes the surrounding hydrogen gas clouds glow brightly (green in this image).

NGC 253 was discovered by the German–British astronomer Caroline Herschel, the sister of the famed astronomer William Herschel, as she searched for comets in 1783.

The image was captured by the European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), and is probably the most detailed wide-field view of this galaxy and its surroundings ever made.

As well as NGC 253, zooming in also reveals a very rich tapestry of much more distant galaxies far beyond NGC 253, a handful of which are marked on the enlargement below – there are many more:

Galaxy NGC 253

This enlargement shows a handful of background galaxies (marked with arrows) – there are many more.

The VST – Super survey telescope

This latest image of NGC 253 was taken during VST’s science verification phase of the European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), when the telescope’s scientific performance is assessed before it enters operations.

The VST data are being combined with infrared images from another telescope called VISTA to identify the younger generations of stars in NGC 253.

VLT Survey Telescope

VLT Survey Telescope (VST)

This picture is more than 12,000 pixels across and the superb sky conditions at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, combined with the fine telescope optics, result in sharp star images over the entire image.

The VST is a 2.6-metre-diameter, wide-field survey telescope with a one-degree field of view — which means it can see an area of sky twice as broad as the full Moon.

The 268-megapixel camera OmegaCAM at its heart is designed to map the sky both quickly and with very fine image quality. VST is the largest telescope in the world designed to exclusively survey the sky in visible light, complementing ESO’s VISTA infrared survey telescope, also located at Paranal.

The VST programme is a joint venture between the INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy and ESO.

Adapted from information issued by ESO / INAF-VST. Acknowledgement: A. Grado/L. Limatola/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory.

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