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.
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.
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!
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.
Tonight you might notice a fairly bright, reddish-looking star just above the Moon. This is Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.
Full Moon occurs today at 6:30pm AEDT.
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.
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.
It is Last Quarter Moon today at 8:08pm AEDT.
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.
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.
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”.
New Moon occurs today at 8:39pm AEDT.
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).
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.
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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