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.
If you’re an early riser, take a look out to the north-west and high up you’ll see a bright star near the Moon. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Actually, Regulus is not one star but four, grouped into two pairs. Multiple star systems are very common throughout the Milky Way galaxy.
And 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 147,098,089 kilometres. (The opposite of perihelion is aphelion, which for Earth will occur on July 5, 2012 at a distance of about 152,097,351 kilometres.)
It is Last Quarter Moon today at 2:58pm Sydney time (03:58 Universal Time).
If you’re up very early this morning (from 2:00am onwards), you’ll see a bright star appearing to almost touch the Moon. This Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo; it is a blue giant star about 260 light-years from Earth. And don’t miss tomorrow’s morning sight…
This morning, the Moon has moved along a bit in its orbit, and no longer appears to be near Spica. Instead, it appears to hover just above what appears to be another bright star, but which is instead the planet Saturn. If you have a small telescope, or can borrow someone else’s, take a look at Saturn – you’ll see the huge rings tilted nicely to our line of sight, and – depending on the power of your telescope – you might also be able to make out a couple of the planet’s moons, although they’ll only look like bright pinpricks of light.
Again, the Moon has moved along in its orbit, and is now quite distant from both Spica and Saturn. This morning it appears near the red star Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Antares is a red supergiant star about 883 times bigger than our Sun, located about 470 light-years from us.
This morning the Moon, now a thin crescent, can be seen above what looks like a very bright star. Actually, it’s the planet Venus, low on the horizon. Venus will remain low in the east before dawn until the middle of February, when it will have moved too close to the Sun to be visible.
The Moon today will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies today will be 360,046 kilometres.
New Moon occurs today at 6:44am Sydney time (19:44 Universal Time on January 11).
If you have dark skies and are a little bit lucky, you might spot a few meteors between these dates, emanating from the southern sky. The Eta Carinid meteor shower occurs at this same time every year, but it’s not a very good one compared with others – you might be lucky to see a few meteors per hour, between midnight and dawn.
It is First Quarter Moon today at 10:45am Sydney time (23:45 Universal Time on January 18). First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains are throwing nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.
In tonight’s evening sky, the Moon will be situated quite near a famous cluster of stars, 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. With the Moon tonight being more than half full, it might be a little harder to see them. But if you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, take a look and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely sight – there are actually hundreds of stars (only some of them are visible through small optical instruments) 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.
And what’s that bright object just to the right (east) of both the Moon and the Pleiades? That’s actually the planet Jupiter.
Today the Moon will reach the farthest point from Earth in its orbit, apogee, at a distance of 405,312 kilometres. Take a look at it, and you’ll see what looks like a bright star just above it – it’s actually the planet Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. Even a pair of binoculars will begin to show its size and shape, as well as up to four of its moons. A small telescope will reveal the different cloud bands that colour its upper atmosphere.
Full Moon occurs today at 3:38pm Sydney time (04:38 Universal Time).
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!
Images courtesy IAU.
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