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What’s up? Night sky for June 2011

Skywatchers with telescopes

Stargazers are gearing up for the June 16, 2011, total eclipse of the Moon.

THREE OF THE NAKED-EYE BRIGHTNESS PLANETS will be visible in the eastern sky before sunrise this month. These are Venus, Jupiter and Mars. Mercury has left the scene, having dropped down to the horizon and become lost in the glare of the Sun.

In the evening sky, Saturn is holding it’s own, shining high and bright.

The major sky event this month for Australian skywatchers, is the total eclipse of the Moon on the morning of June 16.

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 Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

June 2

New Moon occurs today at 7:03am Sydney time (June 1, 21:03 Universal Time). New Moon is the opposite of Full Moon, and means

June 7-8

The almost half-full Moon will be near the star Regulus (the brightest star in the constellation Leo) over these two days. On the 7th it will be to the left of Regulus, and on the 8th it will be above it.

June 9

It is First Quarter Moon today at 12:11pm Sydney time (02:11 Universal Time). 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.

June 10

Look for the Moon to the left of the planet Saturn in tonight’s evening sky.

June 11

Tonight the Moon will appear quite close to the star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

June 12

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies will be 367,189 kilometres.

June 13

The planet Mercury has been getting lower and lower in our morning sky, and has been lost in the glare of the Sun for a couple of weeks. Today, it reaches “superior conjunction“, which means that it is on the opposite side of the Sun from us.

June 14

Look for the almost-full Moon to the left of the planet Antares in tonight’s evening sky. Antares is a red supergiant star, 800 times the size of our Sun!

Total lunar eclipse

Don't miss the total lunar eclipse on the morning of June 16, 2011.

June 16 – total eclipse of the Moon

Full Moon occurs today at 6:14am Sydney time (June 15, 20:14 Universal Time). But the big news for today is the total eclipse of the Moon, which for Australian observers will occur in the hours before sunrise. The Moon will be in the western sky, and will gradually move into the Earth shadow and become dark, dropping lower and lower toward the horizon. During a total eclipse, the Moon takes on a reddish hue—sometimes pale, sometimes intense. This occurs because some of the Sun’s light filters through Earth’s atmosphere and is refracted onto the Moon.

For Australian observers, there’s more information on the total lunar eclipse (including timings) at the IceInSpace site.

For New Zealand observers, please see the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand’s site.

June 18

Low in the east before sunrise, you’ll see bright Venus below and to the left of a ruddy-coloured star. This is Aldebaran, a giant orange-coloured star about 65 light-years from Earth.

June 22

Today is the Southern Hemisphere’s midwinter solstice, which means that the Sun is at its furthest north in the sky (at 3:17am Sydney time, or June 21 at 17:17 Universal Time). This is the day when the hours of sunlight are at their minimum.

Stargazer looking at the sky

Enjoying the evening sky

June 23

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 9:48pm Sydney time (11:48 Universal Time).

June 24

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee (the opposite of perigee), at a distance from Earth of 404,274 kilometres.

June 26

Have a look out to the east this morning, and you’ll see the crescent Moon quite near Jupiter.

June 29

Today the very thin crescent Moon will be just below the planet Mars in the pre-dawn eastern sky.

June 30

Finally, the very thin crescent Moon will appear above and to the left of the planet Venus. You can’t miss Venus – apart from the Sun and the Moon, it is the brightest object in the sky.

And finally, here’s the terrific Tanya Hill from the Melbourne Planetarium, with her Sky Notes for this month:

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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What’s up? Night sky for May 2011

Stargazers looking at the sky

May will be a great month for planet watchers, with four bright planets visible to the east before dawn.

THIS WILL BE A FANTASTIC MONTH for planet watchers, with a series of attractive close groupings in the eastern morning sky. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter will be in the same part of the sky, and you’ll get the chance to watch their shifting positions as the month progresses.

Why do they appear to move around relative to each other? It’s because they’re on independent orbits about the Sun and travelling at different speeds. The Earth is moving around the Sun too, and our shifting perspective adds to the apparent sky motion. In fact, the word ‘planet’ comes from the Greek, and means ‘wandering star’.

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 Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

May 1

There’ll be a fantastic planetary get-together in this morning’s eastern sky. First, Jupiter and Mars will be just less than half a degree (roughly one Moon width) apart. Jupiter will be the brighter, whitish-coloured one on the right, with ruddy-coloured Mars on the left. Also present will be the crescent Moon … below and to the left of the planet Venus, and left of the planet Mercury, and above and to the left of the Jupiter-Mars pair. It’ll be a fantastic sight! Why not try taking a photo of it?

May 3

New Moon occurs today at 3:51pm Sydney time (06:51 Universal Time).

The Moon

The Moon is always a popular target for stargazers.

May 7

The planets Venus and Mercury will be side-by-side in this morning’s eastern sky, only 1.5 degrees apart (about three Moon widths).

May 8

Mercury, the innermost planet, will be at its greatest angular distance (27 degrees) from the Sun this morning.

May 11

It is First Quarter Moon today at 5:33am Sydney time (May 10, 20:33 Universal Time). The period around 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.

Also this evening, the Moon will appear close to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. The amazing thing about Regulus is that, although to the naked eye it appears to be one star, in reality it is composed of four stars grouped into two pairs, all gravitationally bound to each other! This sort of thing is not too uncommon, as many other stars are members of double, triple or quadruple systems too.

May 12

Another planetary grouping in this morning’s eastern sky, with Venus only half a degree (one Moon width) to the right of Jupiter, and Mercury about three Moon widths above and to the left.

May 14

This evening the almost-full Moon will be perched about 7 degrees above the planet Saturn.

May 15

Tonight the Moon, just a smidge short of being full, will be only 1.5 degrees (about three Moon widths) above and to the right of the star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Spica is a blue giant star, 7.4 times as big as our Sun, and the 15th-brightest star in our night sky. Also today, the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit around the Earth, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies will be 362,133 kilometres.

Diagram showing planets in the morning sky

Four planets are visible in the morning sky. This diagram shows the view on May 16.

May 16

Yet another arrangement of planets in our morning sky to the east. Venus will be about three Moon widths below and to the left of Mercury, about eight Moon widths below and to the right of Jupiter, and about six Moon widths above ruddy-coloured Mars.

May 17

Full Moon occurs today at 8:09pm Sydney time (11:09 Universal Time).

May 18

Tonight, look for the Moon about four degrees (eight Moon widths) below and to the left of Antares. Antares is a red supergiant star, the brightest star in the constellation Leo and the 16th-brightest star in our night sky. And get this—Antares is 800 times the diameter of our Sun, so you can see why they call it a supergiant!

May 22-31

Venus, Mars and Mercury will do a dance with each other in the morning sky over the final week of the month, in close proximity to one another. Have a look each morning and see how the arrangement has changed.

May 25

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 3:52am Sydney time (May 24, 18:52 Universal Time).

May 27

Today the Moon will reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 405,003 kilometres.

May 30-31

The crescent Moon will join the Mars, Venus, Mercury triplet in the morning sky.

And here’s Melbourne Planetarium‘s fabulous astronomer, Tanya Hill, to show us what the month’s sky will look like in motion:

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 / TWAN / Babak A. Tafreshi / Andreas O. Jaunsen / IYA2009 / Galileoscope.

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Planets all in a row

EARLY-RISING AUSTRALASIAN SKYWATCHERS are in for a treat this coming Saturday morning, April 30, as four of the naked-eye planets and the crescent Moon all come together in the morning sky before dawn.

In the video above, Melbourne Planetarium’s marvellous astronomer, Tanya Hill, explains when and where to see the spectacle.

And you can keep up-to-date with sky happenings with SpaceInfo.com.au’s monthly Whats’ Up? section.

Video courtesy of Museum Victoria.

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What’s up? Night sky for April 2011

Amateur astronomers using a telescope at dusk

Autumn nights are ideal for stargazer. Autumn mornings too, with some planets making a welcome return to our pre-dawn skies.

LIKE LAST MONTH, Venus is the star of the show in April, high in the eastern sky before sunrise. You can’t miss it—it is big and bold and brilliant.

Mercury makes a reappearance in the eastern morning sky from mid-month. As the April progresses, you’ll notice it rising higher and higher in the sky.

Ditto for Mars, which has been lost from view in the glare of the Sun for a while, but is making a reappearance in the morning sky this month, very low down in the east.

The largest planet in the Solar System, Jupiter, will also be low down on the eastern horizon before sunrise during April.

So that’s four planets all quite near to one another in roughly the same part of the sky! Definitely worth getting up early for.

Shifting to the evening sky, and the ringed planet Saturn will be bright and bold in the eastern sky after sunset.

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

April 1

Have a look out to the east before sunrise and you’ll see the Moon just below the planet Venus. You can’t miss Venus—apart from the Moon and the Sun, it’s the brightest thing in the sky!

April 2

Today the Moon will be at the farthest point in its orbit, called apogee, at a distance from Earth of 406,657 kilometres.

Also, you’ll notice that compared to yesterday the Moon has moved downwards in the sky and away from Venus. Now, it will be closer to the planet Mars, which is fainter than Venus and a ruddy colour.

April 3

New Moon occurs today at 11:32pm Sydney time (April 3, 14:32 Universal Time).

April 4

The planet Saturn reaches opposition today. This is a fancy way of saying that, from an Earth-bound observer’s point of view, it is in the opposite side of the sky to the Sun. In other words, if you could look down on the Solar System from above, the Sun, Earth and Saturn would be in a line, with Earth in the middle. Opposition generally is a good time to view a planet.

Stargazers with telescopes

Take the opportunity to get out and do some stargazing before the weather becomes too cold

April 7

The planet Jupiter reaches conjunction with the Sun today, which is a fancy way of saying that it is on the other side of the Sun as seen from Earth…although, being on the other side of the Sun, we can’t actually see it. You can think of conjunction as being the opposite of opposition (see April 4 above), so to speak. If you could look down on the Solar System from above, you’d see Jupiter, the Sun and the Earth in a line, with the Sun in the middle.

April 10

Today, the innermost planet, Mercury, reaches ‘inferior conjunction’. This is another kind of conjunction, again signifying that certain celestial bodies are in a line. In this case it is the Sun, Mercury and the Earth in a line, with Mercury in the middle. This makes it impossible to see the tiny planet, as it is lost in the glare of the Sun.

On certain special occasions, the tilt of Mercury’s orbit means that it can be seen crossing the face of the Sun when it is at inferior conjunction, in an event known as a transit. That’s not the case here—the next one will be in 2016.

April 11

It is First Quarter Moon today at 9:05pm Sydney time (April 11, 12:05 Universal Time). 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.

April 14

The almost-full Moon will appear close to the star Regulus in this evening’s sky. Regulus is a large, blue star, and is the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

April 17

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit, called perigee, which is the opposite of apogee (see April 2). The distance between the two bodies today will be 358,090 kilometres.

Still on the Moon…take a look slightly below and to the left, and you’ll see a bright whitish-yellowish star. Well, that’s not a star, it’s the planet Saturn. If you have a telescope, or have a friend who has one, zero in on it and you’ll get a lovely view of its magnificent rings.

April 18

Full Moon occurs today at 11:44am Sydney time (April 18, 02:44 Universal Time). You won’t actually be able to see the Moon at that time, as it will be below the horizon. But take a look at sunset, and you’ll see that as the Sun sets in the west, the big, bright Moon will rise in the east.

April 20

Two planets get to say hello to each other this morning. In the eastern sky before sunrise, Mars and Mercury will appear close to each other. Be warned, though, that they will be very low down toward the horizon, so you’ll need a clear view if you’re to see them.

Over the next few weeks, four planets will be seen together in the morning sky. Here’s a short video from Tanya Hill, astronomer at the Melbourne Planetarium, explaining what we can expect to see:

April 21

Today will be an interesting to demonstrate to yourself how the Moon moves through the sky. If you get up in the morning while it’s still dark, take a look slightly above the Moon and you’ll see a ruddy-coloured star. That’s Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Remember that view. Now, go back outside later today in the mid-evening and find the Moon again, and you’ll see that the separation between the two has increased. This shows you how the Moon has trundled along a bit in its orbit throughout the day.

April 25

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 11:47pm Sydney time (14:47 Universal Time).

April 30

Today the Moon will again reach the farthest point in its orbit, apogee, at a distance from Earth of 406,038 kilometres. Take a look out to the east this morning and you’ll see the crescent Moon with Venus, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter (refer to the video above).

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.

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz

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Countdown to Mercury

Artist's impression of MESSENGER spacecraft in orbit at Mercury

Artist's impression of the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft in orbit at Mercury.

  • Mercury is the smallest, hottest and densest planet in the Solar System
  • MESSENGER spacecraft has travelled 7.6 billion kilometres to reach it
  • Will study the planet’s surface, thin atmosphere and geologic history

NASA’S MESSENGER SPACECRAFT is scheduled to slide into orbit around the closest planet to the Sun on March 18 (Sydney time zone). The mission is an effort to study Mercury’s geologic history, magnetic field, surface composition and other mysteries.

The findings are expected to broaden our understanding of rocky planets, more and more of which are being discovered in other Solar Systems.

At 11:45am on March 18, Sydney time (8:45pm US EDT on March 17) the MESSENGER spacecraft will execute a 15-minute braking manoeuvre that will place it into orbit around Mercury, making it the first craft ever to do so, and initiating a one-year science campaign to understand the innermost planet.

MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging.

MESSENGER image of Mercury

It might look like the Moon, but Mercury is very different. It is the smallest, hottest and densest planet in the Solar System.

Mercury is an extreme among the rocky planets in our Solar System—it is the smallest, the densest (after correcting for self-compression) and the one with the oldest surface and largest daily variations in surface temperature and the least explored.

Understanding this “end member” among the terrestrial planets is crucial to developing a better understanding of how the planets in our Solar System formed and evolved.

“Now that so many new planets are being discovered around stars in other Solar Systems, we need to know the effects of space weathering on rocky surfaces so we can accurately interpret telescopic and other remote sensing data we obtain from other rocky or dusty worlds,” says Ann Sprague, a research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The heat is on

When MESSENGER streaked into the early morning sky over Cape Canaveral on August 3, 2004, very little was known about Mercury. No spacecraft had approached the planet since the Mariner 10 space probe performed three fly-by manoeuvres over the course of 1974 and 1975, imaging the planet’s surface. However, Mariner 10 sent back photos of only one side of the planet, leaving the other shrouded in mystery.

One of the mysteries scientists are hoping to solve with the MESSENGER mission surrounds Mercury’s magnetic field. At a diameter only slightly larger than that of the moon (about 4,800 kilometres), Mercury should have solidified to the core. However, the presence of a magnetic field suggests the planet’s innards are partially molten.

Artist's impression of a rupes (cliff) on Mercury

Artist's impression of a rupes (cliff) on Mercury. These giant cliffs are believed to have formed when Mercury¹s interior cooled and the entire planet shrank slightly as a result.

During its long journey toward Mercury, MESSENGER passed the planet several times, filling in the imaging gaps left by Mariner 10.

Now, the entire planet with the exception of about five percent has been observed. MESSENGER will focus its cameras on getting the best possible images of the remaining portions, mostly in the polar regions.

One of the great challenges MESSENGER will face is the intense heat due to Mercury’s proximity to the Sun. At the planet’s equator, surface temperatures become hot enough to melt lead. The heat reflected from the planet’s surface is so intense that the spacecraft’s instruments need to be shielded against the glare.

Follow the live webcast of MESSENGER’s arrival from 10:55am Sydney time on Friday, March 18 (7:55pm US EDT on March 17): MESSENGER arrival webcast

Adapted from information issued by the University of Arizona. Images courtesy NASA / JHU APL / CIW. Rupes artwork: Michael Carroll/Alien Volcanoes by Lopes and Carroll, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

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What’s up? Night sky for March 2011

Silhouette of people with telescopes

Saturn and Venus will be the planets to watch for when you're out stargazing in March 2011.

THIS MONTH, Venus will be visible in the eastern morning sky for quite some hours before sunrise. You won’t be able to miss it—it will be big and bright and wonderful.

Mercury will be very low down on the western horizon after sunset this month, and will be very difficult to see.

Mars has been lost in the glare of the Sun since early February, but during March will begin to make its reappearance in the eastern morning sky. It will be too low to be seen until towards the end of the month, however, at which time it will rise about an hour before the Sun.

Jupiter is about to be lost in the glare of the Sun. It is very low down in the west after sunset, and by the end of the month it will set (ie. drop below the horizon) only 15 minutes after the Sun does, making it essentially impossible to spot.

Saturn is the evening planet to see at the moment, rising roughly two hours before midnight and riding high in the northern sky throughout the night.

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

March 1

Look for the crescent Moon above and to the left of Venus in the eastern morning sky. Also, if you’re out stargazing after 10:00pm, look to the northeastern sky and you’ll see two fairly bright stars side by side. The one on the right is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. The one on the left is actually a planet, Saturn.

Silhouette of people and telescopes

Autumn nights are good for stargazing.

March 5

New Moon occurs today at 7:46am Sydney time (March 4, 20:46 Universal Time).

March 6

Today the Moon will be at the farthest point in its orbit, called apogee, at a distance from Earth of 406,584 kilometres.

March 13

It is First Quarter Moon today at 10:45am Sydney time (March 12, 23:45 Universal Time).

March 17

The almost-full Moon will be above and to the left of Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

March 18

In a demonstration of how it’s position changes from one night to the next, tonight the Moon will be above and to the right of Regulus.

March 20

Full Moon occurs today at 5:10am Sydney time (March 19, 18:10 Universal Time). Today also marks the Moon’s perigee, which is the opposite of apogee, ie. the point in its orbit when it is closest to the Earth. The distance between the two bodies today will be 356,578 kilometres. Apogee and perigee distances are not exactly the same from month to month, and it turns out that this month’s lunar perigee will be the closest for all of 2011.

Finally, have a look just below and to the right of the Moon and you’ll see a brightish ‘star’ with a yellow tinge—this is actually the ringed planet Saturn. If you have a telescope, or know someone who does, turn it to Saturn and marvel at the sight of its majestic rings.

People stargazing at night

All the sights described in the text can be seen with the unaided eye.

March 21

Today marks the equinox, when the Sun heads north of the equator. It is the point midway between the midpoint of summer and the midpoint of winter for those in the Southern Hemisphere.

Also, have a look just below and to the left of the Moon, and you’ll see a fairly bright star. This is Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

March 25

The Moon will be above and to the right of red Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius.

March 26

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 11:07pm Sydney time (March 26, 12:07 Universal Time).

March 31

Look for the crescent Moon above and to the left of Venus in the eastern morning sky.

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.

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz

2011: The year in space

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter

Artist's impression of the Juno spacecraft investigating Jupiter. Juno is set for launch later this year.

THERE ARE LOTS OF EXCITING happenings coming up in space this year. Here’s just a sample of what we can expect.

On February 14-15, NASA’s Stardust probe will do a fly-by of comet Tempel 1. It’ll be looking for damage done by the Deep Impact spacecraft, which fired a projectile into the comet back in 2005.

Also there’ll be the launch of Glory, an Earth-orbiting spacecraft that’ll make readings of black carbon and aerosols in the atmosphere, and measure the amount of incoming sunlight. Plus there’ll be the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, on a mission to the space station.

March will see NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft go into orbit around Mercury, the first probe to do so. A largely unknown world, the closest planet to the Sun is sure to hold some surprises. That month will also mark 25 years since Europe’s Giotto probe gave us our first close-up look at a comet, the famous Halley.

In April there’ll be a bunch of anniversaries, the 30th of the first space shuttle launch, the 40th of the first space station launch (which was the Soviet’s Salyut 1), and the biggie, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, carrying Yuri Gagarin, the first person to go into outer space.

Artist's impression of Salyut 1

Artist's impression of Salyut 1, the world's first space station.

April will also see the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour. And it could be the final shuttle mission of all. An extra flight by Atlantis in June has been approved but not yet funded, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Also in June, some parts of Australia will catch a short glimpse of a lunar eclipse.

July will see the second flight of the new, private Dragon spacecraft, designed to take cargo and eventually people to the International Space Station. Its first short test flight last year went perfectly. Dragon could end up being the replacement for the space shuttle.

Also in July, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will sidle up to the 530km-wide asteroid Vesta, and go into orbit. It’ll spend a year investigating it before heading off to do the same thing with the even larger asteroid Ceres, which is actually known as a dwarf planet these days.

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist's impression of the Dawn spacecraft studying asteroid Vesta

August will see the launch of Juno, NASA’s new unmanned mission to study the planet Jupiter. It’ll take about five years to get there. And the following month will see NASA launch GRAIL, a pair of satellites that’ll orbit the Moon and map its gravitational field, which will help scientists work out its inner structure.

In November, Russia will launch Fobos-Grunt, a mission to the larger of the two Martian moons, Phobos. All going well, it’ll touch down, grab some samples, and blast off back to Earth with them. The Chinese are piggybacking a small satellite too, which will orbit Mars and study its atmosphere, ionosphere and surface.

Finally, in December, there’ll be another launch of that Dragon capsule, plus the first launch of its competitor, called Cygnus. And to top it off, we’ll have another lunar eclipse.

Image credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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What’s up? December’s night sky

Telescopes pointed at the sky

Summertime in the Southern Hemisphere is a great opportunity to do some stargazing.

Mercury and Mars are still keeping each other company very low on the western horizon after sunset in the first half of December. Both planets will be quite hard to see, as they are dropping toward the horizon and by mid-month will be lost in the glare of the Sun. (Mercury will make a reappearance in the morning sky to the east at the end of the month).

Venus is prominent in the eastern sky before dawn, climbing higher in the sky as the month progresses. You won’t miss it—apart from the Sun and Moon, it’s the brightest thing in the sky.

Saturn, too, is visible in the morning sky, higher up than Venus and quite close to the star Spica.

Jupiter is well placed for viewing, too, about halfway up the sky in the northwest after sunset.

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

Silhouette of person staring at the sky with binoculars

Binoculars are sometimes easier than telescopes for stargazing.

December 6

It’s New Moon today. New Moon is the opposite of Full Moon, and means, for a day or two, it is effectively impossible or very hard to see the Moon. This is because it between us and the Sun (although not exactly in line, otherwise we’d have a solar eclipse), and we are looking at the unilluminated side of the Moon.

December 7

A very thin crescent Moon will be near the planet Mercury tonight, low on the western horizon just after sunset. It will be very hard to see though—you might need binoculars to see it (make sure the Sun has fully set!…you don’t want to blind yourself.)

December 13

Today the Moon reaches its First Quarter phase, which is halfway between New Moon and Full Moon. Also today, the Moon will be at apogee, which is the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 404,406 kilometres. And finally, take a look at the Moon and you’ll see a fairly bright star nearby. That’s not actually a star, it’s the planet Jupiter!

Also tonight, very low down near the western after sunset, the planets Mercury and Mars will appear near each other.

People looking at the nighttime sky

Make the most of summer nights by doing some stargazing.

December 14

The Moon is still near Jupiter tonight.

December 21

It’s Full Moon today. If the weather is clear, you’ll see the big, bright Moon rising over the eastern horizon as the Sun is sinking in the west.

There’s also a lunar eclipse this evening but, depending on where you live, you might not see much of it…or you might miss out altogether.

For most skywatchers in New Zealand, the main part of the eclipse will already be underway by the time the Moon rises. The Moon will still be quite low in the sky when the eclipse ends.

You can get more information on the eclipse, including when are where to see it, here.

December 22

Today it is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere (Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere). This is the day when the Sun is highest in the sky for those in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is also the day where we have maximum hours of daylight. (For those in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the day of maximum hours of darkness.)

December 25

The Moon will be at perigee today, which is the closest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 368,461 kilometres.

December 28

Today the Moon reaches its Last Quarter phase, which is halfway between Full Moon and New Moon.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, please use the feedback form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

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What’s up? November’s night sky

Amateur telescopes pointed at the sky

November is a good month for stargazing. If you have a telescope or binoculars, great—but don't worry if you haven't, as all of the phenomena described below can be seen with the unaided eye.

The planets Venus and Saturn make a welcome re-appearance this month, out to the east in the morning sky. You won’t miss Venus—it’s the biggest and brightest light in sky (after the Sun and Moon, of course). Saturn will be to the north of Venus.

Mars is still in the western sky, low on the horizon after sunset and getting lower with each passing day. Mercury is doing the opposite—it is low on the western horizon after sunset but rising higher each night. It will appear close to Mars in the second half of the month.

The giant planet Jupiter is high and bright in the northern sky during November evenings. If you have a telescope and know exactly where to look, you’ll be able to spot the seventh planet, Uranus, nearby to Jupiter. Unfortunately, for most observers it is too dim to be seen with the naked eye.

The Leonid meteor shower will make its once-a-year appearance again this month, with the possibility of meteors being seen over about a one-week span in the middle of the month. The best date to try and see them will the 18th.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with just the unaided eye.

Dates and times shown here are for the Australian Eastern Daylight Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Amateur telescopes pointed at the sky

An astronomy club is a great place to learn more about the night sky. Check out the list of clubs by clicking on the Links button at the top of the page.

November 4

The Moon will be at perigee today, which is the closest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 364,189 kilometres.

November 6

It’s New Moon today.

November 7

The thin crescent Moon will appear close to Mercury. You might have difficulty seeing them if there are buildings, trees, hills etc in the way. Assuming you do have a clear horizon, you might even need a pair of binoculars to spot them, as they’ll be very low on the western horizon.

November 8

Watch for the Moon next to Mars.

November 14

It’s First Quarter Moon today, which is halfway between New Moon and Full Moon. And take a look into the western sky after sunset, and low down near the horizon you’ll see Mars next to the red supergiant stars Antares in the constellation Scorpius. Compare the colour and brightness of Mars and Antares—Antares means “rival of Mars”.

November 15

The Moon will be at apogee today, which is the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth. The distance between Earth and Moon will be 404,634 kilometres.

November 16

Watch for the Moon near to the giant planet Jupiter tonight, high in the northern half of the sky.

November 17

There’ll be an interesting grouping low in the western sky tonight after sunset, with Mercury sitting between Mars and Antares.

Meteor in the night sky

A meteor flashes across the night sky. The Leonid meteor shower is predicted to reach its annual maximum in the early morning hours of November 18.

November 18

The early hours of this morning will probably be your best bet to see some of the Leonid meteor shower meteors. You’ll have to be an early riser, as the best time to see them will be after 4:00am. Look to the north-east, about halfway up from the horizon. From a very dark location, you might expect to see about 20 meteors per hour. If you live in a light-polluted town or city, you can expect to see fewer.

Leonid meteors are pieces of tiny dust and debris left in the trail of a comet called Tempel-Tuttle (after its two discoverers). Floating through space, they run into Earth’s atmosphere at a huge speed (around 70 kilometres per second!), so it’s no wonder they put on a light show as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere.

November 19

Watch for Mars and Mercury near to each other tonight, low down on the western horizon after sunset.

November 21

It’s Full Moon today. Have a look and see if you can see a faint star cluster near to the Moon. This is the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a pretty grouping of stars in the constellation Taurus.

November 29

It’s Last Quarter Moon today, which is halfway between Full Moon and New Moon. Take a look at the Moon, and nearby you’ll see a fairly bright, bluish-coloured star. This is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, please use the feedback form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz

What’s up? October’s night sky

Diagram of October 10's night sky

The thin crescent Moon will be near Venus and Mars in the western sky around sunset on October 10, 2010.

This month is a pretty bare one for planet watchers, with both Mercury and Saturn too close (in angle) to the Sun to be visible. Venus, which has been shining brightly and prominently in the western sky during and after sunset, will drop below the horizon in the second half of the month. This means that the only naked-eye planets to be seen all month long will be Jupiter and Mars.

October 1

The Moon will be at Last Quarter today, at 1:52pm Sydney time (or 03:52 Universal Time).

October 2

The crescent Moon will be near the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini.

October 5

If you’re up early, you’ll see the crescent Moon near the star Regulus, which is the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

October 6

The Moon is at perigee today—the point in its elliptical orbit when it is closest to Earth—at a distance of 359,452 kilometres.

October 8

It’s New Moon today, at 5:44am Sydney time (or 18:44 Universal Time on October 7). In the western sky, Mars and Venus will be close together

October 10

The Moon will appear near to the planets Venus and Mars in the western sky. It’s easy to tell which planet is which—Venus appears bigger and brighter with a whitish colour, while Mars is dimmer and has a ruddy orangey-red colour. Venus is dropping down lower toward the horizon, and will be gone from view in the second half of October.

October 11

Watch for the Moon near another well-known star; this time it is Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Compare the colour of Antares with the planet Mars, and you’ll see they look very much alike. The name Antares means “rival of Mars”.

October 15

The Moon will be at First Quarter today, at 8:27am Sydney time (or 21:27 Universal Time on October 14).

October 19

The Moon is at apogee today—the point in its elliptical orbit when it is furthest from Earth—at a distance of 405,432 kilometres.

October 20

The Moon will appear near the planet Jupiter tonight.

October 20-24

The Orionid meteor shower will be on display, with perhaps up to 20-30 meteors visible per hour from a dark location. As their name suggests, the Orionids appear to emanate from the constellation Orion, which is currently in the north-eastern sky (for Southern Hemisphere observers) in the hours between midnight and dawn. The problem this year, however, is that the Moon will be big and bright in the sky, and the wash from its light tends to drown out faint meteors. Still, give it a go and you might see some Orionids.

October 23

It’s Full Moon today, which occurs at 12:36pm Sydney time (or 01:36 Universal Time).

October 25

Last month, the Moon twice came quite close to a small star cluster called the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, in the constellation Taurus. Well, tonight they get together again. If you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, take a look at the Pleiades—they’re a beautiful sight to behold.

October 30

The Moon will be at Last Quarter today, at 10:46pm Sydney time (or 12:46 Universal Time). Have a look tonight and you’ll see that, just like on the 2nd, the Moon will be near the stars Castor and Pollux.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, please use the feedback form below. Happy stargazing!

Get SpaceInfo.com.au daily updates by RSS or email! Click the RSS Feed link at the top right-hand corner of this page, and then save the RSS Feed page to your bookmarks. Or, enter your email address (privacy assured) and we’ll send you daily updates. Or follow us on Twitter, @spaceinfo_oz