What’s happening in the Southern skies this month

Happy New Year!

We might not have the Milky Way overhead in summer, and the nights are much shorter, and you need to go out later, but we certainly have some great things to see in the southern skies. We get to see the brightest stars in the night sky – starting with Sirius in the East, then Canopus to the South and Rigel to the North. Then head anticlockwise, and you come to Aldebaran in Taurus, Capella in Auriga, Castor and Pollux in Gemini and Procyon in Canis Minor.

Another prominent and probably the most well-known group of stars is ‘the Saucepan’ or Orion’s belt. It is apparent and visible from most of the Earth, even in light-polluted areas.

Today the three pearls are widely accepted as the waist of Orion the Hunter, a traditional constellation derived from ancient Greek mythology. From our perspective, the bright blue star above the belt is Rigel, Arabic for foot. The equally bright red star Betelgeuse, in Arabic, means armpit of the giant, a similar distance below the belt, marks his shoulder. In Australia, we do see him upside down, of course.

Moving more to the North, we can see Taurus the Bull and the Pleiades or seven sisters. There are many stories about this prominent group of stars.

In Indigenous cultures across Australia and other cultures around the world, the Pleiades constellation is associated with the story of the Seven Sisters. Minyipuru Jukurrpa is the Martu version of this story.

The Minyipuru began their journey from Roebourne NW Western Australia, as a group of sisters and their mothers. At various places along the way, they lost members of their party until, eventually, only seven sisters remained.

At Kalypa, the Minyipuru met a group of Jukurrpa men; it was the first time either group had seen members of the opposite sex. The men tried to grab the women, but the Minyipuru chased them off, hitting them with their digging sticks and leaving them where they fell.

At Pangkapini the sisters met Yurla, an old man who had followed them all the way from Roebourne. He grabbed one of the women, but her sisters tricked him and managed to rescue her. The sisters ultimately escaped into the sky, becoming the stars we know as the Seven Sisters.

The Star Dreaming story of the Seven Sisters is one of the most widely distributed ancient stories amongst Indigenous Australia. The song line for this story covers more than half the continent’s width, from deep in the Central Desert out to the west coast travelling through many different language groups, and different sections of the narrative are recognised in other parts of the country.

The story relates to the journey of the seven sisters that make up the star cluster known as the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. Mythological tales of the Pleiades also cross many other cultures outside Australia – the story also appears in ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese mythology.

Observed from central Australia, the Pleiades star group rises above the horizon soon after Sunset. It keeps a low trajectory above the horizon. Perhaps this relatively small star cluster takes on extra importance, as it appears to launch from the Earth’s surface and make its journey near the land.

The Moon this Month

(All times are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time)

  • Full Moon:                     10:09 7 January
  • Last quarter Moon:      13:11 15 January
  • New Moon:                   07:54 22 January
  • First Quarter:                02:20 29 January

At 8 pm, the Moon will be at apogee, the furthest it gets from the Earth each month. This month will be 406,458km away. On the 22nd at 7:56 am, the Moon will be at perigee, the closest point to Earth this month at 356,569km.

Planets in January

Finding and observing the planets of the Solar System in the night sky isn’t as complicated as you might think. You just need to know where to look.

When a planet is in a particularly favourable position in the evening or morning sky, it will look like a bright ‘star’, the most apparent point of light visible to the naked eye.

The other thing about spotting the planets in the night sky is that they can also be found along the ecliptic, which is the imaginary line that the Sun appears to traverse in the sky over the course of a day and the Moon by night. Since the major planets of the Solar System orbit the Sun in about the same plane, the ecliptic also marks the path of the planets.

Figure 1: The western sky looking North just after sunset on 13th January, with the planets visible.

Mercury leaves the evening twilight as it moves into inferior conjunction, meaning it will be between the Earth and the Sun on the 7th. It will then return to the early morning sky in Sagittarius later this month. This will be the start of the best period to see the planet in the morning sky. On the 30th, this fast-travelling planet will reach its greatest elongation, 25° west of the Sun.

Figure 2: Early morning sky on 30th January looking East to find Mercury below Scorpius

Venus will be very bright in the western evening sky until early August when it will be too close to the Sun for safe observation. As Venus gains altitude in the western twilight, it passes planet Saturn as it heads towards its solar conjunction. On the nights of the 22nd and 23rd, the two planets will be less than 1° apart. As a bonus, on the 23rd, they’re joined by the slender crescent of the 2-day-old waxing Moon. You will need to observe these events about 45 minutes after Sunset, before true astronomical twilight. This will be an excellent photo opportunity if you have a reasonably flat western horizon. Binoculars would be the most helpful way of viewing this event, as the objects will be at a very low altitude.

Figure 3: Looking west after sunset on 23rd January

The Earth was at perihelion on the 5th. Perihelion is the closest point in orbit to the Sun that we get this year (147,098,917 km or 0.983296 au).

Mars is now past opposition and is in Taurus. Looking North, it is hard to miss as it appears as a bright orange star from twilight onwards. It is gradually dimming as it moves further away from us.

Last month the angular diameter of Mars was just over 17 arcseconds when at its closest approach to Earth. By the end of this month, it will decrease to 11 arcseconds, making it a  tiny target for visual observers. On the 13th, Mars ends 2.5 months of retrograde motion and resumes its west-to-east track against the starfield. The Red Planet has two visits by the waxing gibbous Moon this month; on the 3rd, the 12-day-old Moon appears within 5°, and again on the 31st, when it will be around 3°. Do not confuse Mars with the nearby 1st magnitude star. Aldebaran. This is the alpha star of Taurus and marks the bull’s red eye; Mars itself is considerably brighter.

Jupiter begins the year in the early western evening sky in Pisces. At a little over – 2 magnitudes, it is the brightest object in a region devoid of bright stars. On the 26th, the 5-day-old waxing crescent Moon appears 4° from the planet

Saturn is currently in Capricornus and is very low in the western evening sky early in the month. With its solar conjunction approaching mid-February, it is becoming more difficult to find in the brightening sky as the month progresses. If you have an excellent western horizon, you may like to attempt to observe the planet when Venus is close on the 22nd and 23rd, as shown in Figure 3.

Uranus is in Aries in the northern evening sky at the end of astronomical twilight. It transits the meridian around 7 pm mid-month. The planet ends four months of retrograde motion on the 23rd and then resumes its west-to-east drift against the stellar background.

Neptune is visible at the beginning of the year low in the early western evening sky. Situated in Aquarius. However, It becomes too close to the Sun for observation by late February. It reappears in early April in the eastern morning sky.

Grab your binoculars, and if you have a star gazing app on your phone, head outside and try for these objects in the evening sky.

M41 an open cluster also known as the Little Beehive Cluster is close to the brightest star in the sky Sirius. It was known about as long as Aristotle in about 325 BC. It lies to the right and above Sirius,

Pleiades, Subaru of 7 Sisters are lower in the northern sky early in the evening and are a fun group of young stars to check out.

Looking to the east of the Pleiades, you will see the V shape representing the face of Taurus the bull. Find the lovely bright red star known as Aldebaran – the eye of the bull then look up at the 2 stars close together above that to find the Hyades cluster.

And finally, check out the second star of Orion’s sword or the Saucepan’s handle. This is the mighty Great Orion Nebula – with your binoculars, you can see that the star is hazy, and there are many more than just one star. 

Lastly, try using your smartphone on a steady surface to capture a photo of the ‘handle’ or sword stars. If you can get a 10-30 second exposure, you should be able to capture some of the colours. A 25 – 30 second shot in a DSLR Camera will also give you a lot more details.

In the Shop

Why not grab the 2023 Astronomy calendar, which includes fantastic photos and information on the planets, moon phases and skymaps for each month –$19.95.

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Clear skies until next month!