Winter revelations

By: James Smith

As we move from autumn towards winter, the skies above us change.
Orion, who dominates the summer skies is moving off and is now setting in the early evening. Following Orion, the “Dog Star”, Sirius, is also moving out of our night skies. It appears midway down the western skies in the early evening, before setting around midnight. You will also notice that the ‘pot’ is turned on its side, as it bids us goodbye.

From Northwest to Northeast, we start to see Gemini low in the sky, easily spotted by looking for its two bright stars, Pollux and Castor. Cancer is also rising, but is much harder to spot, as it is still pretty low down on the horizon. To the east of Cancer, you will see a bright, orange star. This is Regulus, the heart of Leo. Moving further east, you find another bright star. This is Spica, which lies in the Virgo constellation. As the night goes on, these constellations move from east to west. Later on in the evening, they will be followed by Scorpio, who dominates our winter skies, and Sagittarius. Sagittarius will be easy to spot as both Jupiter and Saturn rise with it, just a little after midnight. As we look towards the south, quite high in the sky you will find the Southern Cross. Something worth seeing near this vicinity is the globular cluster, Omega Centauri. As mentioned in previous articles, this cluster can be seen with the naked eye if you are in a dark area. Otherwise track it down with a pair of good binoculars. Well worth seeing! Located between Canopus and the Southern Cross, Eta Carinae is easily seen as the brightest star – and it falls within the large naked eye Carina Nebula. The Carina Nebula is four times as large as, and even brighter than, the famous Orion Nebula. Another one well worth seeing through binoculars. The best planets to see are Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These are almost directly overhead just before dawn. Mercury starts becoming visible by mid-month, and by May 22 will be setting 80 minutes after the sun. Please be careful when trying to observe Mercury, as it is close to the sun and this may damage your eyes. Wait until the sun has properly set before observing.

To make your star spotting easier, don’t forget to download one of the astronomy apps on your phone. Google Skymap is fantastic for Android devices and Starwalk2 is great on your iPhone. For those on a laptop, by far the best app is Stellarium. Autumn is a great time of year to see the Milky Way. If you are in a dark area, it will be easy to see. If not, take a trip out to Shakespear Regional Park, which is pretty dark, and take a look up into the sky. The more adventurous can venture out to Kaukapakapa, or up to the Warkworth area.

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