Spring is my favourite time of year, particularly as an astronomer. The weather is warming up, which makes for a more comfortable skygazing experience, yet the skies are not affected by heat haze which can distort the thing we are trying to observe – even on a clear night!
The planets dominate the spring night skies. Jupiter and Saturn are pretty close together in the sky and are almost directly overhead by 10pm. Mars is also clearly visible at this time too.
Jupiter is the brighter star and using a good pair of binoculars, you will be able to clearly see some of her moons – Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. This is always something to wow your kids or friends.
Saturn is the slightly dimmer star to the right of Jupiter. With a small telescope, you will be able to see the rings around the planet. There are seven of Saturn’s moons which you can see through a 6” reflector telescope under dark skies – Titan, Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.
Enceladus is mostly covered by fresh, clean ice. This makes it one of the most reflective bodies of the solar system. Under the ice is a liquid ocean. Through science, we know that Enceladus has a number of organic and inorganic chemicals which are essential for life. There is a good chance that we may find some sort of life living in Enceladus’s ocean!
If you look towards the east, you will see a bright red star rising. This is our neighbour, Mars. Looking through good binoculars you will see a small red orb, but through a small telescope, you will be able to make out a bit more detail, including the icy polar regions and the ‘canals’ around the equator.
This year a number of new probes have been sent to study Mars. One of them carries the new Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter drone. Yes – there will be a helicopter drone flying around Mars! If it works well, helicopter drones could also be used on other planets and moons.
For a few weeks only, we can see the closest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way – the Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy is on a collision course with us, but not to worry, this won’t happen for another 4.5 billion years.
To see the Andromeda Galaxy from NZ, there are a few essential things needed: a dark sky, an unobstructed view to the north north east and a good pair of binoculars, or small telescope. You will also have to be up around midnight. The galaxy is only visible just above the horizon for a few hours before setting. It is one of those objects that are well worth making the effort for!
An easier object to see with your binoculars is the 47 Tucanae globular star cluster. It is visible with the naked eye if you are in a dark sky area, and have great eyesight. It is one of the most massive globular clusters in the Milky Way, containing millions of stars. The cluster appears roughly the size of the full moon under ideal conditions, just very faint.
The 47 Tucanae cluster is quite easy to find as it sits just above the Small Magellanic Cloud which is almost overhead at around 10pm or so. This is definitely one to see.
Use the astronomy apps on your phone to help you find these objects. These are free to download from app stores.