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Overview

At last! the dark skies return – well relatively speaking, because light pollution gets steadily worse every year. But the Winter sky contains many bright stars,constellations, clusters, nebulae and galaxies some of which we can still see despite the adverse conditions. Striding across the meridian is Orion the mighty hunter, an easy constellation to recognise because of the three second magnitude stars, almost in a straight line that form his belt. Orion contains many interesting objects, some within easy reach of a good pair of binoculars. Betelgeuse alpha Orionis is a red supergiant. It is an old star that is slowly coming to the end of its active life. It has burnt most of its hydrogen fuel and will eventually collapse in on itself to form a supernova. It is a variable star with a period of about 5.8 years and it is interesting to compare its colour to the second brightest star in Orion – Rigel. Rigel is a bright blue star signifying that it is a young active star. It is also a difficult double star with the tiny faint companion at 12 o'clock. But the main object of interest lies in Orion's sword situated below the lowest belt star. Even binoculars will show the little faint misty patch which is M32 the Great Orion Nebula. Through the telescope the nebula fills the whole field of view. You can clearly see the tiny group of stars at its heart that form the Trapezium – young hyper active stars whose radiations excite the clouds of the nebula, causing it to glow. Below the Trapezium we can also see the Dark Nebula, cold dust and gas from which stars are being formed. Orion has more wonders to show us. Sigma Orionis, for example is a complex multiple binary system, with at least four stars visible in a telescope.

Above Orion and to the west, we encounter Taurus the Bull. Taurus is host to two fine star clusters – the Pleiades and the Hyades. The Hyades are an old cluster anongst which we find the red giant Aldebaran. The other cluster, the Pleiades is composed of young active blue stars veiled in bright blue nebulosity.

Sweeping upwards from Taurus we encounter a fine starfield around Mirfak alpha Perseus and further up is the Double Cluster. Overhead, almost on the Zenith is Capella the principal star in Auriga the Charioteer. The Milky Way cuts through Auriga, but we can't see it, and contains three star clusters M36, M37 and M38.. That should be enough for now – before our toes freeze off.

If you fancy a more detailed view of the objects and events described on this page our observatory will be open to the public at the appropriate times and weathers (consult the local listings).

The sky map shows the general appearance of the night sky and beneath it are sections giving more detail about planets, the Moon, comets and others.

 

[The night sky from
Hampstead:] winter 2019

 

Planets

Of the planets, Mercury transits the Sun on November 11 and soon enters the dawn murk. Venus is a difficult evening star low down in the south west. Mars is also a morning object but slowly moving away from the Sun close to the Sun but it is small and faint Jupiter is also heading towards the Sun and will be gone by the end of December. Saturn is very low in the south west in the stars of Sagittarius and difficult to see. This is not a good year for our favourite planets – just Neptune and Uranus if you can find them.

Moon

The Moon is one of the most impressive sights through a telescope. Even in a pair of binoculars much detail can be seen. The best times to view the moon is about three days before and after first quarter when the Moon is in the evening sky. At this time the shadow line or 'terminator' throws up high contrast along its length, revealing craters, mountains, vast lava flows and cracks and valleys. At full Moon, the light is coming from directly above and without the shadows the Moon looks quite flat.

Moon Phases

  [New Moon] [First quarter] [Full Moon] [Last quarter]
Phase New Moon First quarter Full Moon Last quarter
Date November 26 November 4 November 12 November 19
Date December 26 December 4 December 12 December 19
Date January 24 January 3 January 10 January 17

 

Comets

Comets are also sometimes visible and can produce incredible public interest, like Comets Halley (1985-86) and Hale-Bopp (1997). In 2005 Comet Machholz was visible and Comet McNaught scudded through the northern sky in January 2007 and was easily accessable to the naked eye.

None visible at the moment.

Other animals

Meteor showers to note

LEONIDS November 6-10 - unfavourable. QUADRANTIDS December 28-January 13 very favourable, GEMINIDS December 4-17 unfavourable and URSIDS December 4-17 very favourable.

Most of the phenomena above are reasonably periodic. But there are also sporadic events which we can see through the Cooke telescope like eclipses or even novae and supernovae (Please). So keep your eyes on the skies or let us do it for you and you might get to look at some rare, beautiful and profound phenomena.

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Last modified:10 Nov 2019 JAA