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Skylights: Winter 2018

Now the long hot Summer is just a memory and we can look forward to some star gazing in darker skies. The Sun heading south for the Winter means less daylight and longer nights.

In the early evening, we still have the Autumn constellations gradually sinking towards the western horizon. To the south-west, Arcturus shines with a golden glow and to the south there are no really bright stars but the meridian is dominated by the The Great Square of Pegasus. It used to be interesting to count how mant stars you couls see in the Square. But a waste of time nowadays as light pollution is so bad that the answer is NONE!

 On the zenith at this time we see the bright first magnitude star Capella the main star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer.

High up, almost on the zenith, the Milky Way sweeps through Auriga but we can't see much of it from London. There are several fine star clusters - M36, M37 and M38, in Auriga, beautiful objects in a small telescope on a clear night. The Winter sky contains much to interest us. Low down in the south west, we encounter the brightest star in the whole sky - Sirius sparkling like a diamond, at a distance of a mere 9 light years, Sirius is one of our closest neighbours. Sirius is the main star in Canis Major the Great Dog and a sweep upwards brings us to Procyon in Canis Minor - the Lesser Dog. Continuing upwards will bring us to the twin stars Castor and Pollux the main stars in Gemini the Twins.

To the west of Gemini, lies the Zodiacal constellation of Taurus the Bull. The main star in Taurus is the red giant Aldeberan situated in the old open star cluster - the Hyades. Taurus also plays host to the beautiful star cluster - the Pleiades. The cluster is easily visible to the naked eye, but binoculars will show many of the 90 or so stars that comprise the cluster.

But the main attraction in the Winter sky is of course Orion- the mighty Hunter. Orion is easily recognised by his belt of three second magnitude stars almost in a straight line. At the top left, Orion's ahoulder is marked by the bright star Betelgeuse.Betelgeuse is a Red Giant, a star coming to the end of its life having used up its hydrogen fuel, it is only the radiation pressure generated in its core, that prevents the star from from collapsing inwards and releasing enormous energy. Diametrically opposite Betelgeuse marking Orion's right foot is the bright star Rigel. Rigel is a young blue/white star at the beginning of its life- quite the opposite of Betelgeuse.

However, our main interest in Orion is the Great Nebula. Situated just below the lowest of the belt stars in Orion's sword, it can just be seen with the naked eye and the whole area is worth sweeping with binoculars. Visually, through the telescope, the Nebula looks like a amall cloud with some small bright stars embedded in it. Long exposure photography show the Nebula to be huge and comprised or glowing billows of red light excited by the radiation emmitted by the tiny group of young energetic stars in the form of a tiny Trapezeium at its heart. The Great Orion Nebula is the birth place of stars and planets.

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

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).

Overview

Of the planets, Mercury is poorly plced for northern observers. Venus is now a pre-dawn object getting very bright during December. Mars is low in the south, on the borders of Capricornus, disc size getting small. Jupiter is not observable now but returns to pre-dawn sky in n the New Year Saturn is an early evening object just about as low in the south as it gets. Currently in Sagittarius only visible for a short time after sunset Uranus well placed for observation in Pisces/Aries and Neptune is well placed for observation in Aquarius.

Meteor showers to note: Leonids Maximum November 15 -20 Favourable this time, as are Geminids Max. December 8 - 17 and the Ursids very favourable this year.

[The night sky from
Hampstead:] winter 2018

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Moon

The Moon is one of the most impressive sights through a telescope. Even in a pair of binoculars it can amaze. The best times to view the Moon is about 3 days before and after first quarter, when the Moon is in the evening sky. Also there's the added bonus that the terminator (line between light and dark) is visible and we get some spectacular views of the lunar surface seen in high relief.

TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE There will be a total lunar eclipse of the Moon on January 21 2019 visible from the UK. unfortunately, it takes place in the early hours of the morning, mid eclipse will be at about 05:43 hrs.

  [Full Moon] [Last quarter] [New Moon] [First quarter]
Phase Full Moon Last quarter New Moon First quarter
Date 23/11 30/11 07/11 15/11
Date 22/12 29/12 07/12 15/12
Date 21/01 27/01 06/01 14/01

 

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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. Most recently, Comet Lovejoy graced our skies but is now too distant and feint. Normally none can be seen with the unaided eye at any given time but this can change. To stay abreast of this sign up for our news service.

To prove this point Comet Holmes suddenly brightened in October 2007 by about one million times to be visible to the naked eye in Perseus. Admittedly this is unusual, as comets give more notice with this level of change. Comet Holmes has now faded and lost to sight.

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Other animals

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: Nov. 2018 DGD