On May 1, 2011, the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus formed a stunning conjunction (seen here over the ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile). This week Saturn will also join the fun.
The winter sky is by far the best time for astronomy. Long, dark nights with cool weather can present us with fabulously clear dark skies that last for hours. I've got some favorite winter astronomical targets coming up so hopefully they might inspire you to get out under the stars and hunt them down.
First up, Andromeda. Usually recognized as an autumn object, our most massive neighboring galaxy can still be seen in the west at around sunset. If you are in a dark location then you might be able to spot it with the naked eye. To find it, look out for the Great Square of the constellation Pegasus and locate the uppermost star which is generally regarded as the top left corner star and is known as Alpheratz.MORE: The Secret to Great Astronomical Photography
From here you should be able to see two fainter stars heading off away from the Square and from the second one, known as Mirach take a ‘right turn’ and hop up two more stars. In that general location you should scan with binoculars and look for a fuzzy blob, this is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is an object over 2 million light years away, which means the light you can see with your own eyes has been travelling for 2 million years -- in other words, you are looking back in time! A low magnification is the best way to observe the galaxy with a telescope and if you study it carefully you may be able to make out a hint of dark dust lanes.
Over to the east of the Square of Pegasus is the well-known constellation of Orion. If you can find this then you should be able to identify its famous three star belt (from east to west Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) and from the central star, drop down an imaginary line to the horizon. You will see some fuzzy stars just below the belt and it is the central one which is of most interest.MORE: Getting to Grips With Your New Telescope
To the naked eye the Orion Nebula looks just like that, a faint fuzzy blob but turn a pair of binoculars onto the object and you will start to see some of the wispy filaments of nebulosity. The best views by far are seen through a low power telescope, the larger the aperture, the brighter the image you will see. Study the center of the nebulosity carefully and you will see the Trapezium cluster of stars, which are the hot young stars forming out of the vast cloud of gas and dust at a distance of just over 1,300 light years from us.
NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)
Sirius is a great star to observe, not only because it is nice and bright, but because it holds a real challenge for visual observers. Sirius, the "Dog Star," is a binary star with its fainter companion known as the "Pup" -- it is the difference in brightness that makes observing the Pup
challenging. You can find Sirius any time in the winter in the northern hemisphere by looking south. The brightest star you can see will be Sirius.10 Ways to Astronomically Astound Your Friends
You need good weather conditions and well-aligned telescope optics. To test your observing skills, try to split Rigel and its companion star, which is of comparable brightness making it easier to separate. Rigel is the white star at the bottom right of Orion so choose a high magnification and see if you can separate Rigel A and Rigel B, if you can, then you are in a good place to try to separate the Sirius binary. Wait for Sirius to be nice and high and give it a try.
This winter, Jupiter is nicely placed for observation in the night time sky on the border between the constellations Leo and Virgo. Lookout for a bright yellow/white star and that is the planet Jupiter.MORE: Bored With Astronomy? These 5 Projects Are For YOU
High powered binoculars might just be able to detect the four Galilean satellites, but a telescope will reveal them easily. Look at them over the period of one night to see how the moons move around the planet before turning your attention to the planet itself. Magnifications from 100x and above will reveal the many belts surrounding the planet and if the timing is right, the planet's Great Red Spot, which is a hurricane that has been raging for hundreds of years.
Rising behind Jupiter is the red planet Mars. Due to their orbital periods, Mars and Earth come particularly close every two years. This year's opposition (when Mars appears on the other side of the sky to the sun) is not the best but it will still be a better opposition than previous years. A telescope is needed to reveal any level of detail on the Martian disk, but the features can be greatly enhanced with careful use of red and orange filters. These filters will enhance the polar caps and darker surface features so while observing see if you can spot the caps or Syrtis Major, the large outcrop of dark rock.MORE: How to Communicate Our Sensational Universe
For the first time in over a decade, five planets will take center stage in the morning sky this week.
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be visible in the pre-dawn hours starting on January 20th and lasting through late February, Museum Victoria astronomer Tanya Hill writes on The Conversation.
The five classical planets will align along an arc beginning with Jupiter high in the sky, followed by Mars, Saturn, Venus and Mercury poking out just above the horizon.
For those without a telescope, the dazzling celestial spectacle will be visible to the naked eye — although a pair of binoculars may prove helpful.
Earthlings were last treated to the planetary roll call in January 2005, according to EarthSky.org. It is expected to return for a brief period in August 2016, although horizon-hugging Mercury and Venus will be more difficult to spot in the Northern Hemisphere.
Beyond the five planets making an unusual group appearance, stargazers will also have an excellent opportunity to catch of a glimpse of the constellation Orion, which is most visible between January and March every year.