Friday, December 14, 2007

Starry Splendour over Prince Albert

- Hans Daehne -

In December star-gazing can reign supreme again with warm nights and holidays in abundance and with our favourite and well-known constellations in their full glory overhead.

The most eye-catching open cluster, the Pleiades(M 45) or "Seven Sisters", is best seen through a pair of binoculars where 13 to 20 "sisters" can be counted, while with a telescope only four of the seven can be picked out.

M 45 serves as a test for the acuity of your vision: if you can only see fewer than six stars you should have your eyes tested.

At an age of about 60 million years this cluster of stars in Taurus is an example of a star kindergarten with bright, bluish stars in contrast to the red, old Aldebaran close by.

Binocular viewing, by the way, is so ideal for astronomy that the world`s largest binocular telescope (LBT) has just been commissioned on 3,270m high Mount Graham in Arizona. Each of its two primary mirrors is 8.4 m across and as a system will produce images with a clarity of 10 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

A binocular view of the Orion Nebula (M42), the bright, fuzzy patch above the three belt stars is also very rewarding, but seen in the eyepiece of a telescope this maternity ward of star formation is awe-inspiring.

The Moon will be new on the 9th of December and full on the 24th. It is at perigee on the 22nd which is also the date of our Summer Solstice.

Venus is the very bright Morning Star.

Mars becomes bright enough to be observed all night between Taurus and Gemini. It is 88 million km away from Earth on the 19th of December and moves close to the horn of Taurus (Al Nath) in January.

Jupiter will only be visible from Gordon`s Koppie in the early evening for the first half of the month.

The yearly Geminids meteor shower is at its maximum in the night of the 14th December and observing should be favourable from midnight onwards.

To the south the two hazy patches high above the Swartberg are the Magellanic Clouds that the seafarer Magellan used to determine south when he could also not see the Southern Cross.

The False Cross rises over the Swartberg first. Look a little above it for a beautiful cluster (binoculars). We will have to wait until January again to see our favourite little Southern Cross, the smallest but brightest of the 88 constellations.

For any queries or observation sessions we are available on a daily basis during the festive season from the middle of December to the middle of January.

Keep the stars in your eyes !

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