Monday, November 30, 2009

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 are picked out. M 45 serves as a test for the acuity of your vision: if you can only see less 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 "oupa" Aldebaran close by.

Binocular viewing, by the way, is so ideal for astronomy that the world’s largest binocular telescope (LBT) on the 3,270 m high Mount Graham in Arizona has proved to be quite successful. Each of its two primary mirrors is 8.4 m across and as a system it produces images with a clarity of ten 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 16th of December. Two Full Moons on the 2nd and the 31st (“blue moon”) will occur in December with a partial lunar eclipse on the 31st to end the International Year of Astronomy 2009. How "once in a blue moon" is this?

Summer Solstice is on the 21st of December.

The fast Mercury at magnitude -0.5 will again be visible after sunset for most of the month.

Jupiter at -2.3 is still the markedly bright object that can be admired in the early evening for the rest of the month.

Now is the time to view the Magellanic Clouds over the Swartberg and to use them to determine south as the famous seafarer did in 1519.

Although S.P.A.C.E., the Starfriends of Prince Albert for Celestial Enjoyment, took off to a slow start in the IYA2009, mostly due to adverse weather conditions, the prospects of more relaxed, social star-gazing sessions in future still remain. All starfriends are invited to observe the last sunset of 2009 and the following partial lunar eclipse from Gordon’s Koppie or from the air strip on Thursday 31 December at 19h30.

Hans and Tilanie from Astro Tours wish all starfriends a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

We are available for any queries or observation sessions on a daily basis during the Festive Season from the 12th to the 24th of December. (Cell: 072-732-2950)

Keep the stars in your eyes!

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