Southern Sky Watch

January Skies

Sorry for the delay, still recovering.

This month starts with two bright planets in the western evening sky. There will be some nice planetary encounters this month.

Useful info for visitors from New Zealand, South Africa and South America.

January 2; crescent Moon close to Venus. January 3; Moon close to Mars. January 4; Earth at Perigee. January 10; Moon at Perigee. January 12-13; Venus and Neptune close. January 19; waning Moon close to Jupiter in the morning sky. January 22; Moon at Apogee. January 25; Saturn close to the thin crescent Moon. January 26; Mercury close to the thin crescent Moon. January 31; thin crescent Moon close to Venus and Mars. Vesta easily visible in binoculars for most of January.

Looking up at the stars is still a rewarding pursuit, despite the increasing light pollution in our major cities. The southern sky is full of interesting objects, many of which go unseen in the northern hemisphere. All you need for a good nights viewing is yourself, a good idea of where south and east are, and your hands. Optional extras are a small pair of binoculars, a torch with red cellophane taped over the business end and a note book. A great many tips for backyard astronomy may be found here, although many of them are more relevant to the northern hemisphere. A general article on amateur astronomy from New Scientist is here (May require subscription otherwise see the TASS site.).

This page is designed to give people a simple guide to the unaided eye sky. In the descriptions of planet and star positions, distances in the sky are given as "fingers width" and "hand span". This is the width of your hand (with all the fingers together as in making a "stop" sign, not bunched as a fist) or finger when extended a full arms length from you.

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Summer is here once more, and the beautiful constellations of Orion, Taurus and the magnificent rambling constellations of Carina, Puppis and Vela grace our skies again. The January school holidays will be an ideal time to head out somewhere dark and view the stars and planets at their best. Summer also means very long twilights in southern Australia, so you may have to wait to see these delights. Despite the warmth of the days, nights are often cool, so don't forget a light jumper before doing any extended star watching. A blanket or rug to sit on is a good idea. Some mosquito repellent will be a must.

While these pages are primarily intended for the use of people observing in Australia, non-Australian Southern Hemisphere observers will find most of the information here applies to them. The star information will be most helpful, when you correct your location for latitude (see the Stars section for appropriate location information). Most Moon phase, planet, comet and asteroid information will be very similar to what will be seen in New Zealand, South Africa and South America. Countries close to the equator (eg Indonesia) will have somewhat different southern and northern views, but the eastern and western views should be similar enough to get a good idea of what is going on.

Occultations, eclipses and aurora are highly location dependent, and it would be best to get a local almanac for these events. If there is no local almanac available, email me and I might be able to help you. I do try and give general info for occultations and eclipses in the Oceania area of the Southern Hemisphere.

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Aurora Alert UPDATED 03/10/16: Despite solar maximum having passed, we are still getting occasional good auroral displays. September 2016 saw a series of good but transient aurora in Tasmania and southern Victoria. July 2015 saw a massive storm seen as far north as mid NSW, again clouded out for large parts of Australia. 17-19/3/2015, the St. Patrick's Day aurora, massive storm seen as far north as Southern Queensland. Unfortunately clouded out for large parts of Australia. 26/2/2015, yet another good set of aurora were seen from Tasmania. 9/2/2015 There was a series of very good auroral events during January, some were seen in NSW, Victoria, SA and WA as well as Tasmania. Last year saw some nice events and a coronal mass ejection from an M class flare hit us square on on March 17 2013. Aurora were detected as far north as the QLD border, with some really nice events in Tasmania, and here are some images from that event. The Sun is now at solar maximum, but has been rather quite so far apart from the odd event like the 17 March 2013 one and the 22 February 2014 and the January 2015 events (and of course the St. Patrick's Day Storm). Although we should be exiting solar maximum in 2016 we may see more aurora in the near future.

Auroral images and descriptions from past geomagnetic storms are now at the auroral image web page.

We are now at the tail end of solar maximum in 2016, and we can expect to see a reducing frequency of aurora. There have been some good displays in Tasmania recently (the St. Patrick's Day storm was a beauty, see as far north as NSW). Tasmania, King Island and Southern Victoria are the most likely places to see aurora. However, on September 24, 2005 there was a massive auroral storm seen as far as northern NSW (and the 22 February 2014 one was seen as far north as southern NSW). Naturally, the best views of any aurora will be away from the city and bright lights. Aurora occur when charged particles from the solar wind enter Earths outer atmosphere and interact with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms producing eerie displays of coloured lights. During solar maximum, which occurs every 11 years, the number and speed of the particles are higher, allowing them to penetrate the Earth's magnetic field at lower latitudes than normal. Observers in Tasmania are likely to see green glows or sheets of light in the southern sky. Observers in Southern Victoria are more likely to see a red glow in the southern sky, although more spectacular displays are possible.

The Astronomical Society of Tasmania has a webpage devoted to this phenomenon. The Australian IPS radio and space services covers Aurora and related phenomena in very great detail (too much if you don't know much about them) but has a nice education page. Flinders Uni also has real time magnetometer readings, however, this will probably not mean much to most people.

Aurora will generally follow solar flares by about 2 days, and a number of instruments are watching the sun for these outbursts. The solar minimum occurred in 2006 and persisted for some time. While sunspot numbers, and hence flare rates are increasing, sometimes months will go by without an alert, then you have three in a week. The space weather site at gives notice of when solar winds likely to cause aurora will arrive. Alternatively, send an email to with "subscribe aurora alert" as the subject and I will send you an email alert of any likely auroral event (or other interesting sky phenomena). However, even a strong solar flare is no guarantee that you will be able to see aurora, but it does increase the probability. Still more alternatively, there are the facebook pages Aurora Australis Tasmania, Aurora Australis Tasmania NOW! and Aurora Australis all do discussions and alerts.

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Email alerts I try to update this page fairly regularly outside of the monthly postings. However sometimes things happen which I can't get in fast enough, or you forget to mark your calendar. If you would like to be alerted to or reminded of interesting astronomical or sky phenomena, send an email to with "subscribe aurora alert" as the subject. This is the old aurora alert list, but with auroras rare even though we are at solar maximum (except for the occasional humdinger, like the September 2005 auroral event), it is doing double duty. Astroblog will have images when possible of these events soon after.

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Coming events

2 January 2017; crescent Moon Near Venus

3 January 2017; crescent Moon near Mars

18 January 2017; opposition of Vesta

19 January 2017; Moon near Jupiter

25 January 2017; Moon close to Saturn

6 January 2017; Moon close to Mercury

31 January 2017; Moon close to Venus, forming line with Mars

1 February 2017; Moon close to Mars, forming line with Venus

11 February 2017; Comet 45P closest to Earth, possibly visible in binoculars

15 February 2017; Moon close to Jupiter

21 February 2017; Moon near Saturn

23 February 2017; Variable star Mira at its brightest

1 March 2017; Moon close to Mars and Venus, making a triangle

2 March 2017; Moon close to Mars, making a line with Venus

14-15 March 2017; Moon close to Jupiter

20 March 2017; Moon close to Saturn

29 March 2017; Moon close to Mercury

30-31 March 2017; Moon close to Mars

8 April 2017; opposition of Jupiter

10-11 April 2017; Moon close to Jupiter

16 April 2017; Moon close to Saturn

24 April 2017; crescent Moon close to Venus in morning sky

1-15 May 2017; Comet 41P visible in the morning sky in binoculars

6 May 2017; Eta Aquariid meteor shower.

7-8 May 2017; Moon near Jupiter.

13 May 2017; Moon close to Saturn.

23 May 2017; crescent Mon close to Venus.

4 June 2017; Moon and Jupiter close.

1-25 June 2017; Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson potentially visible in binoculars.

9-10 June 2017; Moon near Saturn.

15 June 2017; Opposition of Saturn.

21 June 2017; crescent Moon and Venus close.

1 July 2017; Jupiter and Moon close.

7 July 2017; Saturn and Moon close.

21 July 2017; crescent Moon and Venus close.

25 July 2017; thin crescent Moon and Mercury very close, low in the twilight.

29 July 2017; Moon and Jupiter close.

30 July 2017; Southen Delta Aquarids meteor shower.

3 August 2017; Moon close to Saturn.

8 August 2017; Partial eclipse of the Moon in the early morning.

19 August 2017; Crescent Moon close to Venus.

25 August 2017; Jupiter and Crescent Moon close, forming triangle with Spica.

5-16 September 2017; Jupiter and Spica close.

15 September 2017; Crescent Moon close to Venus.

19 September 2017; crescent Moon forms triangle with Mars and Mercury low in the twilight.

22 September 2017; Moon close to Jupiter, forming triangle with Spica.

27 September 2017; Moon and Saturn close.

30 September 2017; Moon and Mars close.

6 October 2017; Venus and Mars very close low in the twilight.

17 October 2017; Mars close to crescent Moon. Forms line with Venus

18 October 2017; Venus close to crescent Moon, forming triangle with Mars.

22 October 2017; Orionid meteor shower.

24 October 2017; crescent Moon close to Saturn.

13 November 2017; Venus and Jupiter very close in the twilight.

13 November 2017; Mercury and Antares close in the twilight.

15 November 2017; crescent Moon close to Mars.

17 November 2017; Leonid Meteor Shower.

17 November 2017; crescent Moon close to Venus and Jupiter in the twilight.

21 November 2017; Crescent Moon close to Saturn.

28 November 2017; Mercury close to Saturn.

14 December 2017; Crescent Moon close to Mars.

15 December 2017; Geminid Meteor shower.

15 December 2017; Crescent Moon close to Jupiter.

31 December 2017; Mars and Jupiter close.

31 December 2017; asteroid Ceres potentially visible in binoculars.

Out in Space

Cassini sees dramatic seasonal changes on Titan.

Mars Curiosity Rover begins its next chapter on Mars.

Mars Express sees buried glaciers.

The Mars Reconaissance Orbiter finds finds some lakes formed later than others.

Dawn finds ice in Oxo crater.

New Horizons finds clouds on Pluto.

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The Moon:

Current Phase of the Moon.
This is a JavaScript applet kindly supplied by Darren Osbourne. It shows the Moon as Southern Hemisphere viewers see it, and is upside down from the Northern Hemisphere perspective.

C| First quarter on the 6th
O Full moon on the 12th
D Last quarter on the 20th
O New Moon is on the 28th

January 2; crescent Moon close to Venus. January 3; Moon close to Mars. January 4; Earth at Perigee. January 10; Moon at Perigee. January 12-13; Venus and Neptune close. January 19; waning Moon close to Jupiter in the morning sky. January 22; Moon at Apogee. January 25; Saturn close to the thin crescent Moon. January 26; Mercury close to the thin crescent Moon. January 31; thin crescent Moon close to Venus and Mars.

An interactive calendar of the Moon's phases.

A view of the phase of the Moon for any date from 1800 A.D. to 2199, US based, so that the Moon is upside down with respect to us. The image above is from this source.

The phases of the Moon have been linked in the popular imagination to activities as diverse as madness and menstruation. However, careful study has shown that there are no such links. This web page outlines how the Moon is unconnected with a wide range of human activities.

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Finding planets, even with the directions below, can sometimes be difficult if you are unfamiliar with the sky. However, the Moon is very obvious, and can be a guide to location of planets. Not only that, the combination of the Moon and bright planet(s) is often very beautiful. Thus the guide below gives the dates when the planets and the Moon are close together.
evening sky, 10:00 pm

The evening sky facing west in Melbourne on January 31 at 60 minutes after sunset showing the Moon close to Venus and Mars. (similar views will be seen from other cities at the equivalent local time eg January 3 at 40 minutes after sunset Adelaide).

evening sky, 8:34 pm

The eastern morning sky on January 19 an hour and a half before sunrise showing Jupiter and the Moon. (similar views will be seen from other cities at the equivalent local time eg an hour and a half before Sunrise in Adelaide.

morning sky, 4:53 am pm

The eastern morning sky on January 26 an hour before sunrise showing Saturn, Mercury and the crescent Moon. similar views will be seen from other cities at the equivalent local time.

Mercury returns to the morning sky this month, with the best views in the latter half of the month. On the 1st, Mercury is too close to the Sun to be seen. By the 15th Mercury is a one and a half hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise. On the 26th Mercury is a hand-span from the thin crescent Moon in the eastern morning skies. By the 30th, Mercury is a hand-span above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise.-->

Venus is still prominent in the evening sky in this month and is extremely obvious as its startling white light makes it the brightest object in the western sky (aside from the Sun and Moon of course). On the 1st Venus is just over three hand-spans above the western horizon an hour after sunset. Venus climbs out of Capricornus into Aquarius. On the evening of January 2 thin crescent Moon is a hand span from Venus. On the 12th and 13th Venus and Neptune are less than a finger-width apart. You will need binoculars and dark skies, or a telescope, to see the pair together. In binoculars Neptune will be little more than a dim dot unfortunately, almost drowned out by bright Venus. On January 15 Venus is just over two hand-spans above the western horizon an hour after sunset. On the 30th Venus is just over one and a half hand-spans above the western horizon an hour after sunset. On the evening of January 31 thin crescent Moon is a hand-span from Venus.

Earth perihelion on 4 January when it is closest to the Sun.

Mars was at Opposition in May 2016, when it was biggest and brightest as seen from Earth. It is still a small but recognizable disk in small amateur instruments, but they will not show much detail. Mars is in Aquarius this month. It has faded substantially and may be difficult to recognize. However, it is the brightest reddish object almost due west in an area otherwise devoid of bright stars. Mars is also around a hand-span from Venus for most of the month.

On January 1 Mars is just over three hand-spans above the western horizon an hour and a half after sunset. On January 3 the waxing crescent Moon and Mars are at their closest. On January 15 Mars is three hand-spans above the western horizon an hour after sunset. By the 30th, Mars is just over two hand-spans above the western horizon an hour after sunset. On the 31st the crescent Moon makes a thin triangle with Mars and Venus.

Jupiter is rising higher in the morning sky during the month, and is now very easy to see, and is less than a hand-span from the bright white star Spica. By the end of the month Jupiter is rising in the late evening just before midnight. On January 1, Jupiter is just over six hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise. On January 15, Jupiter is over a eight hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour and a half before sunrise. On January 19,Jupiter is just under hand-span above the Moon. On January 30,Jupiter is just over nibe hand-spans above the north-eastern horizon an hour and a half before sunrise.

In either binoculars or a telescope Jupiter's Moons are always interesting. Jupiter is now high enough from the horizon for good viewing from ealry morning to twilight.

This table was created using The Planets 2.02 a free program available from

Times are AEST, subtract 30 minutes for ACST and 3 hours for AWST. Add one hour for Daylight Saving time.
GRS = Great Red Spot. S = Shadow Transit, T = Transit

Sat	3	Dec	2016	4:58	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Mon	5	Dec	2016	3:36	Io :	Disappears into Eclipse
Tue	6	Dec	2016	4:08	Io :	Transit Ends
Wed	7	Dec	2016	3:56	Eur:	Transit Begins               ST
Wed	7	Dec	2016	4:24	Eur:	Shadow Transit Ends          T
Thu	8	Dec	2016	4:07	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Sat	10	Dec	2016	5:46	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Sun	11	Dec	2016	4:41	Gan:	Disappears into Occultation
Mon	12	Dec	2016	5:29	Io :	Disappears into Eclipse
Tue	13	Dec	2016	3:16	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Tue	13	Dec	2016	3:53	Io :	Transit Begins               ST
Tue	13	Dec	2016	5:00	Io :	Shadow Transit Ends          T
Wed	14	Dec	2016	3:14	Io :	Reappears from Occultation
Wed	14	Dec	2016	4:24	Eur:	Shadow Transit Begins        S
Thu	15	Dec	2016	4:54	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Fri	16	Dec	2016	4:10	Eur:	Reappears from Occultation
Sun	18	Dec	2016	4:11	Gan:	Disappears into Eclipse
Tue	20	Dec	2016	4:03	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Tue	20	Dec	2016	4:40	Io :	Shadow Transit Begins        S
Tue	20	Dec	2016	5:50	Io :	Transit Begins               ST
Wed	21	Dec	2016	5:10	Io :	Reappears from Occultation
Thu	22	Dec	2016	2:31	Io :	Transit Ends
Thu	22	Dec	2016	5:42	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Sun	25	Dec	2016	3:12	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Tue	27	Dec	2016	4:50	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Wed	28	Dec	2016	3:43	Io :	Disappears into Eclipse
Thu	29	Dec	2016	2:14	Io :	Transit Begins               ST
Thu	29	Dec	2016	3:01	Gan:	Transit Begins               STT
Thu	29	Dec	2016	3:15	Io :	Shadow Transit Ends          TT
Thu	29	Dec	2016	4:26	Io :	Transit Ends                 T
Thu	29	Dec	2016	5:22	Gan:	Transit Ends
Fri	30	Dec	2016	2:20	GRS:	Crosses Central Meridian
Fri	30	Dec	2016	4:34	Eur:	Disappears into Eclipse

Saturn climbs higher in the morning sky this month. On January 1 Saturn is just under a hand-span above the eastern horizon half an hour before sunrise. You will need a fairly level, unobstructed eastern horizon to see this. On January 15 Saturn is is just over two hand-spans above the eastern horizon an hour before sunrise. On January 25 Saturn is close to the thin crescent Moon. On January 30 Saturn is just over four hand-spans above the eastern horizon hour before sunrise.

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Iridium Flares, the International Space Station and other satellites

See this amazing site for images of the space station taken through a telescope.

Iridium flares add a bit of spectacle to the night sky. The Iridium satellite network was set up to give global phone coverage, so an Iridium satellite is almost always over head. Occasionally, one of the antenna of the satellites is aligned so that it reflects the sun towards an observer, giving a brilliant flare, often out-shining Venus. However, the visibility of Iridium flares is VERY dependent on observer position, so you need a prediction for your spot within about 30 km. Hence I'm referring you to a web site for predictions rather than doing it myself.

new See an Iridium Flare at your Location. Courtesy of Heavens above. Choose your location from the drop down box

Or type in Your Latitude and Longitude in decimal format eg Darwin is -12.461 130.840 , to find your Lat Long go to this site.
Latitude: Longitude: City Time Zone:

See the International Space Station at your Location. Courtesy of Heavens above. Choose your location from the drop down box

Or type in Your Latitude and Longitude in decimal format eg Darwin is -12.461 130.840 , to find your Lat Long go to this site.
Latitude: Longitude: City Time Zone:
Another site, JPASS, doesn't do Iridium flares, but is very cool and does the International Space Station, and many other satellites. However, although the output is flashy, it's harder to use than heavens above.

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Meteor showers:

Date        	Meteor Shower       ZHR  Illumination 
4/1/2017  	Quadrantids         120   0.05     

The figure ZHR is zenithal hourly rate. This is the number of meteors that a single observer would see per hour if the shower's "point of origin", or radiant, were at the zenith and the sky were dark enough for 6.5-magnitude stars to be visible to the naked eye. Illumination gives an idea of how dark the sky is, the lower the figure, the darker the sky.

The Quadrantids are a relatively reliable northern hemisphere shower, whose radiant lies below the horizon. They are difficult to see, but one can be rewarded by the (rare) sight of meteors shooting up above the horizon. The best time is to view between 4.00 am and 5.00 am, looking to the north east. A spotters map is here. The map shows the view to the east at 4.00 am (AEDST, 3.00 am AEST).

Outside of the showers, you can still see sporadic meteors. Rates seen from the Southern Hemisphere are around 6 random meteors being seen per hour during the late morning hours and 2 per hour during the evening. The evening rates will be reduced during the times around the full Moon due to interference by the Moons light.

A good page describing meteor watching is at the Sky Publications site.

The Meteor Section of the Astronomical Society of Victoria has some good information on meteor watching too.

Learn how to take a meteor shower photograph.

A Cool Fact about meteor speeds

A good page on detecting meteors using home made radio-telescopes is here.

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There are no unaided eye comets visible at the moment.

evening sky, 10.10 pm
Black and white binocular chart suitable for printing (click to embiggen and print). The large circle represents the field of view of 10x50 binoculars. The small that of a 4" Newtonian telescope with a 24 mm eyepiece. Use the horizon mcarts for orientation first.

The asteroid 4 Vesta is easily visible in binoculars this month, reaching almost unaided eye threshold at the middle of the month.

Vesta is relatively easy to find. It is above the north-eastern horizon at astronomical twilight, and nearly due north at midnight. The bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, point to it, with Vesta being almost the distance between Castor and Pollux from Pollux (see charts, sweep your binoculars up from Castor to Pollux and around a binocular width beyond Pollux). You may need to watch night to night as the asteroid moves to be sure of its identity..

A list of current comet ephemerides is at the MPC.

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No interesting naked-eye occultations this month.



No significant eclipses this month.

Find local sunrise/sunset and twilight times for your city or location (courtesy of Heavens Above).
Use either the drop down box for the listed cities, or type in your latitude, longitude and city in the boxes below.

Type in Your Latitude and Longitude in decimal format eg -12.461 130.840 , to find your Lat Long go to this site.

Latitude: Longitude: City Time Zone:


Variable Stars:

While most stars seem to shine with a constant brightness, there are some that undergo regular, dramatic change in brightness. The classic variables are Mira and Algol. Mira should be brightening in the lead up to its predicted maximum of 3.4 on 23 February. It should be just about visible to the unaided eye by mid January and well worth following over the coming weeks as it brightens.

evening sky, 10:00 pm

Cetus at 10:10 pm AEDST on 15 January, Mira is indicated by the circle.

Mira (omicron ceti), a star in the constellation of Cetus the whale, is a long period pulsating red giant and changes brightness from below naked eye visibility to a peak of round magnitude 2 (roughly as bright as beta Crucis in the Southern Cross) in around 330 days. Mira is predicted to peak with maximum of 3.4 around 23 February. Mira may be seen above the eastern horizon at from Astronomical twilight (and hour and a half after sunset, see above diagram) and will possibly be visible to the unaided eye by mid to late January. evening sky, 1:00 am

Algol at 10:00 pm AEDST on 15 January.

Algol is another classic variable star, but is usually hard to see from the southern hemisphere. This month we have no chances to see Algol dim and brighten under reasonable circumstances (Times AEDST).

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evening sky, 10:00 pm

The southern evening sky at 10:00 pm AEST in Melbourne on January 1 (similar views will be seen from other cities at the equivalent local time eg 10:00 pm ACST Adelaide).

All descriptions here are based on the view from Melbourne at 10.00 pm AEST (Australian Eastern Standard Time) on 1 January and assumes a fairly level horizon. Starset occurs progressively earlier each day, so these descriptions are valid for 9.00 pm on the 15th and 8.00pm on the 30th. Readers from other time zones should see roughly the same views at 10.00 pm local time. Corrections for cities other than Melbourne are given below.

How do I find east, west, north and south?

Facing west, the battered triangle of Capricorn, the Goat, is 3 hand-spans left of west, almost directly on the horizon. To the right by 3 hand spans and up by two hand-spans is Aquarius.

6 hand-spans up from the western horizon and three hand spans to the left is bright Fomalhaut, the main star of Piscinis Austrinus, the southern fish. Further off to the left is the battered cross of Grus the crane.

The faint constellation of Cetus, the whale is just below the zenith stretching from the west to south-west.

The Zenith is dominated by the rambling constellation Eridanus, the river, and bright Achernar, alpha Eridanus. Achernar is the 9th brightest star in the sky, and is a blue supergiant. Epsilon Eridani is notable for being the 10th closest star to our solar system. A sun-like star, epsilon Eridani has recently been discovered to have a dust disk which may indicate the presence of planets.

On the eastern horizon are the constellations of Hydra, directly east, and rectangle of Gemini, 6 hand-spans to the left. The bright stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, will not clear the Horizon until about an hour later.

The constellations of Taurus, the bull, Orion the hunter and Canis major, Orion's hunting dog are now well above the horizon, and will be magnificent viewing later in the month, when the moon has waned.

Directly east, 8 hand-spans from the horizon is Canis Major. The bright white star is Sirius (alpha Canis Majoris), the brightest star in the sky. The constellation of Canis Majoris has a number of open clusters that are well worth exploring with binoculars, Most of these lie two hand-spans to the right of Sirius, amongst the V shaped group of stars that marks the tail of Canis Major. Below Sirius by two hand spans, and one hand-span to the right is M47. This cluster is quite nice in binoculars.

To the left of Sirius by about four hand-spans is the distinctive saucepan shape of Orion's belt. The handle of the saucepan is Orion's sword, which contains some good naked eye open clusters, and the final star in the handle hosts the famous Orion nebula, which is visible to the naked eye under clear skies. Directly above the handle of the saucepan is bright Rigel (beta Orionis). Directly below the saucepan is the bright reddish Betelgeuse (alpha Orionis), a red giant star.

To the left of Orion's belt by about 4 hand-spans is Aldebaran (alpha Tauri), another red giant which forms the base of the V shaped group of stars called the Hyades, which forms the head of Taurus. Further to the left again is a faint, but pretty, compact cluster of stars called the Pleiades (the seven sisters). The Pleiades are particularly beautiful through binoculars.

Facing directly north, about three hand-spans up is Perseus. Six hand-spans up is the Pleiades. The large square of stars that forms Pegasus, the flying horse is six hand-spans to your left on the north-western horizon. Andromeda, and the famous Andromeda galaxy, is two hand-spans below the bottom right hand star of the square, and one hand span to the right, near a faint star. Andromeda is best seen through binoculars or a small telescope on a dark night. However, as Andromeda is so close to the horizon, it may be difficult to see anything.

Looking south, the bright, distinctive alpha and beta Centauri, the so called "pointers", are two hand-spans from the southern horizon, with alpha being the yellow star which is furthest from the horizon, and beta the blue white star below and to the left. Most of the rest of Centaurus, the Centaur, is too close to, or below, the Horizon to be seen properly.

Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our sun at around 4 light years. However, recent measurements with the Hippacaros satellite put the system 300 million kilometers further away than previously thought. Alpha Centauri is actually a triple star, consisting of two sun-like stars and a red dwarf, Proxima Centauri, which is the closest of the triple stars to earth.

Returning to alpha Centauri, following a line east through the "pointers" brings you to the Southern Cross, one and a half hand-spans from beta Centauri to beta Crucis, and two hand-spans above the horizon between the 7 o'clock and 8 o'clock position on a clock. A high definition map of Centaurus and Crux is here.

The Southern Cross is, as expected, a cross shaped formation with Acrux (alpha Crucis) and gamma Crucis forming the long axis of the cross (pointing down to the south-east, with bright Acrux on the end of the axis away from the horizon). Beta and delta Crucis, forming a nearly horizontal line, form the cross piece of the cross. Just to the right of Acrux is the coal sack. This dark area against the glow of the milky way represents a large dust cloud and is usually clearly visible in dark skies, but will be hard to see this close to the horizon. The Jewel box in the Cross is a small open cluster just above Beta Crucis. It is quite beautiful, but requires strong binoculars or a small telescope to see properly, and is unlikely to be good viewing this close to the horizon.

Above and to the left of the Southern Cross is Carina (the keel of the former constellation Argo Navis). A high definition map of this region is here. It is now far enough from the horizon to appreciate its many faint objects. Looking almost anywhere in the area of Carina will reveal an interesting cluster or star formation. However, the area between the Southern Cross and the false cross (which is just above the south-eastern horizon), is particularly rich. Here you will find the "Southern Pleiades" surrounding the tail star (Theta Carina) of a prominent kite shaped group of stars, with theta Carina two hand-spans up, and one hand-span to the left of Acrux. Smaller and less spectacular than their northern counterparts, they still look very nice in binoculars. Four finger-widths below the Southern Pleiades are two rich open clusters, and the barely visible star Eta Carina. Eta Carina's spectacular nebula is only dimly seen in binoculars. Two hand-spans to the left and four hand-spans up from the Southern Cross is the False Cross, seven hand-spans from the southern horizon. Just to the left of the False Cross is a good open cluster. Canopus (alpha Carina) is a bright yellowish star sitting 11 hand-spans above the south-eastern horizon (and about 4 hand-spans up from the False Cross.

Vela, the sail of Argo Navis, and Puppis, the poop deck, (to the left and below Carina respectively) are now well above the horizon and their collection of clusters are quite visible now. When, Argo Navis was broken up into Puppis, Vela and Carina in 1750, they forgot to assign alpha and beta stars to Vela, and its brightest star at magnitude 1.5 is Gamma Velorum. Gama Velorum is a double star which may be resolved in good binoculars. The Milky Way passes through Vela, and there are many open clusters which can be seen with binoculars or the naked eye. One of the best of these is NGC2547, a little below gamma Velorum. Vela is also home to the spectacular Gum nebula (which can only be seen in telescopic photographs), and the second pulsar to be observed optically. Kappa and delta Velorum, with iota and epsilon Carina, make the "false cross" (about 7 hand spans above the southern horizon). A high definition map of Vela is here.

To the left of the false Cross by about a hand-span is a good collection of the open clusters to be found in Vela, and two hand-spans further along brings you to another collection of clusters in Puppis.

Directly above the southern horizon by 11 hand-spans is the extended nebulosity of the Large Magellanic cloud, the largest of the dwarf satellite galaxies. Binoculars will reveal a rather attractive nebula near it, the Tarantula nebula.

To the left of this by 4 hand-spans is the Small Magellanic cloud, the second largest of the dwarf satellite galaxies to the Milky Way. This feature is best viewed on a dark night, away from the city. In this nebulosity is what looks to be a fuzzy star, this is 47 Tucana (marked 104 on the map), a spectacular globular cluster that is very nice through binoculars. To the right of the Small Magellanic Cloud by about 4 hand-spans is the dim constellation of Tucana, the Toucan, the parent constellation of 47 Tucana.

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Sky Maps

How to use the maps

      map viewsky view

Comparison of a section of a skymap showing the Southern Cross (Crux) and pointers, with the appearance of the night sky. The map and sky are for January 1 at 10.00 pm, facing south. Both show approximately 30 degrees (5 hand-spans) of sky just above the horizon

The maps look a little busy, as they cover all sky from horizon to zenith. The grid lines are navigational helpers; each horizontal or vertical line covers 30 degrees of arc (the gridlines in the illustration show 15 degrees of arc), which is roughly five hand-spans (where a hand-span is the width of your hand, held flat light a "stop" sign at arms length). As you can see from the way the lines bunch up. The map is a little distorted, due to trying to project a spherical surface on a flat surface. The horizon is the lowest curved line on the map (for technical software reasons I can't block things out below the Horizon). Constellations are linked by lines and their names are in italics. Stars are shown as circles of varying size, the bigger the circle the brighter the star. The stars are named with their Bayer letter (eg a - alpha, the brightest star in a constellation, a Crucis is the brightest star in Crux). Variable stars are shown as hollow circles, double stars are marked with a line (eg a, b and g Crucis are all double stars, that look quite beautiful in a small telescope). Clusters and Nebula brighter than magnitude 6.0 are marked as broken circles (eg. the Jewel box cluster next to b Crucis above which is best viewed in binoculars or a telescope) and squares respectively. To find Crux for example, locate Crux on the appropriate map (eg. see the illustration above). Holding the Map, face either east or west (depending on the map), then use the grid lines to determine how far over and up you should look, then look for the Crux pattern in that part of the Sky.

GIF Maps

A view of the Eastern January sky at 10.00pm AEST on 1 January can be downloaded here (jansky_e.png 30 Kb) and a view of the western January sky can be downloaded here (jansky_w.png 30 Kb). These are more compact files but don't have a lot of resolution.

PDF Maps

High Resolution PDF files can be obtained for the eastern (110 Kb) and the western (110 Kb) horizon maps.

The Zenith Map (110 Kb) shows you the whole sky. You will need to face the one of the compass points, then hold the map with the appropriate compass point on the map at the bottom of the page.

You will need a PDF viewer such as Adobe Acrobat or GhostView to view and print them. They look slightly worse on-screen than the PNG files, but print much better and come with legends.

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[December Skies]
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Cheers! And good star gazing!


Ian's Astrophotography Gallery

Some of the photographs/images I have taken in recent years of astronomical phenomena that may be of interest.

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Societies: Australian Resources: Australian Planetariums: updated Astronomy for Kids International Resources: Stunning sites: Useful programs:
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Charts, Books and Software for Astronomy

If you would like to have charts available all the time, rather than relying on mine, for between $2-$20 you can pick up a planisphere from a newsagent or bookshop (or for a bit more you can get fancy ones from Australian Geographic, the ABC shop or the other Australian Geographic look alike shop, or the Wilderness Society, or even a binocular/ optical store). The planisphere won't give you position of the planets, so you will need to get the planet rise/set times. These can be found in most serious newspapers (the Age, the Australian, SMH etc. The Australian is probably the best bet for budding amateurs). The combination of planisphere and rise/set times is the best value for beginners though, if you are not too worried about identifying star clusters in your binoculars.

Touring the Universe through Binoculars Atlas is now freeware it can print observing charts, but has a few annoying quirks. These include having no horizon line, and moving about is a bit irritating.

I use a combination of a 1962 star chart, the Australian Astronomy 2017 almanac and SkyMap Pro 11.0 . I highly recommend the Australian Astronomy 2017 almanac. It is more helpful for planetary/comet/asteroidal observations and eclipses than for double stars, clusters galaxies etc, but is an excellent resource for Australian observers and anyone who would like to seriously follow the planets in Australia should have this almanac. It has easy to follow month-by-month summary information, as well as detailed charts, tables and whole sky maps. It is easily navigated. The Almanac is often in big bookstores or optical shops, or email to purchase a copy directly for those outside major population centres. The Australian Astronomy almanac comes out in around November for the following year, and is now approx $28.

Sky and Telescope now also do an Australian version of their magazine.

For detailed chart drawing and timing of events, as well as satellite track predictions I feed the information from the almanac into the $150 AUD SkyMap Pro 11.0 , planetarium program. This is a very handy program which prints maps of every possible orientation and scale. The maps on this page are produced by SkyMap. An update to SkyMap 12.0 which handles Windows 10 is now available.

A shareware version of SkyMap that runs on windows 3.x, and win95 can be found here this is approximately 640 Kb zipped.

A shareware version of the win95 only version 5.0 is here

Other highly recommended Sky charting packages (win95/98/2000/XP/Win7-8 sorry) are:
Cartes du Ciel at (FREE) a bit messy to install but very good.
Stellarium at (FREE) stunning photorealistic program, but requires a grunty PC.
TheSkyVarious packages from $49 US to $249 US
Stary Night various versions from $49 us for the basic pack (10 day trial of the basic pack at up.
Earth Centered Universe $88 AUD (shareware version at
On the other hand a standard Sky Atlas for serious observing (much handier than carting a computer with you) such as Norton's Star Atlas can range from $35 to $90.

In these days of hand-held devices (smart phones and tablets), there is a plethora of sky charting apps you can take into the field with you. I use GoogleSky for android and a cut down version of Stellarium for iPad, my most used hand-held app is Heavens Above for Android, for watching Iridium flares and ISS passes. This is one app that has changed my astronomical life. There are many more, many free or less than 1 AUD to dowload. Celestron has a great free planetarium app (although big at 154 Mb) for Android, iPhone and iPad, SkyPortal.

This is not meant to be a product endorsement of any kind (outside of the Australian Astronomy 2017 almanac. For any budding astronomers out there, it is fantastic value and no, I don't have any commercial interest in it, but I did win bronze in their website Olympics).

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Link to the Lab's 'In Space' gateway Link to the Lab's home page
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This page is provided by Ian Musgrave and is © copyright 2017 Ian Musgrave, except the "Southern Sky Watch" logo, as well as any other ABC logo used on this page, is © copyright of the ABC. Sky maps are generated with SkyMap Pro 11.0 .

This page can be used freely for any non-commercial purpose but please attribute it correctly. However, see the disclaimer.

* Email: e-mail Ian with any suggestions
Created: Wednesday, 1 April 1998, 11:22:13 PM
Last Updated: Monday, 19 January 2017, 11:30:13 PM

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