The night sky can offer so many possibilities in terms of photography and optics. Modern telescopes allow even those with a modest budget to see some truly spectacular sights in the night sky, and with the right equipment, star trails and even shots of the Milky Way are within reach of us all.
To help you plan some night time adventures here is a run down the key Astronomical events of the first 6 months of 2018:
JANUARY 2018 – (events already occurred at time of publication)
After sunset on New Year’s Day look to the east to see a Supermoon rising. The closest full moon to Earth since November 2016, tonight’s Supermoon is the first of two Supermoons that we’ll see in 2018. At moonrise on January 1st the full moon is just 356,615kms away, and will look bigger and brighter than at any point in 2017. Through the evening the moon continues to brighten, edging closer to us. By 2:20am on January 2nd tonight’s supermoon reaches its closest point to Earth at 356,565kms distance. Further moonwatching excitement is available on the morning of January 11th when a now more distant crescent moon passes close to Jupiter and Mars. It’ll be a very photogenic gathering towards the south ahead of sunrise that morning.
Winter brings out the Huntsman. Orion is an iconic constellation with a big celestial story to tell. To find him look towards your south on a clear February evening. You’ll likely notice his belt first; three bright white stars slung together in a line that mean so much to MIB aficionados. But Orion is much bigger than his belt! A giant rectangle of four bright stars enclose the belt, marking out Orion’s shoulders and feet. Above his fiery orange left shoulder he holds a club aloft; off his right shoulder he draws his bow, and from his belt hangs his sword. This guy really is the Ancient Greeks’ version of Action Man. Dig a little deeper though and our Huntsman yields some truly stellar secrets. Switch your view to binoculars and train them on the sword. Notice that uneven cloud of misty light? It’s a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Now take a closer look at Orion’s left shoulder. That fiery orange star is Betelgeuse – a red supergiant 950 times bigger than our sun on the verge of exploding as a supernova. It’s birth and death in the universe inside one constellation.
The Plough is a familiar constellation found high up to the NE during springtime. Also known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear, the Big Dipper and the Saucepan, it contains an interesting naked eye challenge! Look closely at the middle star in the Saucepan handle. Can you see a fainter star very close to the brighter one a little to its lower left? If you can see the two stars you’re doing well. The Romans used these two stars as an eyesight test for entry to the roman army. The bright one is called Mizar; the fainter one is Alcor. Translated they mean ‘horse’ and ‘rider’. Get them in a telescope and the brighter star itself splits out into two stars in orbit around each other, making for a triple star system.
The Lyrids Meteor Shower in 2018 promises a spectacular explosion of shooting stars across the sky from the eastern horizon. Best time to view is from 11pm onwards on April 20th to April 22nd. Look out for up to 20 or 25 meteors per hour streaking across the sky from a location close to the bright blue-white star Vega, which lies low to the north-east late April evenings. After midnight the shower’s radiant near Vega is higher in the sky, meaning that we should get a better view of the Lyrids as we move into the early morning hours.
In May 2018 Jupiter reaches its closest point to Earth for the year, and so it appears at its brightest in the sky and its biggest in a telescope this month. Wednesday 9 May is opposition night. This is when Jupiter is directly opposite the sun, meaning that the biggest planet in our solar system is visible all night long between dusk and dawn. To find Jupiter in May look for a bright star-like object low in the SE as it gets dark. Through the night Jupiter rises higher in the sky. Between midnight and 1am it reaches its highest point directly towards the south at about +25 degrees above the southern horizon. Jupiter in a telescope is an amazing sight. Look out for the dark bands crossing the planet’s disc, and Jupiter’s four bright moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto.
June is the best month of the year to seek out the ghostly electric-blue braids of light from noctilucent cloud displays. These extremely high-level ice cloud formations generally occur over the northern horizon between 11pm – 2am. They are best seen with the naked eye or with binoculars. Noctilucent clouds are notoriously difficult to predict, so keep your eye on the sky to your north on any clear night in June to catch their eerie glow.
Download January’s sky map here: January 2018
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Thanks to Celestron for suppling the Astronomical information and Sky Map.