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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

A busy time in space

Posted on January 18 2011 at 1:06:49 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

November should have seen the very last launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery but after being fuelled with liquid hydrogen, a leak was spotted from its “filler cap”. While this was being attended to, it was noticed that the beams which give the big external tank its strength had developed cracks.

Now you may have thought we had some very cold nights over the festive season but that is peanuts compared to liquid hydrogen. As a result, the external tank is under a lot of stress when it is filled and this caused the failure. NASA engineers have now glued some strengthening strips on and Discovery could launch on February 24.

This may be delayed as it’s a busy time at the space station, with another supply ship, an ATV (Automated Transfer Vehicle), due to dock with the ISS on the 15th. This will be quite easily visible before docking, although not as bright as a shuttle, so this is a good month for keeping an eye on http://www.heavens-above.com for possible sightings.

Jupiter is still with us until about nine in the evening, although it is low in the south west now, looking more orange, but it is still unmistakable. Look out for it on the evenings of the 6th and 7th when the crescent Moon will be close by.

Saturn is starting to appear now, rising just before midnight and Venus is visible in the eastern pre-dawn sky for early risers. The Moon is close to Saturn on the morning of the 20th and Venus on the 28th.

Orion is still dominating our skies in the south, with the bright, blue star Sirius below and to the left. Above and left are Castor and Pollux, the heads of the Gemini twins.

To the right is the vee of Taurus, dominated by the bright, red Aldebaran. High overhead (don’t fall over) is the wonky pentangle of Auriga. Actually, astronomers have decided that the very bottom star now belongs to Taurus (what planet are they on?).

The very brightest star, at the top, is Capella. This is one of only two bright stars that appear exactly overhead (at the Zenith); the other is Vega in the summer.

Capella is actually a pair of yellow giant stars, 40 light years away and several times bigger than our Sun but as close to each other as Earth is to the Sun, and orbiting every 100 days. You will need exceptional eyesight to see them as a double though, as even the most powerful telescopes can only just separate them.

To the right of Auriga is the giraffe-like shape of the constellation Perseus, with the bright star Mirphak at its centre. Below this, near the front foot, is Algol, the Demon Star. This is also a pair of stars but in this case one is brighter than the other so that every three days Algol dims for a couple of hours as the smaller star passes in front.

In February, the only evening minimum is at nine o’clock on the 15th but you will need to observe it a few days before and after to notice the difference. The Milky Way passes through this part of the sky and is especially rich, being so high overhead.

So, with, hopefully, less chilly evenings this is a great place to spend some time viewing through binoculars. You’ll need to sit down though!


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