I love our winter skies! New Zealand, in particular, boasts very clean air which provides fantastic opportunities for star gazing. And there is so much to see!
If you go outside around 10pm and look towards the east, you will notice two bright stars, one above the other. These are not really stars, they are the largest planets in our solar system. The upper planet is Jupiter and the lower one is Saturn.
If you grab a pair of good binoculars, or a low powered telescope, take a look at Jupiter. You will notice 1 to 4 very faint pinpricks of light around it. These are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. With our moon in the sky, you will be able to observe five moons! Most people have only ever seen our one.
Moving down to Saturn, binoculars will be able to pick out its warm, golden glow. With exceptionally good binoculars (or a small telescope) experienced observers may sometimes glimpse Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
Did you know that there is a black hole in our backyard? Ok, that would really only be true if our backyard extended 1000 light years away. It was discovered by observing a star which orbits an empty spot every 40 days. This empty spot is a black hole.
Now we can’t see the actual black hole, but with the naked eye we can see the star that goes around it. The star is called HR 6819 and is easily seen from New Zealand. To find it is a bit tricky. You will need to search for it in Stellarium, or in one of the astronomy apps you can download for your smart phone. The star is to the right of the constellation Telescopium. If you can find it, it is worth showing off to the kids or neighbours.
Two of the best things to view with your binoculars are the two globular clusters: 47 Tucanae and Omega Centauri. Omega Centauri is my favourite object in the night sky, because you can see it with the naked eye under the right conditions. Using binoculars, it is a thing of beauty – a globe of thousands of stars.