This time of year, everything changes. We say goodbye to summer sky constellations and welcome the winter ones.
Orion, which dominates the summer skies, now dips below the horizon in the early evening. Following Orion, the “Dog Star”, Sirius, is also moving out of our night skies. It appears midway down the western skies in the early evening, before setting around 10pm.
In the north-west in the early evening, we see Gemini low in the sky, which can be easily spotted by looking for its two bright stars, Pollux and Castor. To the right we see Cancer with the Beehive Cluster.
Almost due north you will spot a bright, orange star. This is Regulus, the heart of Leo. Moving slightly east, you find another bright star called Arcturus, which lies in the Bootes constellation.
As the night goes on, all these constellations move from east to west and sink slowly below the horizon. Eventually they will disappear from view until spring.
If we look to the east, we will find new constellations popping up – Scorpio, who dominates our winter skies, and Sagittarius. Sitting right between Scorpio and Sagittarius is the start of the Milky Way, as it arches across the sky.
As we look high in the sky above us, we find the familiar Southern Cross. Something worth seeing in this vicinity is the globular cluster, Omega Centauri. As mentioned in previous articles, this cluster can be seen with the naked eye if you are in a dark area. Otherwise track it down with a pair of good binoculars. Well worth seeing!
Located west of the Southern Cross, Eta Carinae is easily the brightest star – and it falls within the large Carina Nebula, which can be seen with the naked eye. The Carina Nebula is four times as large as, and even brighter than, the famous Orion Nebula. Just below it is the Southern Pleiades – not to be confused with the other Pleiades called Matariki. Both are well worth seeing through binoculars.
To make star spotting easier, download an astronomy app on your phone. Google Skymap is fantastic for Android devices and Starwalk2 is great on your iPhone. For those on a laptop, by far the best app is Stellarium.
Winter is the best time of year to see the Milky Way. If you are in a dark area, it will be easy to see. If not, take a trip out to Shakespear Regional Park, which is pretty dark, and take a look up into the sky.