Top 10 celestial sights to see from your backyard

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

From meteor shower to lunar eclipse, astronomer Perry Vlahos nominates the top 10 celestial sights in Victoria this summer, no telescope required.

RACV is there for you 24/7 whenever you're in need of help out on the road. We're always just a phone call away.


It’s exciting looking up at the night sky, especially in summer. Nights are warmer, skies clearer and many of us travel to the country away from the glare of city lights – the ideal location for stargazing.

The Pleiades, or 'seven sisters', in close-up through a telescope. Photo: Phil Hart
The Pleiades, or 'seven sisters', in close-up through a telescope. Photo: Phil Hart

Geminid Meteor Shower

14 to 15 December

Kick off summer with celestial fireworks – a meteor shower! Grain-of-sand-size particles, once part of a comet’s tail, burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, giving a spectacular light show. Expect around 25 to 30 meteors per hour at its peak observing from the country – half that from the suburbs. The best date is overnight on 14-15 December but there will be some the previous night, and the night after. Observe for at least an hour. Look towards the north-east after 11.30pm and through until dawn. There are few to begin with but numbers will grow steadily after midnight.

The Pleiades

Throughout December

What’s that Subaru badge all about, then? Well, it represents the Pleiades or ‘seven sisters’ – a group of young stars 420 light years away. ‘Suburu’ is the Japanese word for them. Found low in the north-eastern sky at this time of year like a small sparkling group of fireflies, they’re a magnet for the eyes and from a rural sky you’ll pick out six or seven. Every culture in the world has stories about them and they’re celestial celebrities – if we look closely, they’re probably wearing sunglasses!

The Southern Cross v Black Sabbath

Early December

When we think of the Southern Cross, it’s in the upright position high in the southern sky, resembling its appearance on our flag. At this time of year, however, an unusual and seldom-seen sight is on offer. If you’re by the coast and can look south over the sea, or at a flat inland location, look low to the southern horizon to be greeted by a celestial version of metal band Black Sabbath’s moniker – an upside-down cross with its head nearly touching the horizon. It will look eerie and wondrous at the same time.

The International Space Station (left) and Orion (right)
The International Space Station (left) and Orion (right)

International Space Station (ISS)

19 to 22 December

The ISS completes an orbit of Earth every 90 minutes, with a crew of six travelling at the fantastic speed of 27,600km/h. It’s been doing that since 1998, but many don’t realise you can observe some of these passes with the naked eye. It’s easy to see and can be brighter than the brightest stars. There are some good passes from 19 to 22 December. For the exact time, direction and brightness from anywhere in Australia, go to
heavens-above.com and put in your location – the nearest town or suburb is close enough – then click ‘ISS’.

Moonrise

Early January

There’s no argument, a moonrise beats a sunrise every time. It’s spooky, and majestic, watching our nearest neighbour slowly emerge over the eastern horizon. Best times are one to three days following the full moon. On Tuesday 2 January, begin your watch of the eastern horizon exactly at sunset (8.46pm). Find a flat eastern horizon – an east-facing beach is perfect. The next night, commence your vigil at 9.46pm. On Thursday 4 January, moonrise is at 10.36pm, and Friday 5 January at 11.15pm. If there are distant hills, the wait will be longer, so put on Van Morrison’s Moondance and relax while you wait.

Orion (The Saucepan)

Throughout summer

Orion is a superb constellation. From European latitudes, where it was created, its stars joined together make up a mythical hunter, complete with belt and a sword hanging from it. In the southern hemisphere, it’s upside down and easier to recognise as a ‘saucepan’. Locate three stars of even brightness in a straight line – this is the ‘belt’ or the bottom of the saucepan. In the handle of the saucepan is a fuzzy star which becomes an enormous cloud of gas in a telescope – a star-forming factory.

Phases of a lunar eclipse. Photo: Phil Hart
Phases of a lunar eclipse. Photo: Phil Hart

Sirius (The Dog Star)

Throughout summer

This time of year, look for the brightest object in the evening sky – other than the moon – and you’ll find Sirius, high in the eastern sky prior to midnight. It’s the brightest star in the sky, not to be confused with the planets Venus, Mars or Jupiter, which can all be brighter, however they’re absent from our evening sky this summer. Sirius is 8.7 light years away and has a white dwarf star as a companion that’s so dense, a teaspoonful of it weighs as much as an old W-class tram!

Iridium Flares

Throughout summer

One of the most astonishing sights in the night sky did not have that as its original intention. The 66 active Iridium satellites were launched for telephone communications. They’ve three door-sized highly reflective antennae panels, which at certain times reflect the sun’s light to Earth. If you’re in its path you see a faint moving light suddenly flare wildly in brightness, outshining everything in the night sky except the moon. Just don’t mistake them for UFOs. Go to heavens-above.com, put in your location and find out when the next one will occur.

Large and small magellanic clouds

Throughout summer

At public viewing nights, people always ask if they’ll see a galaxy. The truth is, if you’re away from city lights and look southward, you’ll see two with the naked eye. Halfway up from the horizon there’ll be two luminous clouds, like detached pieces of the Milky Way. They’re satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way – named for Magellan’s voyage that brought back news of their existence to Europeans. They’re self-contained galaxies containing billions of suns, the larger being 170,000 light years away, the smaller even further.

Total Lunar Eclipse

31 January

A total lunar eclipse is a striking experience. You’ll follow all the phases of the eclipse with your eyes alone, but binoculars or a telescope can add detail. Unlike a solar eclipse, you’ll not go blind from observing it. An eclipse of our nearest neighbour occurs when its orbit carries it into Earth’s shadow. If there’s a lot of dust in Earth’s atmosphere (from volcanic eruptions), we may see a ‘blood red moon’. The partial phase of the eclipse begins just before 11pm and totality before midnight. The Astronomical Society of Victoria will set up telescopes for the public to view the eclipse. Go to asv.org.au to find out more.


ON THE ROAD

The stars are always brighter away from city lights. If you’re on the road in country areas this summer, make sure your Emergency Roadside Assistance is up to date so we can help you if something unexpected happens.

Drop into our statewide network of RACV Shops for maps, guides, atlases and first aid kits.

Written by Perry Vlahos
November 30, 2017

You might also like...