INSIDE THE ORIEN NEBULA: To find the Trapezium, look for the three stars in a row just left of centre of Orion (base of The Pot), then at about the same span at 4 o’clock, you will see the four fuzzy and powerful stars of the Trapezium that appear to be similar to our Southern Cross. This image reveals the extent of the massive, mainly hydrogen cloud, there. Photo R Villaverde, Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA

NOW into February the continuing changes in the night skies are obvious. From the west and northwest you may see Aries low down, then higher up comes Pleiades, or Matariki.

These stars are becoming much more distant now as we continue to move around the sun on the far side from these objects. Higher up is Taurus the bull, easily found as the giant star Aldebaran is the Bull’s left eye. He is taking a nap right now as his head is horizontal, with the horns extending out to the east.

Higher up and just in the edge of our end of the Milky Way is Orion the hunter, presently at the meridian and also known as the Pot. Giant red star Betelgeuse and another below, are Orion’s shoulders, then above is white giant Rigel and another star is Orion’s knees. In between are the three stars in a row representing Orion’s belt and then above is his sword, or the handle of the Pot pointing up to the right.

The Great Nebula lies within this constelation, the nearest nebula to Earth. It is mainly comprised of hydrogen, with a percentage of oxygen. It also contains all other main elements that make up these vast clouds of stellar molecules where giant stars have exploded, scattering their masses near and far. New stars generally recycle this material by gravitational attraction in the long process of their formation.

The current science has this nebula at 1350 light years distant, about 575 times the distance of our nearest star, Alpha Centauri, the outer pointer to The Southern Cross. The nebula is 30-to-40 light years across, 9.4 times to our nearest star, to give a comparison.

It is crammed with thousands of new stars with four larger ones in particular known as the trapezium right at its heart. The intense radiation and rapid movements have blasted a cavity there, clearing the way for nosey telescopes from Earth to have a very close look into this region. Astronomers are coming to the conclusion there may be a black hole in its centre because of the rapid motions of the nearby stars there.

Just above, to the right, is the brightest star, Sirius, Canis Major, the eye of the hunter’s dog, then lower down, star Procyon in Canis Minor, then Cancer, spanning the Ecliptic with the Beehive Cluster in the centre. Lower down still are the recognisable stars of Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini. Then, further in the east comes the bright giant star, Regulus, in Leo or the Sickle, once more returning to our night skies.

Over to the south now it is very easy to follow the band of the Milky Way from overhead and all the way down to the southeast horizon. Among these billions of stars there are many interesting objects. Just on our side of it is the False Cross and the giant 8000 light year distant Carina Nebula which is 300 light years wide. This nebula contains the unstable and closely monitored double star, Eta Carina.

Now rising is the Omega Centauri Globular Cluster that contains an estimated 10,000,000 stars. Higher up is the second brightest star, Canopus, which is also part of the Carina, the Keel, constellation. The Clouds of Magellan are positioned for great viewing now too as they and all else we see appear to circle the South Celestial Pole. The nearer the pole, the tighter the circle.

The objects in the region over to the southwest, moving away from the mainstream of the Milky Way has fewer stars, but you may be able to trace the meandering path of Eridanus, the river, which starts its journey at Rigel, in Orion, meandering all over the sky to end at Achernar, which is presently the prominent star in the southwest.

You have a much greater chance of picking out the trail of Eridanus if you live out in the country away from the curse of light pollution. The young triple star Fomalhaut is now setting in the southwest as well.

All the bright lights have been in the limelight lately, but it has been early morning when they put on quite a spectacle just before dawn over several days when there were no clouds. There were two main reasons for this. Earth is rising in its orbit in relation to the sun, while Venus is dropping a bit faster around the far side.

So this apparent movement resulted in our views showing the apparent line up of Venus and the much more distant Jupiter changing rather dramatically over the few days during the beginning of the last week of January.

The last quarter of the Moon joined the party too a couple of days later, resulting in the three brightest lights being visible in the pre-dawn skies in one go. I missed this due to cloudy mornings at the time.

Mars is the only naked-eye planet left in the evening skies at this time. Now rising at 12.08pm and much further away, out to 1.571 astronomical units right now and nowhere as prominent as it was last October.

By Norman Izett