NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org
NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

What's Up in Space

This Weekend’s Night Sky (1-2 November 2014)

In celebration of Halloween we are taking a look at some spooky objects in the night sky this weekend.

Halloween is actually an astronomical event. It is based on the ancient Celtic and Druid festival of Samhain, and marks one of four “cross-quarter dates”, half way between the equinox and the solstice. Whilst the true cross-quarter date is actually 7 November, tradition has fixed the 31 October as the date on which Halloween is celebrated today.

Spooky red Mars is still holding its position midway up our western evening sky this weekend as the stars slip westwards behind it. The name Mars comes from the Roman god of war, but many other cultures across the world have also long associated the planet with fire, war, death and destruction because of its red colour.

Mars has two small potato shaped moons called Phobos (panic/fear) and Deimos (terror/dread), which we think are captured asteroids. In Greek mythology Phobos and Deimos are the sons of Ares, the Greek counterpart of Mars, and accompanied their father into battle.

In the southern sky you may be able to spot two small fuzzy patches of light, easily seen with the naked eye on a dark, moonless night. These are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC), two small irregular dwarf galaxies that neighbour our own. With a first quarter moon this weekend they will be easier to spot in the early hours of the morning once the Moon has set.

The LMC is home to one of the largest and brightest star formation regions known, called the Tarantula nebula or 30 Doradus. The Tarantula nebula contains over 800,000 stars and protostars and is the most active starburst region identified within our local group of galaxies. If it were placed at the same distance as the Orion Nebula it would be so bright that it would cast a shadow here on Earth.

As Scorpius, Mars and Sagittarius set in the west, Orion rises in the east. To the bottom right of this constellation is the bright red star Betelgeuse, the ninth brightest star in the night sky. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, a massive star that is coming to the end of its life, and one day soon will explode in a massive supernova (soon to astronomers could be millions of years) . With its red colour, Betelgeuse has also often been associated death and destruction and in many parts of the Americas represents the severed limb of a man, represented by Orion.

Close to the top left star in the constellation, Rigel, is IC 2118, a very faint reflection nebula thought to be the remnant of a supernova explosion, although you would need at least a 30 cm telescope and really great skies to observe it. This is known as the Witch Head Nebula because of its spooky shape.

Photo of

the Witch Head Nebula

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