mid-winter report

Date: 27 July 1995

Location: 25 50 16 South, 27 28 52 East (Mountain Sanctuary Park, Magaliesberg)

17H40 I have read that sighting the crescent new moon is a religious experience. My data tells me that the moon follows the sun over the horizon within a minute just to the west. I slew restlessly, hoping to feel the spirit. However, the horizon is murky, with some stratus obscuring the setting sun, which I crossed more than once. That itself was a magical sight, the atmosphere making it simmer until it settled down for the night. However, no new moon was sighted. Well, I guess there is tomorrow night.

18H00 The first celestial object visible in the evening was the king of the planets, Jupiter, shining magnificently at mag -2.4 at the zenith. It was at maximum brightness to us earthly observers in June.

This is because our Earth caught up Jupiter, but now is speeding away. We will have to wait another year to get another good look.

The Galilean satellites are always exciting to see. Sometimes, you can see one of them crossing the face of that gas giant, throwing a pin-prick black shadow onto Jupiter.

My mind turned to poor Galileo, who died a miserable and lonely death at the hands of the Vatican for simply pointing out some blatantly obvious facts, which I take so much pleasure at viewing. My first sighting of these moons of Jupiter through binoculars was what sparked my passion for astronomy, which I must confess hasn't subdued.

18H30 After a routine two star alignment on the heart of the Scorpion, Antares and then Arcturus, it was off to the nose of the giraffe. Acrux. This is a sparkling double of mags. 1.3 and 1.7 only 520 l.y. away. I call it the nose of the giraffe since I have good reason to believe that the Bushmen called it that. Its quite easy to see: the giraffe the sticks its head up if the summer evenings and takes a dive in the winter. This consists of what is know as the southern cross, which forms the head, and the pointers, Alpha and Beta Centuri forming the neck.

The multi-coloured Jewel Box lies in the giraffes mouth. This is a cluster of stars as varying age, and therefore varying colour, which never fails to impress visitors.

19H00 It was time to get the Potjie on the go: Ox-tail, Sweet Potato, Carrots, and a good splash of the grape !

20H15 An earnest start was made to exploring the winter constellations. The Centaur, CENTAURUS, is a large and rich constellation representing a mythical half man, half horse creature. First POC was our nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centuri. This is also one of the pointers for the southern cross (to most) or giraffe (to me and the long obliterated Bushmen). This helps you find the south. This lies 4.3 light years away and shine at mag -0.27, the third brightest star. A squiz through the view finder reveals that it is in fact a pair of stars, that orbit each other every 80 years. An in fact, there is a third force to this pair. Proxima Centauri, a bit away, orbits this pair every million years and is a flare star, which suddenly get brighter for a few minutes every now and again.

Omega Centauri was considered a star on early charts, but in fact is the largest and brightest globular cluster of stars in the sky. These are simply a stars that have clustered together through gravity and can number up to several million. They are a stunning sight through the telescope but to the naked eye are a softly glowing patch of light.

NGC5128 was my first extra-galactical visit. Only 15 million l.y. away, it is described as a peculiar galaxy that has the form of a giant ellipse that apparently is a result of a merger between an elliptical and a spiral galaxy. However, all you see through the viewfinder is a smudge of light, and even that takes doing. It takes a while to see the form, and after a couple of minutes, the dark encircling band of dust was visible.

Last POC in with the Centaur was the Blue Planetary. This is a planetary nebula, which is a shell of gas thrown off by a dying star in an explosion. It gets its colour from its chemical composition, excited by radiation from the star.

10H00 The Potjie has shown distinct sign of being edible. Which provided sustenance for the next leg: It was back to Jupiter to see how the satellites where doing and to see wether I could spot the spot, that's the Great Red Spot the size of the Earth, but no luck so on to the Scorpion, who's tail rests in the Milky Way.

The heart of Scorpius is a red super-giant star called Antares. With a diameter of 400x that of our Sun, it the most prominent star in that constellation. Stars, like most other forms of life and matter, live and die. If, and when, a star becomes a red giant, it is in the autumn years of its life: burning its final supplied of hydrogen and helium in an all-consuming fire. When our mid-life sun enters this phase, all life on earth (if there is any left by then) with certainly be scorched out of existence.

The Archer, Sagittarius is a large constellation with some rich viewing. The Lagoon & Trifid Nebula (NGC 6533) are clouds of gas which are illuminated by the stars that fire up into existence within them.

Stars start of when, by virtue of gravitational attraction, Hydrogen gas molecules condense together. As a result a nuclear fusion fire starts, and heavier elements are synthesized, Eventually, the star runs out of fuel and a number of things can happen. But that's another story. One only sees a monochrome version of these nebulas: it takes a time exposure to see the colours. But fortunately, I had some gif's on-line to supplement my imagination.

Sagittarius is a half man, half beast, archer who is trying to take out Scorpio by an arrow pointed at its heart. The center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, lies in the vicinity of Sagittarius.

04H44 Saturn has risen and the Potjie still tastes good! Its quite bright but its are absent. Because Saturn's axis is tilted @ 29 degrees, those rings that make that planet such a beautiful sight, disappear as we see them edge-on. This happens about every 15 years. I just manage to catch a glimpse of the rings since they will disappear completely on the 11 August and again on the 12th February. In Greek mythology, Saturn was a horrible old man who ate children. Ancient astronomers with antique telescopes didn't have as good a view of the rings as I did, and mistakenly identified the rings as moons, which disappeared every now and again, therefore cunningly naming it "Saturn". Talking of moons, Saturn has lots. At least 18, possibly 20, since recently, with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), checking out the rings when they where edge on the first time on May 22nd this year, astronomers identified two more moons hidden in its rings. Titan is Saturn's most interesting moon: its larger than Mercury and the only moon to have a substantial and dynamic atmosphere.

04H51 The quietness of the early morning is a most pleasant time for a good galactic surf. Capricornus, The Sea Goat, is home to M30, a Globular Cluster, highly resolved, meaning that you can see it quite clearly. Globulars can be found all over the place, thought my favourite is a Southern Hemisphere treat, 47 Tucane, which lies off the Small Magellanic Cloud in the constellation Tucana.

04H56 Moving on to Aquarius, The Water Carrier, I chanced upon The Saturn Nebula (NGC7009). only 3000 l.y. away. It only appeared as a blue-green ellipse, magnitude 8 and I am sure would look a lot more like Saturn with a larger telescope.

05H10 Cetus: The Whale is an ancient constellation depicting the sea monster that threatened to devour Andromeda before she was rescued by Perseus. It is full of stars with Arabic names such Menkar, Deneb and Mira ( the amazing one'), which is 50 l.y. away and is a red giant of variable brightness. This goes from 3rd Magnitude to 9th Mag in an average of 332 days, changing in diameter from 300 to 400 times the size of the Sun as it does so. It was the first variable start to be discovered, by a Dutchman in 1596.

05H17 M77, a face-on spiral galaxy in Cetus was a magnificent sight. It is 9th-mag. and lies about 50 million l.y. away. It is classified as a Seyert galaxy, a type of spiral with a brilliant nucleus. It is also a radio source.

05H33 It was on to Dorado, The Goldfish, which contains the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). This is mini-galaxy which hangs off the Milky Way and is part of our Local Group. It is close enough (169 000 l.y.) that we can see nebulae in it, such as the Tarantula Nebula. This is a looping cloud of hydrogen gas about 1000 l.y. in diameter, the shape of which gives it its name. At its centre is a cluster of supergiant stars, the light from which makes the nebula glow. The tarantula is larger than any nebula in the Milky Way: if it where as close to us as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula would fill the whole constellation of Orion, and would cast shadows to us earthlings.

05H52 Sculptor: The Industrial Revolution certainly had a negative effect on astronomer's imaginations: that boring Frenchman Lacaille couldn't think of anything better than to name this constellation after a Sculptor's studio in the 1750's. He survey the southern skies from Cape Town, and came up with all his boring names for 'un-named' constellations like Horologium, Microscopium, Telescopium, etc. It was typical of the western arrogance of that period.

IMHO, to pay homage and respect to the mass slaughtering of the San by Lacaille's generation of colonial murderers and plunders, these constellations should be renamed, using the many creatures that the San had been using in their mythology for 1000's of years.

This constellation contains the Southern Celestial Pole, which lies 90 deg. from the Milky Way. A spectacular 7th Mag. spiral galaxy 9 million l.y. away, NGC 253, seen edge on, filled the view finder and was the last stop for the morning.