February: Sirius and Canopus a bright sight for your eyes

NGC 2359 is an emission nebula 12,000 light-years away in Canis Major. It’s also known as Thor’s Helmet, given its similarity in shape to the Norse god’s famous headwear. A large, bright and extremely hot star thought to be in a brief pre-supernova stage near the helmet’s centre has created this interstellar bubble by the force of its stellar wind. Photo: MPAS member Nik Axaris

Observing the southern skies this month you will find two stellar beacons shining away high in the sky. These are the two brightest stars in the night sky: Sirius and Canopus. And two stunning constellations, Crux, the Southern Cross, and Centaurus, the Centaur, are also visible. A little way above them you will find the deceptive False Cross, sometimes mistaken for the true Southern Cross. The False Cross is formed by four stars in Vela and Carina.

Still looking south, you can find the South Celestial Pole by intersecting two imaginary lines: one an extension of the long axis of Crux, and the other at a right angle to the line joining the two pointer stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri.

This is a good time to observe and admire the rich star fields of the Milky Way. To scan these stars you only need your eyes or a pair of binoculars. Look out for the Milky Way running through the constellations Crux, Centaurus, Musca and Carina in the east. Be sure to observe the Coalsack Nebula, a distinctive dark patch close to the stars of Crux. This dark nebula is a cloud of dust and gas about 600 light-years away. Also look for an open cluster in the constellation Carina known to astronomers as the Southern Pleiades (IC2602). It is visible to the naked eye, but binoculars show it twinkling away.

The constellation Puppis, the Stern, sits just north of the bright star Canopus and is wedged between the constellations Vela, Carina and Canis Major. Puppis is home to the open star clusters M46 and M47, which can be seen with a pair of binoculars.

The Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society will again be holding its Musical Trivia Stargazing night on Saturday, February 17, at the Mount Martha Observatory at The Briars. The event includes live music from the Cranbourne Lions Concert Band, a fundraising sausage sizzle, trivia quiz, and of course stargazing through the telescopes. Kids under 16 are free. Visit the website to book now.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the February 2024 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.