January: The Hunter and his dogs roam the summer sky

Full of interesting stellar matter, the Large Magellanic Cloud, incorporating the Tarantula Nebula and all the Globules, is 163,000 light-years from the Milky Way and is the fourth-largest galaxy in the Local Group. If the Tarantula Nebula was in the same region as Orion, it would cover a much larger part of the sky, as it is huge. Photo: MPAS member Nik Axaris

This month the constellation Orion is ideally placed high in the sky. While exploring it you will see the Orion Nebula, M42, a bright, deep-sky object lying north of the chain of three stars that make up Orion’s belt. The nebula is easily visible through binoculars and can be seen with the naked eye as a hazy patch.

Also seen with binoculars is the Large Magellanic Cloud in the constellation Dorado, where among its sparkling stars you will find the Tarantula Nebula, which appears to the naked eye as a glowing patch the size of the full moon from a dark sky location. Do not forget the Small Magellanic Cloud in Tucana either; it lies to the southwestern horizon this month, and its star fields and clusters can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope.

Sitting at the heels of Orion, the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog, is home to the brightest star of the entire night sky: Sirius, designated Alpha (α) Canis Majoris, and known as the ‘dog star’. Sirius is a brilliant white star with a magnitude of -1.4. Canis Major represents one of the two hunting dogs of Orion, the Hunter, which sits nearby. It is home to two fine open clusters: NGC 2362 and M41.

This month’s conjunctions, when two astronomical objects appear close to each other in the sky, include the moon and Venus on January 9, the moon and Saturn on January 14, and then the moon and Jupiter on January 19.

Also this month the Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society will be holding its Summer Series public stargazing nights each Friday at the MPAS Observatory at The Briars in Mount Martha. They start at 8pm with a multimedia talk and Q&A before moving outside to view the moon, planets, stars and clusters through a wide array of telescopes supplied by the society and members. Bookings are essential, so don’t miss out.

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