Sky Matters: Looking ahead to the night skies of 2017

THERE was a lot of talk about “supermoons” in 2016, a phenomenon which happens when the full moon happens to coincide with the moon being closer to the earth in its non-circular orbit.

Not to be outdone, there will be a “supersun” of sorts on January 4, when the distance between the earth and sun is at its minimum for the year. Known as “perihelion”, the Sun will be about 3% brighter than it will be in July, when it is farthest from the Earth.

This 3% difference is measurable, but you won’t really notice it and of course NEVER look at Sun directly as permanent damage to your eyes can be caused in an instant.

We can at least comfort ourselves in the knowledge that perihelion happens during our northern hemisphere winter, which warms us up ever so slightly (even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it!)

The constellation of Orion remains prominent throughout the night with its characteristic three stars forming the belt of the Hunter. Follow these upwards to your right and you will come across the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, with its bright red star Aldebaran marking the eye of the Bull.

If you look carefully you’ll see that Aldebaran is part of a V-shaped configuration of stars — these are called the Hyades and the stars are young, having all formed at roughly the same time about 625m years ago. Aldebaran is actually not part of the Hyades, being much closer at only 65 light years, and it is also a much older star that is nearing the end of its lifetime.

Interestingly, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft launched in 1972 is currently coasting towards Aldebaran and will pass the general vicinity of the star in about 10m years’ time.

Unfortunately, it won’t return any data and in any case we might expect it will be overtaken by new generations of spacecraft using new technologies yet to be developed!

Taurus is remarkable for hosting an object called the Crab Nebula, the remnants of an exploded star which was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054.

The name was coined by the Third Earl of Rosse using his 36in telescope in Birr in Co Offaly in the late 19th century and it has stuck ever since. We now refer to exploding stars like this as “supernovae” and while the Crab is not visible to the naked eye, it can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope as a faint fuzzy patch. A finding chart can be found at or via the online edition of the Irish Examiner.

Following the line from Orion’s belt through Aldebaran and upwards you will come to the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. They are a really stand-out grouping of stars which are best viewed with binoculars. The first meteor shower of 2017 runs from January 1 to 5, with a peak on the night of January 3 and the morning of January 4. Known as the Quadrantids, this shower produces up to 40 meteors per hour at its peak and is best viewed with just your eyes.

Look anywhere in the sky to see the Quadrantids and enjoy whatever the cosmos has in store on this occasion!

Did you know?

The energy needed to keep the Sun shining is equivalent to 100bn nuclear explosions every second. And our sun is just one of 100,000m somewhat similar stars in our galaxy, with at least that many other galaxies in the Universe. That’s a lot of nuclear explosions!


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