Stargazing is a wonderful nighttime activity, and if you don’t have a telescope or binoculars, don’t let that dampen your stargazing aspirations! We’ve assembled for you the best cosmic naked eye objects that don’t require any equipment, so you can still marvel at the splendid celestial views.
The best time to see these objects is typically 8.30pm – 9.30pm throughout December.
Sirius, brightest star in the sky
Look directly to the east: the brightest star you’ll see is Sirius. Its name means glowing or burning in Greek. Because it’s so bright and pretty, it’s an easy naked-eye object to find!
Sirius is technically a binary star system, but it’s so bright, in part, because it’s only eight-and-a-half light-years away. The main star is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times brighter.
Constellation: Orion, the hunter
Orion is a famous summer constellation and easy to spot. Look to the east and spot Sirius, the brightest star; directly to the left of Sirius is the constellation of Orion, commonly known as the ‘Saucepan’. Three bright stars in a reasonably straight line make up the base, with a handle sticking out at the top right.
Astronomer Ray Norris says “There are many stories about the Orion constellation right across Australia, and they are nearly always about a group of men hunting or fishing.”
the Orion constellation, image credit: Jillian Carlson
Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star
Betelgeuse is a very large, bright star within Orion and lies just under ‘the Saucepan’. It’s easy to distinguish because of its reddish hue. Betelgeuse is so huge that if it were positioned where our Sun is, it would reach all the way out to Jupiter.
Some astronomers think Betelgeuse might soon explode in a supernova, but it’s end could still be tens of thousands of years away. Either way, when it does go bang, it will be as bright as the full moon.
Constellation: Taurus, the bull
In Greek mythology, Taurus is associated with the god Zeus, who changed himself into a beautiful white bull to ‘win’ the affections of Europa.
The Pleiades star cluster
This pretty open star cluster is a popular naked-eye object more commonly known as the Seven Sisters, and it’s actually formed of more than 800 stars! However, most people manage only to see 5 or 6 stars under dark skies. It lies just to the left of Taurus the Bull.
In Wajarri Aboriginal traditions of Western Australia, the Pleiades are called Nyarluwarri. As told by Olive Boddington, Wajarri Elder: “When you look up at the Seven Sisters, you will see them very clearly: only one is always dull. The dull one is the one the old man is trying to catch, but the six sisters are calling to her, telling her to hurry and stay close to them.”
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds
These stunning clouds of stars are two galaxies orbiting our Milky Way Galaxy. They look like two faint clouds from Earth, one larger than the other, and form a splendid spectacle. Lying in the southern sky, you can see them clearly under dark skies.
The ‘clouds’ are named for the 19th-century Portuguese coloniser Ferdinand Magellan, but they’ve been observed by the world’s first astronomers for millennia before Europeans.
We all can spot the Moon easily enough, but it is worth taking note of its phases. This makes for an interesting observation over its orbit of Earth taking a period of 29.5 days (it takes 27.3 days to complete a revolution, but 29.5 days to change from New Moon to New Moon).
The moon often has close encounters (known as ‘appulses’ or ‘conjunctions’) with bright planets which makes for some more special views, including a conjunction with Venus on 10 December.
Where are the best places to see the night sky?
You’ll need a nice dark sky location and there are some super suggestions on the Astrotourism WA website.
Donna, at Beam Me Up Media, is aiming to produce a television series featuring the amazing places and characters making WA the go-to destination for space science and stargazing.