Some clear skies towards the end of December meant astrophotographer Rob Nolan finally managed to capture a much-wanted Christmas tree
A belated Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all you avid astronomers out there – and congratulations on another successful full orbit around our Sun!
Did you know, it takes 365 days for our Earth to orbit our Sun (a calendar year), but that a galactic year (the time it takes for our Sun to complete one full orbit around the galactic centre of our Milky Way galaxy) takes 250 million years. This means the last time our solar system was hurtling at 514,000 mph through this exact part of space, the dinosaurs walked the Earth.
I find that mind-blowing!
I had hoped to share this month’s image in the build up to Christmas, but alas, I was only able to capture it a week before Christmas Day. This is the very aptly named NGC 2264 Cone Nebula, also known as the Christmas Tree Cluster. For the very obvious reason that it looks quite like a Christmas Tree in certain orientations. For this image I chose to deviate from any standard colour palettes, so please forgive the artistic licence with these green and brown tones. But for the festive season I really wanted to isolate the tree structure from the rest of the nebula.
All of the objects within this cluster are located in the Monoceros constellation around 2,300 light years from Earth. Due to its relative proximity and large size, it has been extremely well studied.
Astronomer William Herschel discovered the cluster itself in January 1784, and then went on to locate a section of the glowing cloud about two years later at Christmas time.
This image was captured with the Skywatcher 190-MN Maksutov Newtonian Telescope and the ZWO asi2600mm Pro Astro camera with narrowband filters. That’s right, folks (look away now, anyone who’s not already in the hobby), I’ve gone mono! Its been quite a learning curve with the very few clear skies we’ve enjoyed since I acquired the camera, but its already producing fantastic results!
The night sky, January 2023 – Rob’s guide for your stargazing this month:
There is only one object that everyone is excited about this month – a brand new comet for us to observe in the night sky for the next few months. There’s talk of it being visible with the naked eye! It might not be quite as spectacular as Comet Neowise back in 2020, but it will pass us by much closer and it will have a tail we can see. Initial observations identified the object as an asteroid but subsequent observations revealed a very condensed coma. This indicated that the object was in fact a comet.
Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was spotted as a very faint 17.3 magnitude smudge in the constellation of Aquilla. The 1.2m telescope at Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) is ordained with the comet’s discovery. What is remarkable about this comet is that it last appeared in our skies 50,000 years ago, when Neanderthals roamed the Earth. If our ancestors did see it, I wonder what they thought it might be – this strange new object above their heads? C/2022 E3 will pass within 26 million miles of Earth on 1st February, at which point it should be visible to the naked eye. Look towards the constellations Draco and Ursa Minor for a faint smudge as it transits across the sky.
No prizes for guessing what I’ll be trying to capture for next month’s edition!
In other planetary news…
Orion, one of my favourite constellations, stands out this month as it’s been steadily rising earlier and higher in our night sky throughout December. Orion’s Belt is easy to spot, made up of the bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, which are more than 1,200 light years away. Despite the large distance, these stars appear so bright to us because they outshine our own Sun by 200,000 times.
Look carefully below the Belt to spot a faint patch of light representing Orion’s sword. This is the great Orion Nebula, a hugely beautiful structure of incandescent gas, 24 light years in diameter. At the heart of the nebula is a birth-place of new stars, created from a dark cloud of dust and gas.
Other spectacular shows in our night sky this month include the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
If you are keen on spying the planets in our local neighbourhood, take a stroll out at dusk on 23rd January and look low towards the south west to see the thinnest crescent Moon in formation with Venus, the evening star, and fainter Saturn.
On 25th January, Jupiter appears above the crescent Moon, superceded by Mars on the 30th which will lie above the Moon with the star Aldebaran to the left and the beautiful Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) to the lower right.