Return of the core

This image was taken from the Mount John Observatory at Mount John on the morning of February 4.
This image was taken from the Mount John Observatory at Mount John on the morning of February 4.
For the first part of this year, Sky Watch columnist Ian Griffin will be spending four nights per month at the University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory above Lake Tekapo.

Ian Griffin
Ian Griffin
I'm taking leave from my day job at Otago Museum to work on an outreach project, the aim of which is to use one of the telescopes to obtain high-quality pictures of some of the most stunning celestial objects in the southern sky. My first ''run'' on the telescope took place last weekend, and I have to say that the results are already pretty exciting.

Photographing distant astronomical targets through a large telescope is always fascinating. However, one of the greatest pleasures of an observing run at Mount John is not using the telescopes. It is actually being able to leave the telescope dome between exposures and gaze at the truly exceptional Mackenzie Country sky.

At around 4am on my last night at the observatory, feeling sad that my time on the mountain was coming to an end, I stepped outside for a final look at the heavens. Almost instantly my eyes were drawn to an incredible scene in the east, where Venus was just clearing the horizon.

Despite its low altitude, Venus was absolutely stunning; a bright blue-white point of light appearing so bright that I was convinced it was casting shadows. Above Venus, Jupiter was also prominent. Its bright yellow-white colour making it stand out from the background sky.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that Venus and Jupiter had a truly remarkable backdrop; they were almost directly in front of the galactic core, the central part of the Milky Way galaxy.

The contrast of bright planets with amazingly complex distant dark dust clouds was completely absorbing.

As any experienced stargazer knows, the galactic core is high overhead in winter, but is hidden by the sunset in October, re-emerging in the morning sky at this time of year.

If you do anything in the next week, please do consider getting up before dawn and casting your gaze to the east. You certainly won't regret it.

 

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