Below Orion sits the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Owing much of its brilliance to its close proximity to our solar system (under 9 light years), Sirius is also twice the size of our sun and much hotter. It also has a close companion star which causes Sirius to wobble in its path through the Milky Way.
Saturn was ideal for viewing being quite high in the sky in mid evening, set against the constellation Gemini. Many of us saw the well known equatorial rings which give this massive gas giant of a planet such a distinct appearance. When you first look upon Saturn it is a thrill whether or not you have any further interest in astronomy – it is a must see experience! And, of course, it is the planet of the moment with the Cassini spacecraft relaying such glorious images during its close encounter with the planet, and then spawning its attendant probe, Huygens, to explore Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Recent scans of Titan’s north pole by Cassini indicate the presence of organic molecules, the stuff of life, but deep frozen and therefore incapable of delivering their biotic potential.
Finally there was a comet to see – Machholz. Discovered last year this pint sized lump of space debris loops through our Solar System on a highly eccentric orbit revealing itself to our view for a relatively brief spell when close passage to the sun causes the gases it contains to fluoresce. We found it riding high in the north western sky approximately 35 million miles from Earth, a smudge of light tracking away from Cassiopeia towards Cepheus.
This is a golden age for Astronomy with major discoveries about our Solar System, our Galaxy and the Universe snowballing in an unstoppable torrent of information at every measurable scale imaginable. Many of the discoveries will throw light on our own origins, and hopefully increase our respect for this planet’s remarkable capacity to spawn life as we know it. Looking at other, distant planets, stars and galaxies with your own eyes is humbling, and can be the first step in appreciating the scale and complexity of everything. If you want to learn more about astronomy you are very welcome to come along to the regular meetings of the Gwynedd Astronomical Society held on the first Thursday of every month at 7.30pm in the School of Informatics, Dean Street, Bangor – further information from Nigel Brown at Treborth Further joint meetings are likely to follow and will appear in the programme.