Rug up and look up.
That’s the message from Tasmanian astronomer Martin George, as July presents an exciting time to appreciate the night sky.
Those brave enough to don a coat and head away from the city lights will be offered a smorgasbord of planets, stars and satellites — as well as the longest lunar eclipse in a century on the morning of July 28.
“It’s a wonderful time for looking up to the night sky because right now in the evenings all five naked-eye planets are visible all at the same time,” Mr George said.
“When I say naked-eye planets, I mean the planets known to the ancients, the ones you can see without optical aid — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.”
From left to right, or west to east, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars are strung across the sky.
“Mars is looking especially bright right now, and at the end of the month it’ll be the closest it’s been to us since 2003,” Mr George said.
If you’re not sure which planet or star you’re looking at, he suggested using smartphone apps that act like a GPS for the night sky.
“Even if you haven’t got that, it’s easy to pick out at least three of these planets because they are much brighter than the stars.”
Historic lunar eclipse on the way
On the morning of July 28, the Moon will pass into Earth’s shadow, creating a total eclipse.
“It’s going to be the longest total eclipse of the Moon for the next 105 years,” said Mr George from Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.
The partial eclipse will start at 4.24am (AEST) before going into totality about 5.30am.
“That’s when the Moon goes into the Earth’s shadow in space and completely within the shadow,” he said.
It will stay eclipsed until almost sunrise.
Unlike a solar eclipse, lunar eclipses are safe to look at with the naked eye.
“It’s never dangerous to look at the Moon,” Mr George said.
“It’s exciting to look at it with a pair of binoculars.”
Appreciating the Milky Way
Mr George said as the Moon rises later in the evening this month, it will create perfect conditions to fully appreciate the Milky Way.
“If you can get out of the nasty city lights, it’s even better. For the best view of the Milky Way, you need to be in the outer suburbs or out in the country.
“We’re really lucky here in the Southern Hemisphere because we actually have the best view of the Milky Way.
“In the Northern Hemisphere they can see it, but they aren’t seeing the most exciting part of it.
“It’s during those winter and early spring months we get that fantastic view.”
Keep your eyes peeled for satellites and meteors
There are thousands of satellites orbiting Earth and they can often be spotted in the night sky.
Mr George said his personal record was spying 24 satellites in one night.
“The best time is from the late twilight onwards, because that’s when the satellites have the sun shining on them and we don’t, so they show up fairly well.
“There are indeed thousands of them up there, but they have to be in the right spot at the right time.
“Some of them are actually rocket fragments that are still in orbit around the Earth, some of them are dead satellites, and there are some that have been up there since the 1960s that are still regularly going around and around.
“It’s amazing how much stuff we put up there, and there’s so much space junk up there as well.”
Mr George said from time to time space junk re-entered the atmosphere and burned up.
“Most of the objects you see in the sky that we call shooting stars are not stars at all, they are meteors,” he said.
He said most were no bigger than the size of a small fingernail.
It is possible to see five or six in an hour.
“If you want to see meteors, you can see lots of those especially on nights when the Moon isn’t out,” he said.