Moon meets Matariki in Taurus

The first quarter moon occurs tomorrow at 4 am. For the next week, Earth’s natural satellite will be entering its waxing gibbous phase, its bright light illuminating the sky for the greater part of the night. In passing, I note that gibbous is one of those words that only ever seems to be used about the moon. Derived from the Latin word gibbus meaning “hump”, a gibbous moon is the part of the month when the illuminated part is greater than a semi-circle but not all the way full.

At sunset on Monday ( January 30) the 67%-illuminated moon will be hanging low in the northern sky, some twenty degrees above the horizon. The moon is passing through the constellation Taurus, one of the most storied zodiacal constellations. There are many classical myths about what this constellation represents. One of my favourites is that Taurus represents Io, an illicit mortal lover of Zeus, king of the gods. According to one legend I have read, Zeus turned Io into a heifer to hide her from his wife Hera.

As the sky darkens, stargazers have a real treat to look forward to on Monday. That is because the moon will be very close to the Pleiades (known as Matariki to Maori). The distinctive star group will be less than two degrees below the moon. Owners of binoculars should be able to pick out at least a dozen members of the cluster despite the bright moonlight.

Taurus is a fascinating region of the sky which is made even more interesting than usual at the moment thanks to the presence of Mars within the constellation’s boundaries. The red planet will be very easy to see above and to the right of the moon as the sky darkens. Do not confuse Mars with the similarly coloured Aldebaran. Aldebaran is the brightest star in Taurus. Mars is, by far, the brighter of the two. While Mars is just seven light minutes away Aldebaran is, at some 66 light years away, far further from Earth.