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Corona Australis is one of the original 48 constellations charted by Ptolemy and has endured to become a part of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Corona Australis – the “Southern Crown” – is the counterpart to Corona Borealis – the “Northern Crown”. It is a small, faint constellation that has no bright stars, consists of 6 primary stars and contains 14 stellar members with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It is bordered by the constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius, Ara and Telescopium. Corona Australis is visible at latitudes between +40° and ?90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of August. There is one meteor shower associated with Corona Australis – the Corona-Australids which peak on or about March 16 each year and are active between March 14th through the 18th. The fall rate is minimal, with an average of about 5 to 7 per hour.
To the ancient Greeks, this constellation wasn’t seen as a crown – but a laurel wreath. According to some myths, Dionysus was also supposed to have place a wreath of myrtle leaves as a gift to his dead mother into the underworld as well. Either way, this small circlet of dim stars definitely has the appearance of a wreath – or crown – and belongs to legend!
Let’s start with binoculars and a look at Alpha Coronae Australis – the only star in the constellation to have a proper name. Called Alfecca Meridiana – or “the sixth star in the river Turtle”, Alpha is a spectral class A2V about 160 light years from Earth. Alfecca Meridiana is a fast rotator, spinning at least at 180 kilometers per second at its equator, 90 times faster than our Sun and making a full rotation in about 18 hours. Even more interesting, Alpha is a Vega-like star… pouring out excess infrared radiation that appears to be coming from a surrounding disk of cool dust. Just what does that mean? It means that Alfecca Meridiana could possibly have a planetary system!
Now have a look at Beta. Although this orange class K (K0) giant star is rather ordinary, where it’s at is not. It’s sitting on the edge of the Corona Australis Molecular Cloud, a dusty, dark star-forming region which contains huge amounts of nebulae. While Beta does seem pretty plain, it is almost 5 times larger than our Sun and 730 times brighter. Not bad for a star that’s about a hundred million years old!
Now, take a look at a really bizarre star – Epsilon Coronae Australis. At a distance of 98 light years, there doesn’t seem to be much going on with this fifth magnitude, faint stellar point, but there is. That’s because Epsilon isn’t one star – but two. Epsilon is an eclipsing binary with two very similar eclipses that take place within an orbital period of 0.5914264 days, as first a faint star passes in front of the bright one that gives us 95 or so percent of the light, and then the bright one passes in front of the fainter. So what does that mean? It means that if you sit right there at watch, you can see the changes in less than 7 hours. While watching for hours for a half magnitude drop might not seem like your cup of tea, think about what you’re watching…. These two stars are actually contacting each other as they go by! Can you imagine stars spinning so fast that they produce huge amounts of magnetic activity and dark starspots that also add to the variation as they swing in and out of view? Sharing mass and pulling at each other in just a matter of hours? Now that’s a show worth watching…
Now try variable star R Coronae Borealis (RA 19 53 65 Dec -36 57 97). Here we have another unusual one – a “Herbig Ae/Be” pre-main sequence star. The star is an irregular variable with more frequent outbursts during times of greater average brightness, but it also has a long-term periodic variation of about 1,500 days and about 1/2 magnitude that may be linked to changes in its circumstellar shell, rather than to stellar pulsations. Although R Coronae Australis is 40 times brighter than Sol, and about 2 to 10 times larger, most of its stellar luminosity is obscured because the star is still accreting matter. Protoplanetary bodies? Maybe!
Keep your binoculars handy and get out the telescope as we start deep sky first with NGC 6541. Also known as Caldwell 78 and Bennett 104, this beautiful 6th magnitude globular cluster was first discovered by N. Cacciatore on March 19, 1826. It belongs in our Milky Way galaxy’s inner halo structure and it is rather metal poor in structure – but beautifully resolved in a telescope. In binoculars, this splendid southern sky study will appear as a large faint globular with a bright star to the northeast.
Now head for the telescope and NGC 6496 (RA 17 59 0 Dec -44 16). At right around magnitude 9, this globular cluster also has a bonus nebula attached to it. Collectively known as Bennett 100, Dreyer described it as a “nebula plus cluster” but it will take dark skies to make out both. Look for 5th magnitude star SAO 228562 that accompanies it. In a small telescope, only a hazy, faint patch can be seen, but larger aperture does get some resolution.
Try emission/reflection nebula NGC 6729 (RA 19 01 55 Dec -36 57 30) next. In a wide field, you can place NGC 6726, NGC 6727, NGC 6729 and the double star BSO 14 in the same eyepiece. The three nebulae NGC 6726-27, and NGC 6729 were discovered by Johann Friedrich Julius Schmidt, during his observations at Athen Observatory in 1861. The nebula are very faint and almost comet-like in appearance and the double star is easily split. Don’t forget to mark your notes as having captured Caldwell 68!