Monday, February 7 – Tonight let’s start with a wonderful binocular or low power richfield telescope object. Located just east of the Cassiopeia border into Camelopardalis is a beautiful chain of around 20 colorful stars that stretch over five moon widths across the sky. This delightful asterism of stellar jewels was made popular by amateur astronomer Lucian Kemble, and are known in his memory as “Kemble’s Cascade”. Although the stars are really not related to one another, they create an outstandingly picturesque image with the stars in a line and tiny open cluster NGC 1502 connected to the end.
Now that we’ve got a “line” let’s get out the scopes and go fishing in Pisces tonight! We’re heading for Gamma Arietis, and drawing a mental line between it and Eta. Approximately two-thirds of the way is the spectacular M74. This is a by-gosh spiral galaxy! Its “rolled” structure becomes immediately apparent in mid to large telescopes. The outstanding core area is intense and the arms twist away from it quite tightly. It sports several areas of bright clusters/nebulosity – and as it twists away into space, two lovely spiral arms reach right out and wrap themselves around it. Very similar the “Whirlpool” (M51), the “galactic stuff” wisps away at the edges where several bright stars play the field with it. This is one exceptionally pretty galaxy!
Tuesday, February 8 – Hey, hey, hey… It’s “Fat Tuesday”! Why not begin the day by scoring a binocular trophy? You’ll find that Mars is wonderfully positioned between the M20 and M8! Even the skies will be celebrating tonight as the Moon officially goes new at 12:12 UT. Since we will have dark skies for the next couple of days, let’s do some challenge studies!
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Tonight we’ll be hunting that “wascally wabbit” Lepus. One of the finest pieces of work in this area is our previous study – globular cluster, M79. It is not the most brilliant of small globulars that I have seen, but at higher magnification in larger scopes the outer stars begin to resolve, making it quite pretty. Another faint fuzzy to be found in Lepus is spiral galaxy, NGC 1964. Again, not the most awe inspiring one I’ve ever traveled to, but with patience and steady sky, some brightenings around the outer edge of the central structure begin to show making it worth the hunt! Also take the time to re-visit R Leporis – Hind’s “Crimson Star”. It sits below Rigel and is a very deep red like Mu Cephii.
As the skies move westward, we head next to Canis Major. By locating Beta, this galaxy drop is fairly simple by continuing on a basic southern trajectory working the “fall line” one field of view at a time from west to east. Use mid-range magnification as you move between Beta and Theta, then power up as you locate each one. The NGC 2207 and IC 2163 is an interesting double spiral galaxy complex for large scopes. While the results are far from a Hubble picture, it is possible with aperture to make out two brightened galactic cores whose outer regions overlap making it a most curious region to explore and well worth the hunt! The NGC 2223 is next along the line, and is also a spiral galaxy. There is a subtle hint of a core region, but for the most part this galaxy is evenly distributed with just the faintest indications of spiral structure at the outer edges. Continuing south will find the NGC 2217 – a somewhat brighter spiral galaxy that appears under higher magnification to have a halo surrounding it. Now for a jump back to Sirius (but don’t look at it!) and drop south below the binocular target – M41. The last of the galaxy hunt in Canis Major is tiny spiral, NGC 2280. Set in a delightfully rich field of stars, this shy oval of galactic “stuff” reveals only the faintest hint of an arm during excellent seeing conditions.
Wednesday, February 9 – Today is not only the 5th Anniversary of the STARDUST Launch, but Chinese “New Year” as well! Let’s celebrate it and dark skies by heading into more new studies.
The challenge to the Cetus field is not so much finding these objects as it is having the correct sky to see them. Heading to Diphda, we’re ready to drop down for galaxy study number one: the NGC 247. A very definite spiral galaxy with an intense “stellar” nucleus! Sitting right up in the eyepiece as a delightful oval, the NGC 247 is has a very proper galaxy structure with a defined core area and a concentration that slowly disperses toward its boundaries with one well-defined dark dust lane helping to enhance a spiral arm. Most entertaining! Continuing “down” we move on to the NGC 253. Talk about bright! Very few galactic studies come in this magnitude (small scopes will pick it up very well, but it requires large aperture to study structure.) Very elongated and hazy, it reminds me sharply of the “Andromeda Galaxy”. The center is very concentrated and the spiral arms wrap their way around it beautifully! Dust lanes and bright hints of concentration are most evident. and its most endearing feature is that it seems to be set within a mini “Trapezium” of stars. A very worthy study…
Now, let’s hop off to Delta, shall we? I want to rock your world – because the M77 rocked mine! Once again, easily achieved in the small scope, M77 comes “alive” with aperture. This one has an incredible nucleus and very pronounced spiral arms – three big, fat ones! Underscored by dark dust lanes, the arms swirl away from the center in a galactic display that takes your breath away! The “mottling” inside the structure is not just a hint in this ovalish galaxy. I guarantee you won’t find this one “ho hum”!
Thursday, February 10 – Today is the 30th Anniversary Mars 4, Mars Flyby. Hard to believe that only three decades later we’re still up there studying! By the way, today also marks Muslim New Year. Let’s celebrate with study!
With the very slim crescent of the Moon setting very early tonight, I ask you… Are you ready to dig deeper into Cetus? Then grab that map and let’s go! Delta will be our starting point here and the “fall line” runs west to east on the north side. First up is galaxy NGC 1073, a very pretty little spiral with a very “stretched” appearing nucleus that seems to be “ringed” by its arms! Continuing along the same trajectory, we find the NGC 1055. Oh, yes… Edge-on! This soft streak of light is accompanied by a trio of stars. The galaxy itself is cut through by a dark dust lane, but what appears so unusual is the core is to one side! Now we’ve made it to the incredible M77, but let’s keep on the path and pick up the NGC 1087 – a nice, even-looking spiral galaxy with a bright nucleus and one curved arm. Ready to head for the beautiful variable Mira? Then let her be the guidestar, because halfway between there and Delta is the NGC 936 – a soft spiral galaxy with a “saturn” shaped nucleus.
Ya’ done good, kid…
Friday, February 11 – Once again, the Moon will set early tonight. Wanna’ go play with the “Pup”?
The Puppis Star Fields are an exceptional challenge. Starting in the area of the binocular easy M46 and M47, a great place to hunt out is NGC 2423 – a soft collection of stars that resembles a fishook. Dropping south of the M47, we head on to tiny planetary nebula – NGC 2440 – who appears as nothing more than a slightly elongated “soft star”. Continue southwest for open cluster, NGC 2421 – a small open cluster that reminds me of an exquisitely tiny Brocchi’s Cluster! Ready for some more? Go for the M93 next, because a move southeast will find the NGC 2482 – a pretty, looping open cluster. Time to start nudging the scope to the southeast this time, to capture NGC 2467 a gentle open cluster also accompanied by a faint nebula. Continue on the same trajectory for open cluster, NGC 2453 – a small “patch” of faint stars.
Saturday, February 12 – And just when you thought I couldn’t go any lower, I ask you to wait until the crescent Moon has dipped below the horizon and Puppis stands high in the sky!
When Puppis stands straight up on the southern horizon, a clear sky provides a “peek” into those much sought after open clusters that can’t be found at any other time. Tonight we are going to move from east to west, dropping the field south on each successive pass. Starting southwest of Rho, we find the NGC 2489. Faint, but well resolved, this cluster is a double handful of diamond dust. Now, bump the field, and let’s rock again! Next pass brings up NGC 2489 – a rich field of stars, that seems to concentrate. Return again and let’s capture NGC 2533 – a very faint field of stars that are basically the same magnitude. A move over brings us to NGC 2439 – who is much brighter and also has a much larger star in the field. Get “down” now for the NGC 2571 – a “looping” field of faint stars with a couple of brighter members. A bit lower this time captures the NGC 2567 – a delightful group of stars that remind me of a greek letter.
Sunday, February 13 – Today is the birthday of J.L.E. Dreyer, a Danish-born Irish astronomer who came into the world in 1852. At the age of 22, Dreyer became the Assistant to Lord Rosse at Birr where the giant six-foot Leviathan – the world’s largest telescope – was at his disposal. It was here that he began a comprehensive survey of star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. His most important contribution to astronomy was The New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC) published in 1888. This catalogue remains to this very day the standard reference used by astronomers the world over. He listed a fantastic total of 7840 objects! He followed with two supplementary Index Catalogues in 1895 and 1908 which contained an additional 5386 (IC) objects. It is the order in which they appear in these catalogues that define their names. It is also fascinating to note that most astronomers (including myself) still also use a form of “shorthand” devised by Dreyer, known as “Dreyer Descriptions” to make our own notations more brief and standard to all who read them some 117 years later after first being penned!
If a man who managed to view, describe and catalog 13,226 objects over his career says in a notation – !!! – you better go look!
Despite the Moon tonight, let’s do some comet hunting. Look for the Magnificent Machholz just a bit northwest of Gamma Camelopardalis. Still bright and still an easy binocular target! If you’d like more of a challenge, try spotting 9th magnitude C/2003 K4 less than half a moon’s width away from large, faint planetary – NGC 1360 – in Fornax. If you’d rather just relax with a bit of Moon? Metius, Fabricus and Jannsen will be your reward…
Until next week, keep Practicing, stay Patient and be Persistent! The sky is the limit… Keep reaching for the stars!
Light speed… ~Tammy Plotner