What’s Up – The Weekend SkyWatcher’s Forecast

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! What does the weekend have in store for those who observe the starry vistas with their eyes, binoculars, or telescopes? Let’s head out into the night, because the mysteries of the Cosmos await.

Friday, March 28 – For unaided eye observers, the astronomy day starts just before dawn where your challenge is to spot Venus just ahead of the rising Sun. If the horizon is very clear, you might also spot nearby Mercury as well. Now give it a go with binoculars, because there’s more! On this date in 1802, Heinrich W. Olbers discovered the second asteroid, Pallas, while making observations of the position of Ceres. Five years later on this same date in 1807, Vesta – the brightest asteroid and fourth discovered – was identified by Olbers.

Your binocular or small telescope assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to locate Vesta. You’ll find it just a bit south of the union of Uranus, Venus and Mercury about 30 minutes before local dawn. Pallas is too close to the Sun right now for safe viewing. While asteroid chasing is not for everyone, both Vesta and Pallas are often bright enough to be identified with just binoculars. In the coming months, each will rise higher each morning in the predawn sky. Use an online resource to get accurate locator charts and keep a record of spotting these solar system planetoids!

For mid-to-large aperture telescopes, this was indeed a date of discovery as the prolific Sir William found yet another object for future generations to marvel at. Your destination tonight is around a degree east of Alpha Lyncis, and is in the field with a 7th magnitude star in Leo Minor (RA 09 24 18 Dec +34 30 48). It’s name is NGC 2859.

Located about 23 million light-years away, this handsome barred spiral was cataloged on this night in 1786 as H I.137. At around magnitude 11, it’s within reach of average telescopes and the observer will first note its bright core region. But don’t stop there: while there’s nothing unusual about barred structure, this galaxy appears to have a detached halo around it. Often known as the “Ring Galaxy,” this structure could perhaps be caused by gravitational forces reacting with gases along certain points in the bar structure, and so creating a resonance. Oddly enough, each of the four companion galaxies of NGC 2859 contains a compact object or quasar-like phenomenon, and they all have similar redshifts. Be sure to add this “space oddity” to your observing notes!

Saturday, March 29 – Don’t forget to turn off the lights at 8:00 pm to celebrate Earth Hour! For unaided observers, take advantage of the early evening dark skies to enjoy the incredible red triangle of Aldebaran, Betelguese and Mars.

For binoculars and small telescopes, on our list tonight is a Herschel object which lies directly on the galactic equator around five degrees north-northwest of Xi Puppis (RA 07 36 12 Dec -20 37 00). NGC 2421 is a magnitude 8.3 open cluster which will look like an exquisitely tiny “Brocchi’s Cluster” in binoculars; and it will begin to show good resolution of its 50 or so members to an intermediate telescope, in an arrowhead-shaped pattern. It’s bright, it’s fairly easy to find, and it’s a great open cluster to add to your challenge study lists. For the southern observer, try your hand at Sigma Puppis. At magnitude 3, this bright orange star holds a wide separation from its white 8.5 magnitude companion. Sigma’s B star is a curiosity… While it resides at a distance of 180 light-years from our solar system, it would be about the same brightness as our own Sun if placed one Astronomical Unit from Earth!

So what’s special on the agenda for telescopes tonight? Just a discovery – and an extraordinarily beautiful one at that. Two nights ago in 1781, the unsung astronomy hero Pierre Méchain happened on an incredible galaxy in Ursa Major. Located about three fingerwidths northeast of Mizar and Alcor (RA 14 03 13 Dec +54 20 53), this near 8th magnitude galaxy was added as one of the last on the Messier list, but it ranks as one of the first to be identified as a spiral. While M101 is huge and bright, binoculars will only spot the bright central region – yet the average beginner’s scope (114mm) will begin to reveal arm structure with aversion. As aperture increases, so does detail, and some areas are so bright that Herschel assigned them their own catalog numbers. Even Halton Arp noted this one’s lopsided core as number 26 (“Spiral with One Heavy Arm”) on his peculiar galaxies list.

At a distance of 27 million light-years, M101 might be somewhat disappointing to smaller scopes, but photographs show it as one of the most fantastic spirals in the Cosmos. Dubbed the “Pinwheel,” it heads up its own galactic group consisting of NGC 5474 to the south-southeast and NGC 5585 to the northeast, which are visible to larger scopes. It is estimated there may be as many as six more members as well! Be sure to take the time to really study this galaxy. The act of sketching often brings out hidden details and will enrich your observing experience.

Sunday, March 30 – If you’re out late or up before sunrise, be sure to take a look at the Moon and Jupiter making a pleasing pairing along the ecliptic. No special equipment is needed!

Take your telescopes or binoculars out tonight and look just north of Xi Puppis (RA 07 44 36 Dec -23 52 00) for a “mass concentration” of starlight known as M93. Discovered in March of 1781 by Charles Messier, this bright open cluster is a rich concentration of various magnitudes which will simply explode in sprays of stellar fireworks in the eyepiece of a large telescope. Spanning 18 to 22 light-years of space and residing more than 3400 light-years away, it contains not only blue giants, but lovely golds as well. Jewels in the dark sky…

As you view this cluster tonight, seize the moment to remember Messier, because this is one of the last objects he discovered personally. He described it as “A cluster of small stars without nebulosity” – but did he realize the light he was viewing at the time left the cluster during the reign of Ramses III? Ah, yes…sweet time. Did Charles have a clue this cluster of stars was 100 million years old? Or realize it was forming about the time Earth’s land masses were breaking up, dinosaurs ruled, and the first mammals and birds were evolving? Although H. G. Wells “Time Machine” is a work of fiction, each time we view through a telescope we take a journey back across time itself. Enjoy the mystery!

14 Replies to “What’s Up – The Weekend SkyWatcher’s Forecast”

  1. Tammy, as with your article about the Geminids, I love your writing and the atmosphere of friendly challenge you create for the beginning astronomer! You know, of those things that awakened my interest in astronomy, I’d have to say that the Messier objects are among the top.

    I have three all-time favorites: the Orion Nebula (well, that’s technically two, I guess, heh), the Pleiades and, finally, M74 — which, as far as I know, hasn’t been “named” as such.

    I see binoculars in my very near future. Do you have any recommendations for beginner magnification?

  2. Awesome! Thank you, Tammy!

    By the way, if you’d ever be interested in corresponding, please feel free to leave an anonymous comment on my journal (that is, if you don’t have a journal of your own). I’ll head for the links now and look at my options.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to look at the link, Tammy!

    I think I’ll keep an eye on this site for the next couple of weeks with the intent of buying something appropriate. I just hope the prices last long enough….

    Happy stargazing! Maybe the clouds will clear for me tonight and I can see *something*, anyway.

  4. Whoops! Thanks for the heads-up, Bunnyman. Mixing those two up is one of my most common cosmopolitan slips. 😉 The error has been corrected.

    And thank you, Leanna!

    For those interested in a great beginner level pair of binoculars, you might want to check out the new Celeston 8X40 Up Close Binoculars. At just a little more than $20, they’re great for determining if binocular astronomy is right for you.

    If you think you’d like to step up a little more, I’d recommend the Celestron 12X50 Up Close Binoculars ($22) or the Celestron 10X50 Up Close Wide Angle Binoculars (under $30). Much more than that in size and you’ll find them difficult to steady.

    It’s a suprisingly minimal investment to enjoy such a great hobby!

  5. Just as a side note, by the way, I found another option on the same site. I thought I might run it by you to see what you think. The binocs are 10×50, so they’ve good light gathering power as well as decent magnification, but I’m not sure what type of prisms are in the binoculars (whether BK7 or BAK4). Still, it seems like a decent assortment, even though it’s just a bit more expensive.

    (I hope this link worked, because I can’t edit this! 🙂 )

  6. Love the SkyWatcher’s Forecast, as always great information superbly presented.

    One point about the “incredible red triangle of Antares, Betelguese and Mars.” Did you mean Aldebaran instead of Antares?

  7. Yes! There’s nothing wrong with the Meade Adventure Pack 10X50 binoculars. It’s great to have the compass, swiss army knife (now called a “versi-tool”), flashlight and backpack all in one. I just hate asking people to spend $50! (pssst… if you want to sacrafice a little aperture, you can get the smaller Meade Adventure Pack for under $30. ;))

    If you don’t mind spending $50, to me the ultimate would be the Celestron Binoculars & Green Laser Kit. You’d get the 10X50 binos, plus a green laser and a red flashlight! Believe me, that’s like getting the laser really cheap and just giving you the binoculars and red flashlight. (Green laser pointers are an absoutely awesome tool when used properly.)

    Gosh… Makes me wish I had an extra $50!

    The most important thing to remember is to get the porro-prism design if you’re going to use them for astronomy. If you get over 50mm in aperture, they’re going to be too heavy to enjoy. Go more than 12X magnfication and you’ll not only have the image bouncing all over the place, but they’re sometimes hard to focus for certain eyes – especially if you wear glasses. Get binoculars that are too expensive, and you’re less likely to play with them… Get ’em too cheap and they won’t perform. Sure. You can get a pair of porros from ebay or a department store cheap, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be collimated (properly aligned) or properly coated. Stick with names like Celestron, Meade, Canon, Nikon and Bushnell and you won’t go wrong.

  8. I was wondering if someone could help me point in the correct direction. I am really an amateur when it comes to this. I have 2 nieces and they wanted to do some star gazing and I told them that some of the stars are actual planet and now I have to prove them. So I got my self a binocular and a tripod but I have no clue where to point the binocular on the tripod. I have visited this website called light and matter and in there there is the night sky applet. This could be a dumb question but the direction North, South, East West are they the same in sky or inverted?? and how do I know if I am looking at the correct start?
    By the way the Binoculars I have are 10×50 and therefore the need for tripod to keep them steady.

  9. Hey, nooruddin!

    Let’s make the night sing and dance for you and your binoculars.

    When looking at a star chart, you have remember you’re looking over your head instead of down at the ground. That means it’s kinda’ inverted in one respect. East is left and west is right. But… when you’re outside the cardinal directions are always the same.

    Let’s try this…

    Go outside and face due south. Raise your right arm. That’s west. Left arm? East. Behind you? North. Directly above your head is the zenith. The path the Sun, Moon and planets follow is the ecliptic and it varies depending on where you’re at on Earth!

    For now? Let’s try it blind. When you stand facing the south just after the sky gets dark, ahead and to your right you should see hourglass shape of Orion. (Don’t wait too late, or it will set!) Latch onto the reddish star in the upper left hand corner – Betelgeuse. Look at Betelgeuse and keep looking up towards the zenith until you see another bright, reddish “star”. That’s Mars! To be sure, you’ll see another bright reddish star, Aldebaran (got it, bunnyman!) to the right of Mars.

    Once you find Mars, stay facing south. Start looking to Mars’ left (east) until you see the next really bright star. That’s Saturn! It’s near the bottom of the backwards question mark of Leo. The fainter bright star near Saturn is Regulus. You can tell Saturn in binos because it looks yellowish and elongated.

    Be sure to show your nieces the nebula M42 in Orion’s sword (below the 3 belts stars) and the star cluster M41 just below Sirius – the ultra-bright star to Orion’s left when facing south and basically due south just after skydark.

    If you have success and what to try something else? Turn around and face north. In the early evening you’ll see the Big Dipper ahead and slightly to the east. Connect the two dots (stars) at the top of the Big Dipper from east to west in your mind and continue the same distance and trajectory west towards a blank looking area of space. Search around a little right there in your binoculars and you’ll see what looks like two very faint “cat’s eyes” fuzzies. They’ll just be little glowing patches – but they’re the M81 and M82 galaxies!

    Wishing you clear skies and good luck.

  10. WOW! That was great and really helpful. Ia m going to print these direction and try it out tonight. Just to let you know I really appreciate this. I am in Los Angeles area. One more question; Is there a book you would recommend for someone like me…seems that there is a lot,and I mean a lot to just remember these things. Please let me know and once again thank you so much for this.

  11. Sure thing! One of the best to learn from is Turn Left At Orion. It’s also for small telescopes, but will work well with your binocular size. It won’t take you long to outgrow it and you’ll be ready for Sky and Telescope’s – Binocular Highlights.

    (wow… and here i missed a chance to plug my own book! ;))

    It’s not easy to learn and if you don’t have the darkest of skies, it’s even more difficult. I’m always here to help when you have questions!

    Wishing you clear skies…

  12. oops. uh, nooruddin? please re-print this if you visit! i’m not gonna’ tell you where, but i told you to turn left instead of right!! 😉

  13. Got it, thanks all for the input. I reprinted and I am also looking at the books suggested by you. Thanks Tammy.
    I have this bookmarked to I will be visiting this place again though out the weekend. Thanks!

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