What’s Up this Week: April 16 – April 22, 2007

M83. Credit: Bill Schoening/NOAO/AURA/NSFMonday, April 16 – Before binocular observers begin to feel that we have deserted them, let’s drop in on a binocular and very small telescope galaxy that resides roughly a handspan below Spica – M83. Starhop instructions are not easy for this one, but look for a pair of twin stars just west of the easily recognized “box” of Corvus – Gamma and R Hydrae. You’ll find it about four fingerwidths further south of R.

As one of the brightest galaxies around, the “Southern Pinwheel” was discovered by Lacaille in 1752. Roughly 10 million light-years distant, M83 has been home to a large number of supernova events – one of which was even detected by an amateur observer. To binoculars it will appear as a fairly large, soft, round glow with a bright core set in a delightful stellar field. As aperture increases, so do details – revealing three well defined spiral arms, a dense nucleus and knots of stars. It is truly a beauty and will become an observing favorite!

Tuesday, April 17 – Today in 1976, the joint German and NASA probe Helios 2 came closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft so far. One of its most important contributions helped us to understand the nature of gamma ray bursts.

Tonight is New Moon and are you ready for even more meteors? Tonight is the peak of the Sigma Leonids. The radiant is located at the Leo/Virgo border, but has migrated to Virgo in recent years. Thanks to Jupiter’s gravity, this shower may eventually become part of the Virginid Complex as well. The fall rate is very low at around one to two per hour.

With tonight’s dark skies, this would be a perfect time for larger telescopes to discover an unusual galaxy grouping in Hydra about 5 degrees due west of the Xi pairing (RA 10 36 35.72 Dec -27 31 03.2).

Centralmost are two fairly easy ellipticals, NGC 3309 and NGC 3311, accompanied by spiral NGC 3322. Far fainter are other group members, such as NGC 3316 and NGC 3314 to the east of the 7th magnitude star and NGC 3305 north of the 5th magnitude star. While such galaxy clusters are not for everyone, studying those very faint fuzzies is a rewarding experience for those with large aperture telescopes.

Wednesday, April 18 – Before we have any Moon to contend with, let’s head out in search of an object that is one royal navigation pain for the northern hemisphere, but makes up for it in beauty. Start with the southernmost star in Crater – Beta. If you have difficulty identifying it, it’s the brightest star east of the Corvus rectangle. Now hop a little more than a fistwidth southeast to reddish Alpha Antilae. Less than a fistwidth below, you will see a dim 6th magnitude star that may require binoculars in the high north. Another binocular field further southwest and about 4 degrees northwest of Q Velorum is our object – NGC 3132 (RA 10 07 01.76 Dec -40 26 11.1). If you still have no luck, try waiting until Regulus has reached your meridian and head 52 degrees south.

More commonly known as the “Southern Ring” or the “Eight Burst Planetary,” this gem is brighter than the northern “Ring” (M57) and definitely shows more details. Capturable in even small instruments, larger ones will reveal a series of overlapping shells, giving this unusual nebula its name.

Thursday, April 19 – Today in 1971, the world’s first space station was launched – the Soviet research vessel Salyut 1. Six weeks later, Soyuz 11 and its crew of three docked with the station, but a mechanism failed denying them entry. The crew carried out their experiments, but were sadly lost when their re-entry module separated from the return spacecraft and depressurized. Although the initial phase of Salyut 1 seemed doomed, the mission continued to enjoy success through the early 1980s and paved the way for Mir.

Did you spot the tender crescent of the Moon tonight just after sunset? Be sure to mark your notes as the “Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms.” Now, let’s try picking up a globular cluster in Hydra that is located about 3 fingerwidths southeast of Beta Corvus and just a breath northeast of double star A8612 – M68.

This class X globular was discovered in 1780 by Charles Messier and first resolved into individual stars by William Herschel in 1786. At a distance of approximately 33,000 light-years, it contains at least 2000 stars, including 250 giants and 42 variables. It will show as a faint, round glow in binoculars, and small telescopes will perceive individual members. Large telescopes will fully resolve this small globular to the core!

Friday, April 20 – Tonight our first voyage is to the Moon’s surface. Look along the terminator in the southern quadrant for ancient old crater Furnerius. Named for French Jesuit mathematician George Furner, this crater spans approximately 125 kilometers and is a lunar club challenge. Power up and look for two interior craters. The smaller is crater A and it spans a little less than 15 kilometers and drops to a depth of over 1000 meters. The larger crater C is about 20 kilometers in diameter, but goes far deeper, to more than 1400 meters. That’s about as deep as a coral will grow under the Earth’s oceans!

Now let’s return to eastern Hydra and pick up another combination Messier/Herschel object. You’ll find M48 easily just a little less than a handspan southeast of Procyon.

Often called the “missing Messier,” Charles discovered this in one in 1711, but cataloged its position incorrectly. Even the smallest of binoculars will enjoy this rich galactic cluster filled with more than 50 members including some yellow giants. Look for a slight triangle shape with a conspicuous chain of stars across its center. Larger telescopes should use lowest power since this will fill the field of view and resolve splendidly. Be sure to mark your notes for both a Messier object and Herschel catalog H VI 22!

Saturday, April 21 – It’s Saturday night and we’ve got Moon! No matter, what we really want to do is check out a changeable, sometimes transient, and eventually bright feature on the lunar surface – crater Proclus. At around 28 kilometers in diameter and 2400 meters deep, Proclus will appear on the terminator on the west mountainous border of Mare Crisium. For many viewers tonight, it will seem to be about 2/3 black, but 1/3 of the exposed crater will be exceptionally brilliant – and with good reason. Proclus has an albedo, or surface reflectivity, of about 16%, which is an unusually high value for a lunar feature. Watch this area over the next few nights as two rays from the crater will widen and lengthen, extending approximately 322 kilometers to both the north and south. Congratulations on another lunar club challenge!

Now let’s check out a dandy little group of stars that are about a fistwidth southeast of Procyon and just slightly more than a fingerwidth northeast of M48.

Called C Hydrae, this group isn’t truly gravitationally bound, but is a real pleasure to large binoculars and telescopes of all sizes. While they share similar spectral types, this mixed magnitude collection will be sure to delight you!

Sunday, April 22 – Today celebrates the birthday of Sir Harold Jeffreys, who was born in 1891. Jeffreys was an astrogeophysicist and the first person to envision Earth’s fluid core. He also helped in our understanding of tidal friction, general planetary structure, and the origins of our solar system.

Start your moonless morning off before dawn with a chance to view the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. Since the radiant is near Vega, you will improve your chances of spotting them when the constellation of Lyra is as high as possible. This stream’s parent is Comet Thatcher, and it produces around 15 bright, long-lasting meteors per hour.

Tonight we’re heading towards the lunar surface to view a very fine old crater on the northwest shore of Mare Nectaris – Theophilus. Slightly south of mid-point on the terminator, this crater contains an unusually large multiple-peaked central mountain which can be spotted in binoculars. Theophilus is an odd crater, one that is a parabola – with no area on the floor being flat. It stretches across a distance of 100 kilometers and dives down 440 meters below the surface. Tonight it will appear dark, shadowed by its massive west wall, but look for sunrise on its 1400 meter summit!