Monday, May 28 – On this day in 1959, the first primates made it to space. Abel (a rhesus monkey) and Baker (a squirrel monkey) lifted off in the nose cone of an Army Jupiter missile and were carried to sub-orbital flight. Recovered unharmed, Abel died just three days later from anesthesia during an electrode removal, but Baker lived on to a ripe old age of 27.
Tonight let’s monkey around the stars as we head towards the Moon and see Spica, just a little more than a degree to the north. Although at first glance tonight crater Copernicus will try to steal the scene, head further south to capture another lunar club challenge – Bullialdus. Even binoculars can make out this crater with ease near the center of Mare Nubium. If you’re scoping – power up – this one is fun! Very similar to Copernicus, note Bullialdus’ thick, terraced walls and central peak. If you examine the area around it carefully, you can note it is a much newer crater than shallow Lubiniezsky to its north and almost non-existent Kies to the south. On Bullialdus’ southern flank, it’s easy to make out its A and B craters, as well as the interesting little Koenig to the southwest.
Now let’s head about four fingerwidths northwest of Beta Virginis for another unusual star – Omega. Classed as an M-type red giant, this 480 light-year distant beauty is also an irregular variable which fluxes by about half a magnitude. Although you won’t notice much change in this 5th magnitude star, it has a very pretty red coloration and is worth the time to view.
Tuesday, May 29 – Today in 1919, a total eclipse of the Sun occurred and stellar measurements taken along the limb agreed with predictions based on Einstein’s General Relativity theory – the first such confirmation. Although we call it gravity, spacetime curvature deflects the light of stars near the limb, causing their apparent positions to differ slightly. Unlike today’s astronomy, at that time you could only observe stars near the Sun’s limb (within less than an arc second) during an eclipse. It’s interesting to note that even Newton had his own theories on light and gravitation which predicted some deflection!
Tonight would be a wonderful opportunity for Moongazers to return to the surface and have a look at the peaceful Sinus Iridum area. If you’ve been clouded out before, be sure to have a look for telescopic lunar club challenges – Promontoriums Heraclides and LaPlace.
If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge, then let’s head about 59 light-years away in Virgo for star 70. You’ll find it located about 6 degrees northeast of Eta and right in the corner of the Coma, BoÃ¶tes, and Virgo border. So what’s so special about this G-type, very normal-looking 5th magnitude star?
It’s a star that has a planet.
Long believed to be a spectroscopic binary because of its 117 day shifts in color, closer inspection has revealed that 70 Virginis actually has a companion planet. Roughly 7 times larger than Jupiter and orbiting no further away than Mercury from its cooler-than-Sol parent star, 70 Virginis B just might well be a planet cool enough to support water in its liquid form.
How “cool” is that? Try about 85 degrees Celsius…
Wednesday, May 30 – Tonight let’s have a look at a very bright and changeable lunar feature that is often over-looked. Starting with the great grey oval of Grimaldi, let your eyes slide along the terminator towards the south until you encounter the bright crater Byrgius.
Named for Joost Burgi, who made a sextant for Tycho Brahe, this “seen on the curve” crater is really quite large with a diameter of 87 kilometers. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of all is high albedo Byrgius A, which sits along its east wall line and produces a wonderfully bright ray system. While it is not noted as a lunar club challenge, it’s a great crater to help add to your knowledge of selenography!
Now let’s add to our double star list as we hunt down Zeta BoÃ¶tes located about 7 degrees southeast of Arcturus. This is a delightful multiple star system for even small telescopes.
Thursday, May 31 – While tonight the Moon will appear about as full as it gets to some observers, the date won’t be “official” until tomorrow. While the glare will make it difficult to do many things, we can still have a look at other bright objects! Let’s start tonight by going just north of Zeta BoÃ¶tes for Pi. With a wider separation, this pair of whites will easily resolve to the smaller telescope.
Now skip up northeast about a degree for Omicron BoÃ¶tes. While this is not a multiple system, it makes for a nice visual pairing for a binocular challenge. For telescopes, the southeastern star holds interest as a small asterism.
Continue northeast another two degrees to discover Xi BoÃ¶tes. This one is a genuine multiple star system with magnitude 5 and 7 companions. Not only will you enjoy this G-type sun for its duplicity, but for the fine field of stars in which it resides!
Friday, June 1 – Tonight the Moon is full. Often referred to as the Full Strawberry Moon, this name was a constant to every Algonquin tribe in North America. But, our friends in Europe referred to it as the Rose Moon. The North American version came about because the short season for harvesting strawberries comes each year during the month of June – so the full Moon that occurs during that month was named for this tasty red fruit!
Tonight before it rises and the light commands the sky, let’s have a look at a tasty red star – R Hydrae. You’ll find it about a fistwidth south of Spica or about a fingerwidth west of Gamma Hydrae.
R was the third long term variable star to be discovered and it is credited to Maraldi in 1704. While it had been observed by Hevelius some 42 years earlier, it was not recognized immediately because its changes happen over more than a year. At maximum, R reaches near 4th magnitude – but drops well below human eye perception to magnitude 10. During Maraldi’s and Hevelius’ time, this incredible star took over 500 days to change, but it has speeded up to around 390 days in the present century.
Why such a wide range? Science isn’t really sure. R Hydrae is a pulsing M-type giant whose evolution may be progressing more rapidly than expected due to changes in structure. What we do know is that it is around 325 light-years away and is approaching us at around 10 kilometers per second.
In the telescope, R will have a pronounced red coloration which deepens near minima. Nearby is 12th magnitude visual companion star Ho 381, which was first measured for position angle and distance in 1891. Since that time no changes in separation have been noted, which leads us to believe that the pair may be a true binary.
Saturday, June 2 – Before the Moon rises tonight, let’s return again to R Hydrae. While observing a variable star with either the unaided eye, binoculars, or a telescope can be very rewarding, it’s often quite difficult to catch changes in long-term variables, because there are times when the constellation is not visible. While R Hydrae is unique in color, let’s drop about half a degree to the southeast to visit another variable star – SS Hydrae.
SS is a quick change artist – the Algol-type. While you will need binoculars or a telescope to see this normally 7.7 magnitude star, at least its fluctuations are far more rapid, with a period of only 8.2 days. With R Hydrae we have a star that expands and contracts causing the changes in brightness – but SS is an eclipsing binary. While less than a half magnitude is not a noteworthy amount, you will notice a difference if you view it over a period of time. Be sure to note that this is actually a triple star system, for there is also a 13th magnitude companion star located 13″ from the primary. Watch if as often as possible and see if you can detect changes in the next few weeks!
When the Moon rises tonight, take a look at the northwestern limb about half the distance between Grimaldi and Sinus Iridum. Our search is for an “on the edge” crater known as Einstein. Use the prominent crater Kraft to help guide you to this extreme edge feature!
Sunday, June 3 – If you’re up early, why not keep a watch out for the peak of the Tau Herculids meteor shower? These are the offspring of comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3, which broke up in 2006. The radiant is near Corona Borealis and we’ll be in this stream for about a month. At best when the parent comet has passed perihelion, you’ll catch about 15 per hour maximum. Most are quite faint and the westering Moon will interfere, but sharp-eyed observers will enjoy it.
While we have a bit of time tonight to spare before the Moon rises, let’s try a visual double for the unaided eye – Eta Virginis. Can you distinguish between a 4th and 6th magnitude pair?
The brighter of the two is Zaniah (Eta), which through occultation had been discovered to be a triple star. In 2002, Zaniah became the first star imaged by combining multiple telescopes with the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer. This was the first time the three were split. Two of them are so close that they orbit in less than half the distance between the Earth and Sun!
Binocular users should take a look at visual double Rho Virginis about a fistwidth west-southwest of Epsilon. This pair is far closer and will require an optical aid to separate. The brighter of this pair – Rho – is a white, main sequence dwarf with a secret… It’s a variable! Known as a Delta Scuti type, this odd star can vary slightly in magnitude in anywhere from 30 minutes to two and a half hours as it pulsates.
For mid-to-large telescopes, Rho offers just a little bit more. The visual companion star has a visual companion as well! Less than a half degree southwest of Rho is a small, faint spiral galaxy – NGC 4608 – at 12th magnitude, it’s hard to see because of Rho’s brightness…but it’s not alone. Look for a small, but curiously shaped galaxy labeled NGC 4596. Its resemblance to the planet Saturn makes it well worthwhile!