Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Are you ready for the weekend? It’s Friiiiiday and it’s time to make a date with the Queen as we gather up a few more studies in the great constellation of Cassiopeia. Since we’ve got some dark skies ahead of us, expect to be a little more “challenged” this time! For you Messier fans, break out your telescope and go fishing in Pisces for the awesome M74 – but don’t sell this week’s observing article short. Are you looking for an alternative catalog study that you may not have seen? Then step outside and let’s find one…
Friday, November 21, 2008 – Tonight we will haunt Cassiopeia one last time – with studies for the seasoned observer. Our first challenge of the evening will be to return to Gamma where we will locate two patches of nebulosity in the same field of view. IC 59 and IC 63 are challenging because of the bright influence of the star, but by moving the star to the edge of the field of view you may be able to locate these two splendid small nebulae. If you do not have success with this pair, why not move on to Alpha? About one and a half degrees due east, you will find a small collection of finderscope stars that mark the area of NGC 281 (RA 00 52 25 Dec +56 33 54). This distinctive cloud of stars and ghostly nebulae make this NGC object a fine challenge!
The last things we will study are two small elliptical galaxies that are achievable in mid-sized scopes. Locate Omicron Cassiopeiae about seven degrees north of M31, and discover a close galactic pair that is associated with the Andromeda group – NGC 185 (RA 00 38 57 Dec +48 20 14) and NGC 147 (RA 00 33 11 Dec +48 30 24).
The constellation of Cassiopeia contains many more fine star clusters and nebulae – and even more galaxies. For the casual observer, simply tracing over the rich star fields with binoculars is a true pleasure, because there are many bright asterisms best enjoyed at low power. And scopists will return year after year to “rock with the Queen.” Enjoy its many challenging treasures tonight!
Saturday, November 22, 2008 – Tonight let’s have a look at one of the most elusive Messiers of all as we head about two fingerwidths northeast of Eta Piscium in search of M74 (RA 01 36 Dec +15 47).
Discovered at the end of September, 1780, by Méchain, M74 is a real challenge to smaller backyard telescopes – even at magnitude 9. This near perfect presentation of a face-on spiral galaxy has low surface brightness, and it takes really optimal conditions to spot much more than its central region. Located 30 to 40 million light-years away, M74 is roughly the size of the Milky Way, yet has no central bar. Its tightly wound spiral arms contain clusters of young blue stars and traces of nebulous star forming regions that can be seen in photos, yet little more than some vague concentrations in structure are all that can be noted visually…even in a large scope. But, if sky conditions are great, even a small telescope can see details! Add the slightest bit of light pollution and even the biggest scopes will have problems locating it.
Don’t be disappointed if all you see is a bright nucleus surrounded by a small hazy glow – just try again another time. Who knows what might happen? A supernova was discovered in 2002 by a returning amateur, and again in 2003 by an observer in the southern hemisphere. When it comes to M74, this is the very best time of year to try with a smaller scope!
Sunday, November 23, 2008 – Tonight in 1885, the very first photograph of a meteor shower was taken. Also, the weather satellite TIROS II was launched on this day in 1960. Carried to orbit by a three-stage Delta rocket, the “Television Infrared Observation Satellite” was about the size of a barrel; it successfully tested experimental television techniques and infrared equipment. Operating for 376 days, Tiros II sent back thousands of pictures of Earth’s cloud cover and was successful in its experiments to control the orientation of the satellite’s spin. Coincidentally, a similar mission – Meteosat 1 – became the first satellite put into orbit by the European Space Agency, in 1977 on this day. Where is all this leading? Why not try observing satellites on your own? Thanks to wonderful online tools from NASA you can be alerted by e-mail whenever a bright satellite makes a pass over your specific area – or you can use other available tools to predict passes. It’s fun and doesn’t require any special equipment!
Tonight let’s test our starhopping and observing talents by starting first with a beautiful double – Gamma Arietis. Now look about a fistwidth east-southeast for dim little Pi. When you have Pi centered, move about half a degree southwest for an alternative catalog study – DoDz 1.
While you might find this little, sparkling, double handful of stars of little interest – think twice before you hop on. While DoDz studies are far more scattered and less populous that most galactic clusters, it doesn’t make them less interesting. What you are looking at are basically the fossils of a once active and more concentrated region of stars. As the cluster itself has matured, the lower mass members have been stripped away and have gone off to join the general population. Known as a “dissolving cluster,” DoDz 1 is all that’s left of a far grander collection. Very ancient…yet still very beautiful!
For now? Ask for the Moon… But keep on reaching for the stars!
This week’s awesome images are: NGC 281, NGC 185 and NGC 147 – Credit: Palomar Observatory, courtesy of Caltech, M74 by R. Jay Gabany (for full image), and DoDz 1 – Credit: Palomar Observatory, courtesy of Caltech. Thank you so much!