If you’re celebrating your Christmas Eve with clear skies and new optics, then why not have a little seasonal fun? Let’s begin before the Moon sets…
As you’re setting up, let your mind time travel back to December 22. 1968, when the first US live telecast from a manned spacecraft in outer space was transmitted at 3:01 p.m. from Apollo VIII. Earth appeared in this transmission as a blurred ball of light. The craft was 139,000 miles from Earth, 31 hours after launch. Once you’re ready, let’s take a look at the Moon and view some of these features through our telescope and binoculars as we remember astronaut Jim Lovell’s words…
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‘‘Roger. For information, we’re passing over just to the side of the crater Langrenus at this time, going into the Sea of Fertility. The Moon is essentially gray, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility doesn’t stand out as well here as it does back on Earth. There’s not as much contrast between that and the surrounding craters. The craters are all rounded off. There’s quite a few of them, some of them are newer. Many of them look like—especially the round ones—look like hit by meteorites or projectiles of some sort. Langrenus is quite a huge crater; it’s got a central cone to it. . .Okay over to my right are the Pyrenees Mountains coming up and we’re just about over Messier and Pickering [Messier A] right now…’’
Tonight there are craters galore to explore: Plato, Aristotle, Eudoxus, Archimedes. . . But let’s head to the north of Sinus Medii and have a look at a pair we’ve not yet encountered on our lunar travels – Agrippa and Godin. The larger of the two, Agrippa, measures around 46 kilometers in diameter and drops to a depth of 3,070 meters. To the south is Godin, which is somewhat smaller at 35 kilometers in diameter, but a bit deeper at 3,200 meters. Note how Godin’s interior slopes toward its central peak.
In 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon. Until this date, no one had seen with their own eyes what lay beyond. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were to become the first to directly view the ‘‘dark side’’ – and so would be the first to witness Earthrise over the Moon. If you enjoyed this year’s lunar studies, let your mind take flight! What courage it took for these brave individuals to journey so far from hearth and home…
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” –Astronaut Frank Borman
Just as surely as Apollo passed over the terminator into lunar sunset, so the Moon shall set giving us a chance to explore tonight’s astronomical object – a celebration of both starlight and asterism. Located 10 degrees east of Betelgeuse, you’ll have to wait until later for it to be seen to advantage – but that only means enjoying some hot cocoa or eggnogg while you wait!
Now head slightly more than a fist width northeast of Betelguese (RA 6:41.1 Dec +09:53) to put you in the area for NGC 2264 – also known as “the Christmas Tree” cluster. This bright asterism of two dozen bright and 100 fainter stars is embroiled in a faint nebulosity visible only through very dark skies, but its delightful “Christmas Tree” shape, adorned with stars, can be seen through the smallest binoculars or telescopes. The very brightest of these stars, S Monoceros, is 5th magnitude and shows clearly in the finderscope as a double. Steady skies will reveal that the “star” at the top of our “tree” is also a visual double and home to the beautiful, dark “Cone Nebula.” Many of the stars will also appear to have companions arrayed in faint hues of silver and gold.
The “Christmas Tree Cluster,” was given its name by Lowell Observatory astronomer Carl Lampland. With its peak pointing due south, this triangular group is believed to be around 2600 light-years away and spans about 20 light-years. Look closely at its brightest star – S Monocerotis is not only a variable, but also has an 8th magnitude companion. The group itself is believed to be almost 2 million years old. The nebulosity is beyond the reach of a small telescope, but the brightest portion illuminated by one of its stars is the home of the Cone Nebula. Larger telescopes can see a visible V-like thread of nebulosity in this area which completes the outer edge of the dark cone. To the north is a photographic only region known as the Foxfur Nebula, part of a vast complex of nebulae that extends from Gemini to Orion.
The nebulosity is beyond the reach of a small telescope, but the brightest portion illuminated by one of its stars is the home of the Cone Nebula. Larger telescopes can see a visible V-like thread of nebulosity in this area which completes the outer edge of the dark cone. To the north is a photographic only region known as the Foxfur Nebula, part of a vast complex of nebulae that extends from Gemini to Orion. Northwest of the complex are several regions of bright nebulae, such as NGC 2247, NGC 2245, IC 446 and IC 2169. Of these regions, the one most suited to the average scope is NGC 2245, which is fairly large, but faint, and accompanies an 11th magnitude star. NGC 2247 is a circular patch of nebulosity around an 8th magnitude star, and it will appear much like a slight fog. IC 446 is indeed a smile to larger aperture, for it will appear much like a small comet with the nebulosity fanning away to the southwest. IC 2169 is the most difficult of all. Even with a large scope a “hint” is all.
This is one of many presents from the Cosmos… Enjoy!