Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: September 24-30, 2012

“Shine on, shine on Harvest Moon… Up in the sky…” Oh! Howdy, fellow SkyWatchers! The seasons are most surely showing their changes in both hemispheres and this week marks the famous “Harvest Moon”. The Moon will very much be in the eyepiece this week, so enjoy some great studies. However, don’t put away your telescopes just yet! Bright skies are a great time to catch up on double star studies and variables. Whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, September 24 – In 1970, the first unmanned, automated return of lunar material to the Earth occurred on this day when the Soviet’s Luna 16 returned with three ounces of the Moon. Its landing site was eastern Mare Fecunditatis. Look just west of the bright patch of Langrenus. Let’s walk upon the Moon this evening as we take a look at sunrise over one of the most often studied and mysterious of all craters – Plato. Located on the northern edge of Mare Imbrium and spanning 95 kilometers in diameter, Class IV Plato is simply a feature that all lunar observers check because of the many reports of unusual happenings. Over the years, mists, flashes of light, areas of brightness and darkness, and the appearance of small craters have become a part of Plato’s lore.

On October 9, 1945 an observer sketched and reported “a minute, but brilliant flash of light” inside the western rim. Lunar Orbiter 4 photos later showed where a new impact may have occurred. While Plato’s interior craterlets average between less than one and up to slightly more than two kilometers in diameter, many times they can be observed – and sometimes they cannot be seen at all under almost identical lighting conditions. No matter how many times you observe this crater, it is ever changing and very worthy of your attention!

Although tonight’s bright skies will make our next target a little difficult to find visually, look around four fingerwidths southwest of Delta Capricorni (RA 21 26 40 Dec -22 24 40) for Zeta. Also known as 34 Capricorni, Zeta is a unique binary system. Located about 398 light-years from Earth, the primary star is a yellow supergiant with some very unusual properties – it’s the warmest, most luminous barium star known. But that’s not all, because the B component is a white dwarf almost identical in size to our own Sun!

Tuesday, September 25 – Tonight would be a great opportunity to take another look at crater Eratosthenes. Just slightly north of lunar center, this easily spotted feature dangles at the end of the Apennine Mountain range like a yo-yo caught on a string. Its rugged walls and central peaks make for excellent viewing. If you look closely at the mountains northeast of Eratosthenes, you will see the high peak of Mons Wolff. Named for the Dutch philosopher and mathematician, this outstanding feature reaches 35 kilometers in height. To the southwest of Era-tosthenes you may also spot the ruined remains of crater Stadius. Very little is left of its walls and the floor is dotted with small strikes. Near the twin pair of punctuations to its south lie the remains of Surveyor 2! Now let’s journey to a very pretty star field as we head toward the western wing tip in Cygnus to have a look at Theta – also known as 13 Cygni. It is a beautiful main sequence star that is also considered by modern catalogs to be a double. For large telescopes, look for a faint (13th magnitude) companion to the west… But it’s also a wonderful optical triple!

Also in the field with Theta to the southeast is the Mira-type variable R Cygni, which ranges in magnitude from around 7 to 14 in slightly less than 430 days. This pulsating red star has a really quite interesting history that can be found at AAVSO, and is circumpolar for far northern observers. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 26 – Tonight on the Moon, let’s take an in-depth look at one of the most impressive of the southern lunar features – Clavius.

Although you cannot help but be drawn visually to this crater, let’s start at the southern limb near the terminator and work our way up. Your first sighting will be the large and shallow dual rings of Casatus with its central crater and Klaproth adjoining it. Further north is Blancanus with its series of very small interior craters, but wait until you see Clavius. Caught on the southeast wall is Rutherford with its central peak and crater Porter on the northeast wall. Look between them for the deep depression labeled D. West of D you will also see three outstanding impacts: C, N and J; while CB resides between D and Porter. The southern and southwest walls are also home to many impacts, and look carefully at the floor for many, many more! It has been often used as a test of a telescope’s resolving power to see just how many more craters you can find inside tremendous old Clavius. Power up and enjoy!

And if you’d like to visit an object that only requires eyes, then look no further than Eta Aquilae one fist-width due south of Altair…

Discovered by Pigot in 1784, this Cepheid-class variable has a precision rate of change of over a magnitude in a period of 7.17644 days. During this time it will reach of maximum of magnitude 3.7 and decline slowly over 5 days to a minimum of 4.5… Yet it only takes two days to brighten again! This period of expansion and contraction makes Eta very unique. To help gauge these changes, compare Eta to Beta on Altair’s same southeast side. When Eta is at maximum, they will be about equal in brightness.

Thursday, September 27 – Tonight exploring the Moon will be in order as one of the most graceful and recognizable lunar features will be prominent – Gassendi. As an ancient mountain-walled plain that sits proudly at the northern edge of Mare Humorum, Gassendi sports a bright ring and a triple central mountain peak that are within the range of binoculars.

Telescopic viewers will appreciate Gassendi at high power in order to see how its southern border has been eroded by lava flow. Also of note are the many rilles and ridges that exist inside the crater and the presence of the younger Gassendi A on the north wall. While viewing the Mare Humorum area, keep in mind that we are looking at an area about the size of the state of Arkansas. It is believed that a planetoid collision originally formed Mare Humorum. The incredible impact crushed the surface layers of the Moon resulting in a concentric “anticline” that can be traced out to twice the size of the original impact area. The floor of this huge crater then filled in with lava, and was once thought to have a greenish appearance but in recent years has more accurately been described as reddish. That’s one mighty big crater!

Tonight we’ll begin with an easy double star and make our way towards a more difficult one. Beautiful, bright and colorful, Beta Cygni is an excellent example of an easily split double star. As the second brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, Albireo lies roughly in the center of the “Summer Triangle” making it a relatively simple target for even urban telescopes.

Albireo’s primary (or brightest) star is around magnitude 4 and has a striking orangish color. Its secondary (or B) star is slightly fainter at a bit less than magnitude 5, and often appears to most as blue, almost violet. The pair’s wide separation of 34? makes Beta Cygni an easy split for all telescopes at modest power, and even for larger binoculars. At approximately 410 light-years away, this colorful pair shows a visual separation of about 4400 AU, or around 660 billion kilometers. As Burnham noted, “It is worth contemplating, in any case, the fact that at least 55 solar systems could be lined up, edge-to-edge, across the space that separates the components of this famous double!”

Now let’s have a look at Delta. Located around 270 light-years away, Delta is known to be a more difficult binary star. Its duplicity was discovered by F. Struve in 1830, and it is a very tough test for smaller optics. Located no more than 220 AU away from the magnitude 3 parent star, the companion orbits anywhere from 300 to 540 years and is often rated as dim as 8th magnitude. If skies aren’t steady enough to split it tonight, try again! Both Beta and Delta are on many challenge lists.

Friday, September 28 – Tonight our primary lunar study is crater Kepler. Look for it as a bright point, slightly lunar north of center near the terminator. Its home is the Oceanus Procellarum – a sprawling dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. Bright, young Kepler will display a wonderfully developed ray system. The crater rim is very bright, consisting mostly of a pale rock called anorthosite. The “lines” extending from Kepler are fragments that were splashed out and flung across the lunar surface when the impact occurred. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. So unique is Kepler’s geological formation that it became the first crater mapped by U.S. Geological Survey in 1962.

Up next, we’ll have a look at the central star of the “Northern Cross” – Gamma Cygni. Also known as Sadr, this beautiful main sequence star lies at the northern edge of the “Great Rift.” Surrounded by a field of nebulosity known as IC 1310, second magnitude Gamma is very slowly approaching us, but still maintains an average distance of about 750 light-years. It is here in the rich, starry fields that the great dust cloud begins its stretch toward southern Centaurus – dividing the Milky Way into two streams. The dark region extending north of Gamma towards Deneb is often referred to as the “Northern Coalsack,” but its true designation is Lynds 906.

If you take a very close look at Sadr, you will find it has a well-separated 10th magnitude companion star, which is probably not related – yet in 1876, S. W. Burnham found that it itself is a very close double. Just to its north is NGC 6910 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.1 – Declination: +40 : 47), a roughly 6th magnitude open cluster which displays a nice concentration in a small telescope. To the west is Collinder 419, another bright gathering that is nicely concentrated. South is Dolidze 43, a widely spaced group with two brighter stars on its southern perimeter. East is Dolidze 10, which is far richer in stars of various magnitudes and contains at least three binary systems.

Whether you use binoculars or telescopes, chances are you won’t see much nebulosity in this region – but the sheer population of stars and objects in this area makes a visit with Sadr worthy of your time!

Saturday, September 29 – Tonight we’re going to have a look at a lunar feature that goes beyond simply incredible – it’s downright weird. Start your journey by identifying Kepler and head due west across Oceanus Procellarum until you encounter the bright ring of crater Reiner. Spanning 30 kilometers, this crater isn’t anything in particular – just shallow-looking walls with a little hummock in the center. But, look further west and a little more north for an anomaly – Reiner Gamma.

Well, it’s bright. It’s slightly eye-shaped. But what exactly is it? Possessing no real elevation or depth above the lunar surface, Reiner Gamma could very well be an extremely young feature caused by a comet. Only three other such features exist – two on the lunar far side and one on Mercury. They are high albedo surface deposits with magnetic properties. Unlike a lunar ray of material ejected from below the surface, Reiner Gamma can be spotted during the daylight hours – when ray systems disappear. And, unlike other lunar formations, it never casts a shadow.

Reiner Gamma also causes a magnetic deviation on a barren world that has no magnetic field. This has many proposed origins, such as solar storms, volcanic gaseous activity, or even seismic waves. But, one of the best explanations for its presence is a cometary strike. It is believed that a split-nucleus comet, or cometary fragments, once impacted the area and the swirl of gases from the high velocity debris may have somehow changed the regolith. On the other hand, ejecta from an impact could have formed around a magnetic “hot spot,” much like a magnet attracts iron filings. No matter which theory is correct, the simple act of viewing Reiner Gamma and realizing that it is different from all other features on the Moon’s earthward facing side makes this journey worth the time!

When you’re done, let’s head about a fingerwidth south of Gamma Cygni to have a look at an open cluster well suited for all optics – M29 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.9 – Declination: +38 : 3).

Discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier, this type D cluster has an overall brightness of about magnitude 7, but isn’t exactly rich in stars. Hanging out anywhere from 6000 to 7200 light-years away, one would assume this to be a very rich cluster and it may very well have hundreds of stars – but their light is blocked by a dust cloud a thousand times more dense than average. Approaching us at around 28 kilometers per second, this loose grouping could be as old as 10 million years and appears much like a miniature of the constellation of Ursa Major at low powers. Even though it isn’t the most spectacular in star-rich Cygnus, it is another Messier object to add to your list!

Sunday, September 30 – Today in 1880, Henry Draper must have been up very early indeed when he took the first photo of the Great Orion Nebula (M42). Although you might not wish to set up equipment before dawn, you can still use a pair of binoculars to view this awesome nebula! You’ll find Orion high in the southeast for the Northern Hemisphere, and M42 in the center of the “sword” that hangs below its bright “belt” of three stars.

Our seasons are changing – and so the seasons change on other planets, too. Today marks the universal date on which Northern Autumn, Southern Spring Equinox occurs on Mars. Keep an eye for subtle changes in surface features of the red planet!

This is also the Universal date the Moon will become Full and it will be the closest to the Autumnal Equinox. Because its orbit is more nearly parallel to the eastern horizon, it will rise at dusk for the next several nights in a row. On the average, the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each night, but at this time of year it’s around 20 minutes later for mid-northern latitudes and even less farther north. Because of this added light, the name “Harvest Moon” came about because it allowed farmers more time to work in the fields.

Often times we perceive the Harvest Moon as being more orange than at any other time of the year. The reason is not only scientific enough – but true. Coloration is caused by the scattering of the light by particles in our atmosphere. When the Moon is low, like now, we get more of that scattering effect and it truly does appear more orange. The very act of harvesting itself produces more dust and often times that coloration will last the whole night through. And we all know the size is only an “illusion”…

So, instead of cursing the Moon for hiding the deep sky gems tonight, enjoy it for what it is…a wonderful natural phenomenon that doesn’t even require a telescope!

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: July 30 – August 5, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s big. It’s bright. There’s no escaping it. This week the Moon will be our major point of study, but don’t rule out some bright globular clusters and interesting stars! There’s plenty of history and science to explore, too. Whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, July 30 – Today’s history celebrates the 2001 flyby of the Moon by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) on its way to Lagrange Point 2 to study the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Now that we’re back at Sinus Iridum on the lunar surface, we’ll hop across Mare Frigoris and northeast of the punctuation of Harpalus for a grand old crater – J. Herschel. Although it looks small because it is seen on the curve, this wonderful old walled plain named for John Herschel contains some very tiny details. Its southeastern rim forms the edge of Mare Frigoris and the small (24 km) Horrebow dots its southwest edge. The crater walls are so eroded with time that not much remains of the original structure. Look for many very small telescopic impact craters which dot J. Herschel’s uneven basin and exterior edges. Power up! If you can spot the small central crater C, you are resolving a feature only 12 kilometers wide from some 385,000 kilometers away! Formed in the Pre-Nectarian period, this walled plain could be as much as 4 billion years old…

Now, relax and enjoy the peak of the Capricornid meteor shower. Although it is hard for the casual observer to distinguish these meteors from the Delta Aquarids, no one minds. Again, face southeast and enjoy! The fall rate for this shower is around 10 to 35 per hour, but unlike the Aquarids, this stream produces those great “fireballs” known as bolides. Enjoy…

Tuesday, July 31 – Tonight on the Moon, look south of Mare Humorum is darker Paulus Epidemiarum eastward and paler Lacus Excellentiae westward. To their south you will see a complex cojoined series of craters we’ll take a closer look at – Hainzel and Mee. Hainzel was named for Tycho Brahe’s assistant and measures about 70 kilometers in length and sports several various interior wall structures. Power up and look. Hainzel’s once high walls were obliterated on the north-east by the strike that caused Hainzel C and to the north by impact which caused the formation of Hainzel A. To its basic south is eroded Mee – named for a Scottish astronomer. While Crater Mee doesn’t appear to be much more than simple scenery, it spans 172 kilometers and is far older than Hainzel. While you can spot it easily in binoculars, close telescope inspection shows how the crater is completely deformed by Hainzel. Its once high walls have collapsed to the northwest and its floor is destroyed. Can you spot small impact crater Mee E on the northern edge?

Now, let’s take the opportunity to look at two multiple star systems – Nu and Xi Scorpii.

Starting with Nu about a fingerwidth east and slightly north of bright Beta, we find a handsome duo of stars in a field of nebulosity that will challenge telescopic observers much the way that Epsilon Lyrae does. With any small telescope, the observer will easily see the widely separated A and C stars. Add just a little power and take your time… The C star has a D companion to the southwest! For larger telescopes, take a very close look at the primary star. Can you separate the B companion to the south?

Now let’s hop to Xi about four fingerwidths north of Beta.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1782, this 80 light-year distant system poses a nice challenge for mid-sized scopes. The yellow-hued A and B pair share a very eccentric orbit about the same distance as Uranus is from our Sun. During the 2007 observing year they should be fairly well spaced, and the slightly fainter secondary should appear to the north. Look a good distance away for the 7th magnitude orange C component and south for yet another closely-matched double of 7th and 8th magnitude – the D and E stars.

For the larger scope, this multiple star system does display a little bit of color. Most will see the A and B components as yellow/white, the C star as slightly orange, and the D/E pair as slightly tinged with blue. Be sure to mark your observations for this is one of the finest!

Wednesday, August 1 – Today is the birthdate of Maria Mitchell. Born in 1818, Mitchell became the first woman to be elected as an astronomer to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She later rocketed to worldwide fame when she discovered a bright comet in 1847.

For larger telescopes, let’s try a challenging lunar study worthy of your observing skills. Due west of Hansteen you will find a small crater known as Sirsalis near the terminator. It will appear as a small, dark ellipse with a bright west wall along with its twin, Sirsalis B. The feature you will be looking for is the Sirsalis Rille – the longest lunar “wrinkle” presently known. Stretching northeast of Sirsalis and ex-tending 459 kilometers south to the bright rays of Byrgius, this major “crack” in the lunar surface shows several branchings – like a long dry river bed. Geologically forming in the Imbrian period, chances are the Sirsalis Rille is lunar graben. Thanks to Lunar Orbiter images, the evidence points to shifting tectonic plates as the source of this incredible feature.

Tonight, let’s continue our exploration of globular clusters. These gravitationally bound concentrations of stars contain anywhere from ten thousand to one million members and attain sizes of up to 200 light-years in diameter. At one time, these fantastic members of our galactic halo were believed to be round nebulae. Perhaps the very first to be discovered was M22 in by Abraham Ihle in 1665. This particular globular is easily seen in even small binoculars and can be located just slightly more than two degrees northeast of the “teapot’s lid,” Lambda Sagittarii.

Ranking third amongst the 151 known globular clusters in total light, M22 (Right Ascension: 18 : 36.4 – Declination: -23 : 54) is probably the nearest of these incredible systems to our Earth with an approximate distance of 9600 light-years, and it is also one of the nearest globulars to the galactic plane. Since it resides less than a degree from the ecliptic, it often shares the same eyepiece field with a planet. At magnitude 6, the class VII M22 will begin to show individual stars to even modest instruments and will burst into stunning resolution for larger aperture. About a degree west-northwest, mid-sized telescopes and larger binoculars will capture smaller 8th magnitude NGC 6642. At class V, this particular globular will show more concentration toward the core region than M22. Enjoy them both!

Thursday, August 2 – Tonight we’ll fly right by the Full Buck Moon as we continue our studies to have a look at Mu 1 and Mu 2 Scorpii about two fingerwidths north of Zeta.

Very close to the same magnitude and spectral type, the twin Mu stars are easy to separate visually and most definitely worth a look in telescopes or binoculars. They are considered an actual physical pair because they share the exact same distance and proper motion, but they are separated by less than one light-year.

Hanging out in space some 520 light-years away, western Mu 1 is a spectroscopic binary – the very first discovered to have double lines. This Beta Lyrae-type star has an orbiting companion that eclipses it around every day and a half, yet causes no significant visual drop in magnitude – even though the orbiting companion is only 10 million kilometers away from it! While that sounds like plenty of distance, when the two pass, their surfaces would nearly touch each other!

Friday, August 3 – Tonight let’s race ahead of the rising Moon as we continue our studies with one of the globulars nearest to the galactic center – M14 (Right Ascension: 17 : 37.6 – Declination: -03 : 15). Located about sixteen degrees (less than a handspan) south of Alpha Ophiuchi, this ninth magnitude, class VIII cluster can be spotted with larger binoculars, but will only be fully appreciated with the telescope.

When studied spectroscopically, globular clusters are found to be much lower in heavy element abundance than stars such as own Sun. These earlier generation stars (Population II) began their formation during the birth of our galaxy, making globular clusters the oldest of formations that we can study. In comparison, the disk stars have evolved many times, going through cycles of starbirth and supernovae, which in turn enrich the heavy element concentration in star forming clouds and may cause their collapse. Of course, as you may have guessed, M14 breaks the rules. It contains an unusually high number of variable stars – in excess of 70 – with many of them known to be the W Virginis type. In 1938, a nova appeared in M14, but it was undiscovered until 1964 when Amelia Wehlau of the University of Ontario was surveying the photographic plates taken by Helen Sawyer Hogg. The nova was revealed on eight of these plates taken on consecutive nights, and showed itself as a 16th magnitude star – and was believed to be at one time almost 5 times brighter than the cluster members. Unlike 80 years earlier with T Scorpii in M80, actual photographic evidence of the event existed. In 1991, the eyes of the Hubble were turned its way, but neither the suspect star nor traces of a nebulous remnant were discovered. Then six years later, a carbon star was discovered in M14.

To a small telescope, M14 will offer little to no resolution and will appear almost like an elliptical galaxy, lacking in any central condensation. Larger scopes will show hints of resolution, with a gradual fading towards the cluster’s slightly oblate edges. A true beauty!

Saturday, August 4 – As we explore globular clusters, we simply assume them all to be part of the Milky Way galaxy, but that might not always be the case. We know they are basically concentrated around the galactic center, but there may be four of them that actually belong to another galaxy. Tonight we’ll look at one such cluster being drawn into the Milky Way’s halo. Set your sights just about one and a half degrees west-southwest of Zeta Sagittarii for M54 (Right Ascension: 18 : 55.1 – Declination: -30 : 29).

At around magnitude 7.6, M54 is definitely bright enough to be spotted in binoculars, but its rich class III concentration is more notable in a telescope. Despite its brightness and deeply concentrated core, M54 isn’t exactly easy to resolve. At one time we thought it to be around 65,000 light-years distant, and rich in variables – with 82 known RR Lyrae types. We knew it was receding, but when the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was discovered in 1994, it was noted that M54 was receding at almost precisely the same speed! When more accurate distances were measured, we found M54 to coincide with the SagDEG distance of 80-90,000 light-years, and M54?s distance is now calculated to be 87,400 light-years. No wonder it’s hard to resolve – it’s outside our galaxy!

As we know, most globular clusters congregate around the galactic center in the Ophiuchus/Sagittarius region. Tonight let’s explore what creates a globular cluster’s form… We’ll start with the “head of the class,” M75 (Right Ascension: 20 : 06.1 – Declination: -21 : 55).

Orbiting the galactic center for billions of years, globular clusters endured a wide variety of disturbances. Their component stars escape when accelerated by mutual encounters and the tidal force of our own Milky Way pulls them apart when they are near periapsis, that is, closest to the galactic center. Even close encounters with other masses, such as other clusters and nebulae, can affect them! At the same time, their stellar members are also evolving and this loss of gas can contribute to mass loss and deflation of these magnificent clusters. Although this happens far less quickly than in open clusters, our observable globular friends may only be the survivors of a once larger population, whose stars have been spread throughout the halo. This destruction process is never-ending, and it is believed that globular clusters will cease to exist in about 10 billion years.

Although it will be later evening when M75 appears on the Sagittarius/Capricornus border, you will find the journey of about 8 degrees southwest of Beta Capricorni worth the wait. At magnitude 8, it can be glimpsed as a small round patch in binoculars, but a telescope is needed to see its true glory. Residing around 67,500 light-years from our solar system, M75 is one of the more remote of Messier’s globular clusters. Since it is so far from the galactic center – possibly 100,000 light-years distant – M75 has survived almost intact for billions of years to remain one of the few Class I globular clusters. Although resolution is possible in very large scopes, note that this globular cluster is one of the most concentrated in the sky, with only the outlying stars resolvable to most instruments.

Sunday, August 5 – Today we celebrate the birthday of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. Congratulations! Also on this date in 1864, Giovanni Donati made the very first spectroscopic observations of a comet (Tempel, 1864 II). His observations of three absorption lines led to what we now know as the Swan bands, from a form of the carbon radical C2.

Our study continues tonight as we move away from the galactic center in search of a remote globular cluster that can be viewed by most telescopes. As we have learned, radial velocity measurements show us the majority of globulars are involved in highly eccentric elliptical orbits, which take them far outside the plane of the Milky Way. These orbits form a sort of spherical “halo” which tends to be more concentrated toward our galactic center. Reaching out several thousands of light-years, this halo is actually larger than the disk of our own galaxy. Since globular clusters aren’t involved in our galaxy’s disk rotation, they may possess very high relative velocities. Tonight let’s head toward the constellation of Aquila and look at one such globular – NGC 7006 (Right Ascension: 21 : 01.5 – Declination: +16 : 11).

Located about half a fist’s width east of Gamma Aquilae, NGC 7006 is speeding towards us at a velocity of around 345 kilometers per second. At 150,000 light-years from the center of our galaxy, this particular globular could very well be an extra-galactic object. At magnitude 11.5, it’s not for the faint of heart, but can be spotted in scopes as small as 150mm, and requires larger aperture to look like anything more than a suggestion. Given its tremendous distance from the galactic center, it’s not hard to realize this is a class I – although it is quite faint. Even the largest of amateur scopes will find it unresolvable!

Until next week? May all your skies by clear and steady…

Lead image caption: Crater J. Herschel – Credit: Damian Peach

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: July 23-29, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Are you ready for a week filled with alternative astronomical observing studies? If so, you’ll enjoy looking at some unusual stars and star clusters. If you want to keep things cool, then come along as we mine for lunar ice. Feeling a bit more lazy? Then kick back and enjoy the Delta Aquarid meteor shower or just step out after sunset and enjoy a splendid conjunction! It’s all here… Just head outside!

Monday, July 23 – Tonight we’ll launch our imaginations as we view the area around Mare Crisium and have a look at this month’s lunar challenge – Macrobius. You’ll find it just northwest of the Crisium shore. Spanning 64 kilometers in diameter, this Class I impact crater drops to a depth of nearly 3600 meters – about the same as many of our earthly mines. Its central peak rises up 1100 meters, and may be visible as a small speck inside the crater’s interior. Be sure to mark your lunar challenges and look for other features you may have missed before!

Now, relax and let’s talk until the Moon sets…

As we know most stars begin life in stellar nurseries and end life either alone or in very small groups as doubles or multiple stars. Tonight we can have a look at a group of young stars beginning their stellar evolution and end with an old solitary elder preparing to move on to an even “higher realm.” Open cluster IC 4665 (Right Ascension: 17 : 46.3 – Declination: +05 : 43) is easily detected with just about any optical aid about a finger-width north-northeast of Beta Ophiuchi. Discovered by Philippe Loys de Cheseaux in the mid-1700s, this 1400 light-year distant cluster consists of about 30 mixed magnitude stars all less than 40 million years of age. Despite its early discovery, the cluster did not achieve broad enough recognition for Dreyer to include it in the late 19th century New General Catalog and it was later added as a supplement to the NGC in the Index Catalog of 1908. Be sure to use low power to so see all of this large group.

About three finger-widths north-northeast of IC 4665 is a study that did make Dreyer’s catalogue – NGC 6572 (Right Ascension: 18 : 12.1 – Declination: +06 : 51). This 9th magnitude planetary is very small – but intense. Like the “Cat’s Eye” in Draco, and NGC 6210 in Hercules, this planetary can take a lot of magnification. Those with large scopes should look for a small, round, blue inner core encased is a faint shell. A challenge to find? You bet. Worth the work? Sometimes working for something makes it all the more fun!

Tuesday, July 24 – As our observing evening begins, be sure to look for one of the finest conjunctions of the year! Hovering around the waxing crescent Moon like bees drawn to a hive, you’ll find Mars to the upper right and Spica to the upper left (northwest and northeast respectively). To Spica’s upper right, you’ll find Saturn joining the show, too! This is a very “photogenic” opportunity…

With plenty of Moon to explore tonight, why don’t we try locating an area where many lunar exploration missions made their mark? Binoculars will easily reveal the fully disclosed areas of Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis, and it is where these two vast lava plains converge that we will set our sights. Telescopically, you will see a bright “peninsula” westward of where the two conjoin which extends toward the east. Just off that look for bright and small crater Pliny. It is near this rather inconspicuous feature that the remains Ranger 6 lie forever preserved where it crashed on February 2, 1964.

Unfortunately, technical errors occurred and it was never able to transmit lunar pictures. Not so Ranger 8! On a very successful mission to the same relative area, this time we received 7137 “postcards from the Moon” in the last 23 minutes before hard landing. On the “softer” side, Surveyor 5 also touched down near this area safely after two days of malfunctions on September 10, 1967. Incredibly enough, the tiny Surveyor 5 endured temperatures of up to 283 degrees F, but was able to spectrographically analyze the area’s soil… And by the way, it also managed to televise an incredible 18,006 frames of “home movies” from its distant lunar locale.

Wednesday, July 25 – Today in 1971, Apollo 15 was launched on its way towards the Moon, and we’ll continue our celebration of space exploration and walk on the Moon where the first man set foot. For SkyWatchers, the dark round area you see on the northeastern limb is Mare Crisium and the dark area below that is Mare Fecunditatis. Now look mid-way on the terminator for the dark area that is Mare Tranquillitatis. At its southwest edge, history was made.

In binoculars, trace along the terminator where the Caucasus Mountains stand – and then south for the Apennines and the Haemus Mountains. As you continue towards the center of the Moon, you will see where the shore of Mare Serenitatis curves east, and also the bright ring of Pliny. Continue south along the terminator until you spot the small, bright ring of Dionysius along the edge of Mare Tranquillitatis. Just to the southwest, you may be able to see the soft rings of Sabine and Ritter. It is near here where the base section of the Apollo 11 landing module – Eagle – lies forever enshrined in “magnificent desolation.”

For telescope users, the time is now to power up! See if you can spot small craters Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins just east. Even if you cannot, the Apollo 11 landing area is about the same distance as Sabine and Ritter are wide to the east-southeast. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to see it tonight, take the time during the next couple of days to point it out to your children, grandchildren, or even just a friend… The Moon is a spectacular world and we’ve been there!
Tonight let’s have a look with our eyes first at Delta Ophiuchi. Known as Yed Prior (“The Hand”), look for its optical double Epsilon to the southeast: Yed Posterior. Now have a look in binoculars or a telescope at absolute minimum power for another undiscovered gem…

Delta Ophiuchi is 170 light-years from us, while Epsilon is 108 – but look at the magnificent field they share. Stars of every spectral type are in an area of sky which could easily be covered by a small coin held at arm’s length. Enjoy this fantastic field – from the hot, blue youngsters to the old red giants!

Thursday, July 26 – Long before the Sun sets, look for the Moon to appear in the still-blue sky. As it darkens, watch for shadows on the surface. Have you ever wondered if there was any place on the lunar surface that hasn’t seen the sunlight? Then let’s go searching for one tonight…

Our first order of business will be to identify crater Albategnius. Directly in the center of the Moon is a dark floored area known as Sinus Medii. South of it will be two conspicuously large craters – Hipparchus to the north and ancient Albategnius to the south. Trace along the terminator toward the south until you have almost reached its point (cusp) and you will see a black oval. This normal looking crater with the brilliant west wall is equally ancient crater Curtius. Because of its high southern latitude, we shall never see the interior of this crater – and neither has the Sun! It is believed that the inner walls are quite steep and that Curtius’ interior has never been illuminated since its formation billions of years ago. Because it has remained dark, we can speculate that there may be “lunar ice” pocketed inside its many cracks and rilles that date back to the Moon’s formation!

Because our Moon has no atmosphere, the entire surface is exposed to the vacuum of space. When sunlit, the surface reaches up to 385 K, so any exposed “ice” would vaporize and be lost because the Moon’s gravity cannot hold it. The only way for “ice” to exist would be in a permanently shadowed area. Near Curtius is the Moon’s south pole, and the Clementine spacecraft’s imaging showed around 15,000 square kilometers in which such conditions could exist. So where did this “ice” come from? The lunar surface never ceases to be pelted by meteorites – most of which contain water ice. As we know, many craters were formed by just such impacts. Once hidden from the sunlight, this “ice” could remain for millions of years!

Friday, July 27 – Tonight let’s skip the Moon and take a look at an astounding system called 36 Ophiuchi, located about a thumb’s width southeast of Theta. Situated in space less than 20 light-years from Earth, even small telescopes can split this pair of 5th magnitude K type giants very similar to our own Sun, and larger telescopes can also pick up the C component as well. 36 Ophiuchi B is also known as system 544…because it has what could very likely be a planet in a habitable zone!

Now we’ll have a look at a beautifully contrasting pair of stars – Zeta 1 and 2 Scorpii. You’ll find them a little less than a handspan south-southeast of Antares and at the western corner of the J of the constellation’s shape.

Although the two Zetas aren’t a true physical pair, they are nonetheless interesting. The easternmost, orange sub-giant Zeta 2 appears far brighter for a reason… It’s much closer at only 155 light-years away. But, focus your attention on western Zeta 1. It’s a blue supergiant that’s around 5700 light-years away and shines with the light of 100,000 suns and exceeds even Rigel in sheer power! The colorful pair is easily visible as two separate stars to the unaided eye, but a real delight in binoculars or a low power telescope field. Check them out tonight!

Saturday, July 28 – Tonight let’s continue our studies of the lunar poles by returning to previous study crater Plato. North of Plato you will see a long horizontal area with a gray floor – Mare Frigoris. North of it you will note a double crater. This elongated diamond-shape is Goldschmidt and the crater which cuts across its western border is Anaxagoras. The lunar north pole isn’t far from Goldschmidt, and since Anaxagoras is just about one degree outside of the Moon’s theoretical “arctic circle” the lunar sun will never go high enough to clear the southernmost rim.

On March 5, 1998, NASA announced that Lunar Prospector’s neutron spectrometer data showed that water ice had been discovered at both lunar poles. The first results showed the ice was mixed in with lunar regolith (soil, rocks and dust), but long term data confirmed near pure pockets hidden beneath about 40 cm of surface material – with the results being strongest in the northern polar region. It is estimated there may be as much as 6 trillion kg (6.6 billion tons) of this valuable resource! If this still doesn’t get your motor running, then realize that without it, we could never establish a manned lunar base because of the tremendous expense involved in transporting our most basic human need – water.

The presence of lunar water could also mean a source of oxygen, another vital material we need to survive! And for returning home or voyaging further, these same deposits could provide hydrogen which could be used as rocket fuel. So as you view Anaxagoras tonight, realize that you may be viewing one of mankind’s future “homes” on a distant world!

Now grab a comfortable seat because the Delta Aquarid meteor shower reaches its peak tonight. It is not considered a prolific shower, and the average fall rate is about 25 per hour – but who wouldn’t want to take a chance on observing a meteor about every 4 to 5 minutes? These travelers are considered to be quite slow, with speeds around 24 kilometers per second and are known to leave yellow trails. One of the most endearing qualities of this annual shower is its broad stream of around 20 days before and 20 days after peak. This will allow it to continue for at least another week and overlap the beginning stages of the famous Perseids.

The Delta Aquarid stream is a complicated one, and a mystery not quite yet solved. It is possible that gravity split the stream from a single comet into two parts, and each may very well be a separate stream. One thing we know for certain is they will seem to emanate from the area around Capricornus and Aquarius, so you will have best luck facing southeast and getting away from city lights. Although the Moon will interfere, just relax and enjoy a warm summer night. It’s time to catch a “falling star!”

Sunday, July 29 – Tonight let’s take an entirely different view of the Moon as we do a little “mountain climbing!” The most outstanding feature on the Moon will be the emerging Copernicus, but since we’ve delved into the deepest areas of the lunar surface, why not climb to some of its peaks?

Using Copernicus as our guide, to the north and northwest of this ancient crater lie the Carpathian Mountains, ringing the southern edge of Mare Imbrium. As you can see, they begin well east of the terminator, but look into the shadow! Extending some 40 kilometers beyond the line of daylight, you will continue to see bright peaks – some of which reach 2072 meters high! When the area is fully revealed tomorrow, you will see the Carpathian Mountains eventually disappear into the lava flow that once formed them. Continuing onward to Plato, which sits on the northern shore of Imbrium, we will look for the singular peak of Pico. It is between Plato and Mons Pico that you will find the scattered peaks of the Teneriffe Mountains. It is possible that these are the remnants of much taller summits of a once stronger range, but only around 1890 meters still survives above the surface.

Time to power up! Lather, rinse and repeat until you know these by heart… To the west of the Teneriffes, and very near the terminator, you will see a narrow series of hills cutting through the region west-southwest of Plato. This is known as the Straight Range – Montes Recti – and some of its peaks reach up to 2072 meters. Although this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, that’s over twice as tall as the Vosges Mountains in central Europe and on the average very comparable to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. Not bad!

Now head about a palm’s width east of our previous study star – Zeta Scorpii – for lovely Theta. Named Sargas, this 1.8 magnitude star resides around 650 light-years distant in a very impressive field of stars for binoculars or a small telescope. While all of these are only optical companions, the field itself is worth a look – and worth remembering for the future.

About three fingerwidths north is true double Lambda Scorpii, also known as Shaula (The Sting). As the brightest known star in its class, 1.6 magnitude Lambda is a spectroscopic binary which is also a variable of the Beta Canis Majoris type, changing ever so slightly in little more than 5 hours. Although we can’t see the companion star, nearby is yet another that will make learning this starhop “marker” worth your time.

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: June 25 – July 1, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! What a great week to enjoy lunar features! We’ll celebrate many famous birthdays – including Charles Messier – and take on challenging double stars. If you’re in the mood to just kick back in a lawn chair and enjoy, then check out the June Draconid meteor shower. (sssssh… it may have been responsible for the Tunguska Blast!) Still more? Then keep an eye on the western horizon, because Mercury is about to become a “guest star” in the Beehive Cluster! When ever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, June 25 – Today celebrates the birth of Hermann Oberth – who has often been considered the father of modern rocketry. Born in Transylvania in 1894, Oberth was a visionary who was convinced space travel would one day be possible. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne, Oberth studied rockets and wrote many books devoted to the possibility of achieving spaceflight. He was the first to conceive of rocket “stages” – allowing vehicles to expend their fuel and lose dead weight. But tonight you won’t need one of Oberth’s rockets to travel to the Moon, as take on another challenge as we look mid-way along the terminator at the west shore of Mare Tranquillitatis for crater Julius Caesar.

This is also a ruined crater, but it met its demise not through lava flow – but from a cataclysmic event. The crater is 88 kilometers long and 73 kilometers wide. Although its west wall still stands over 1200 meters high, look carefully at the east and south walls. At one time, something plowed its way across the lunar surface, breaking down Julius Caesar’s walls and leaving them to stand no higher than 600 meters at the tallest. While visiting the “Tranquil Sea”, look for the unusually shaped crater Hypatia. Can you spot its rima on the southern shore of Tranquillitatis? Perhaps the bright pockmark of Moltke on its north edge will help. Hypatia sits on the northern shore of a rugged area known as Sinus Asperitatis. Do you see Alfraganus on the terminator? Follow the terrain to Theophilus and look west for Ibyn-Rushd with crater Kant to the northwest and the beautiful peak of Mons Penck to its east.

Tuesday, June 26 – On this day in 1949, asteroid Icarus was discovered on a 48-inch Schmidt plate made nine months after that telescope went into operation, and just prior to the beginning of the multi-year National Geographic-Palomar Sky Survey. The asteroid was found to have a highly eccentric orbit and a perihelion distance of just 27 million kilometers, closer to the Sun than Mercury, giving it its unusual name. It was just 6.4 million kilometers from Earth at the time of discovery, and variations in its orbital parameters have been used to determine Mercury’s mass and test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

But, today is even more special because it is the birthday of none other than Charles Messier, the famed French comet hunter. Born in 1730, Messier is best known for cataloging the 100 or so bright nebulae and star clusters that we now refer to as the Messier objects. The catalog was intended to keep both Messier and others from confusing these stationary objects with possible new comets.

] If you missed your chance last night to see the incredible Alpine Valley, it’s now fully disclosed in the sunlight. Viewable through binoculars as a thin, dark line, telescopic observers at highest powers will enjoy a wealth of details in this area, such as a crack running inside its boundaries. It’s a wonderful lunar observing challenge and a guide to our next lunar feature – Cassini and Cassini A. Where the valley joins the lunar Alps, follow the range south into Mare Imbrium. Along the way you will see the protruding bright peaks of Mons Blanc, Promontorium DeVille, and at the very end, Promontorium Agassiz ending in the smooth sands. Southeast of Agassiz you will spot Cassini. The major crater spans 57 kilometers and reaches a floor depth of 1240 meters. The challenge is to also spot the central crater A, which is only 17 kilometers wide, yet drops down another 2830 meters below the surface. This shallow crater holds another challenge within – Cassini A. But look carefully, can you spot the B crater on Cassini’s inner southwestern rim? Or the very small M crater just outside the northern edge?

For more advanced lunar observers, head a bit further south to the Haemus Mountains to look for the bright punctuation of a small crater on the southwest shore of Mare Serenitatis. Increase your magnification and look for a curious feature with an even more curious name… Rima Sulpicius Gallus. It is nothing more than a lunar wrinkle which accompanies the crater of the same name – a long-gone Roman counselor. Can you trace its 90 kilometer length?

Now see how many Messier objects that you can capture and wish Charles a happy birthday!

Wednesday, June 27 – Let’s begin our lunar studies tonight with a little “mountain climbing!” Using Copernicus as our guide, to the north and northwest of this ancient crater lie the Carpathian Mountains ringing the southern edge of Mare Imbrium. As you can see, they begin well east of the terminator, but look into the shadow! Extending some 40 kilometers beyond the line of daylight, you will continue to see bright peaks – some of which reach a height of 2072 meters. When the area is fully revealed tomorrow, you will see the Carpathian Mountains disappear into the lava flow that once formed them.

Let’s try looking just south of Sinus Medii and identifying these features: (1) Flammarion, (2) Herschel, (3) Ptolemaeus, (4) Alphonsus, (5) Davy, (6) Alpetragius, (7) Arzachel, (8) Thebit, (9) Purbach, (10) Lacaille, (11) Blanchinus, (12) Delaunay, (13) Faye, (14) Donati, (15) Airy, (16) Argelander, (17) Vogel, (18) Parrot, (19) Klein, (20) Albategnius, (21) Muller, (22) Halley, (23) Horrocks, (24) Hipparchus, (25) Sinus Medii

When skies are dark, it’s time to have a look at the 250 light-year distant silicon star Iota Librae. This is a real challenge for binoculars – but not because the components are so close. In Iota’s case, the near 5th magnitude primary simply overshadows its 9th magnitude companion! In 1782, Sir William Herschel measured them and determined them to be a true physical pair. Yet, in 1940 Librae A was determined to have an equal magnitude companion only .2 arc seconds away…. And the secondary was proved to have a companion of its own that echoes the primary. A four star system!

While you’re out, keep watch for a handful of meteors originating near the constellation of Corvus. The Corvid meteor shower is not well documented, but you might spot as many as ten per hour.

Thursday, June 28 – Tonight on the lunar surface, use crater Copernicus as a guide and look north-northwest to survey the Carpathian Mountains. The Carpathians ring the southern edge of Mare Imbrium beginning well east of the terminator. But let’s look on the dark side. Extending some 40 km beyond into the Moon’s own shadow, you can continue to see bright peaks – some reaching 2000 meters high! Tomorrow, when this area is fully revealed, you will see the Carpathians begin to disappear into the lava flow forming them. Continuing northward to Plato – on the northern shore of Mare Imbrium – re-identify the singular peak of Pico. Between Plato and Mons Pico you will find the many scattered peaks of the Teneriffe Mountains. It is possible that these are the remnants of much taller summits of a once precipitous range. Now the peaks rise less than 2000 meters above the surface.

Time to power up! West of the Teneriffes, and very near the terminator, you will see a narrow line of mountains, very similar in size to the Alpine Valley. This is known as the Straight Range or the Montes Recti. To binoculars or small scopes at low power, this isolated strip of mountains will appear as a white line drawn across the grey mare. It is believed this feature may be all that is left of a crater wall from the Imbrium impact. It runs for a distance of around 90 kilometers, and is approximately 15 kilometers wide. Some of its peaks reach as high as 2072 meters! Although this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, that’s over twice as tall as the Vosges Mountains in west-central Europe, and on the average very comparable to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States.

When you’re finished with your lunar observations, tonight let’s try a challenging double star – Upsilon Librae. This beautiful red star is right at the limit for a small telescope, but quite worthy as the pair is a widely disparate double. Look for the 11.5 magnitude companion to the south in a very nice field of stars!

Friday, June 29 – Today we celebrate the birthday of George Ellery Hale, who was born in 1868. Hale was the founding father of the Mt. Wilson Observatory. Although he had no education beyond his baccalaureate in physics, he became the leading astronomer of his day. He invented the spectroheliograph, coined the word astrophysics, and founded the Astrophysical Journal and Yerkes Observatory. At the time, Mt. Wilson dominated the world of astronomy, confirming what galaxies were and verifying the expanding universe cosmology, making Mt. Wilson one of the most productive facilities ever built. When Hale went on to found Palomar Observatory, the 5-meter (200?) telescope was named for him and dedicated on June 3, 1948. It continues to be the largest telescope in the continental United States.

It’s time to head deeper toward the lunar south as we take a close look at the dark, heart-shaped region Palus Epidemiarum. Caught on its southern edge is the largely eroded Campanus with well defined Cichus to the east and Ramsden to the west. Power up in your telescope and look carefully at its smooth floors. If conditions are favorable, you will catch Rima Hesiodus cutting across its northern boundary and the crisscross pattern of Rima Ramsden in the western lobe. Can you make out a small, deep puncture mark to the northeast? It might be small, but it has a name – Marth.
Now let’s go deep south and have look at an area which once held something almost half a bright as tonight’s Moon and over four times brighter than Venus. Only one thing could light up the skies like that – a supernova. According to historical records from Europe, China, Egypt, Arabia and Japan, 1001 years ago the very first supernova event was noted. Appearing in the constellation of Lupus, it was at first believed to be a comet by the Egyptians, yet the Arabs saw it as an illuminating “star.”

Located less than a fingerwidth northeast of Beta Lupus (RA 15 02 48.40 Dec -41 54 42.0) and a half degree east of Kappa Centaurus, no visible trace is left of a once grand event that spanned five months of observation beginning in May, and lasting until it dropped below the horizon in September, 1006. It is believed all the force created from the event was converted to energy and very little mass remains. In the area, a 17th magnitude star shows a tiny gas ring and radio source 1459-41 remains our best candidate for pinpointing this incredible event.

Saturday, June 30 – We start our observing evening with the beautiful Moon as we return first to the ancient and graceful landmark crater Gassendi standing at the north edge of Mare Humorum. The mare itself is around the size of the state of Arkansas and is one of the oldest of the circular maria on the visible surface. As you view the bright ring of Gassendi, look for evidence of the massive impact which may have formed Humorum. It is believed the original crater may have been in excess of 462 kilometers in diameter, indenting the lunar surface almost twice over. Over time, similar smaller strikes formed the many craters around its edges and lava flow gradually gave the area the ridge- and rille-covered floor we see tonight. Its name is the “Sea of Moisture,” but look for its frozen waves in the long dry landscape.

Caught on the north-western rim of Mare Humorum, look for crater Mersenius. It is a typical Nectarian geological formation, spanning approximately 51 miles in diameter in all directions. Power up in a telescope to look for fine features such as steep slopes supporting newer impact crater Mersenius P and tiny interior craterlet chains. Can you spot white formations and crevices along its terraced walls? How about Rimae Mersenius? Further south you’ll spy tiny Liebig helping to support Mersenius D’s older structure, along with its own small set of mountains known as the Rupes Liebig. Continue to follow the edge of Mare Humorum around the wall known as Rimae Doppelmayer until you reach the shallow old crater Doppelmayer. As you can see, the whole floor fractured crater has been filled with lava flow from Mare Humorum’s formation, pointing to an age older than Humorum itself. Look for a shallow mountain peak in its center – there’s a very good chance this peak is actually higher than the crater walls. Did this crater begin to upwell as it filled? Or did it experience some volcanic activity of its own? Take a closer look at the floor if the lighting is right to spy a small lava dome and evidence of dark pyroclastic deposits – it’s a testament to what once was!

Still got the moonlight blues? Then try your hand at a super challenging double – Mu Librae. This pair is only a magnitude apart in brightness and right at the limit for a small telescope. Up the power slowly and look for the companion just to the southwest of the primary. Good luck and mark your observation because Mu’s blues are on many observing lists!

And out of the blue comes a meteor shower! Keep watch tonight for the June Draconids. The radiant for this shower will be near handle of Big Dipper – Ursa Major. The fall rate varies from 10 to 100 per hour, but tonight’s bright skies will toast most of the offspring of comet Pons-Winnecke. On a curious note, today in 1908 was when the great Tunguska impact happened in Siberia. A fragment of a comet, perhaps?

Sunday, July 1 – Today In 1917, the astronomers at Mt. Wilson were celebrating as the 100? primary mirror arrived. Up until that time, the 60? Hale telescope (donated by George Hale’s father) was the premier creation of St. Gobrain Glassworks – which was later commissioned to create the blank for the Hooker telescope. Thanks to the funds provided by John D. Hooker (and Carnegie), the dream was realized after years of hard work and ingenuity to create not only a building to properly house it – but the telescope workings as well. It saw “first light” five months later on November 1.
As anxious astronomers waited for this groundbreaking moment, the scope was aimed at Jupiter but the image was horrible – to their dismay, workmen had left the dome open and the Sun had heated the massive mirror! Try as they might to rest until it had cooled – no astronomer slept. Fearful of the worst, sometime around three in the morning they returned again long after Jupiter had set. Pointing the massive scope towards a star, they achieved a perfect image!

If you’re looking for a perfect image, then look no further than the western horizon tonight at twilight. Why? Because Mercury is going to be a “guest star” in the Beehive Cluster! Be sure to at least get out your binoculars and look at the speedy little inner planet as it cruises about a degree or so to the western edge of M44.

Tonight we’ll return again to our landmark lunar feature – crater Grimaldi – and begin our journey north…

As you move north of Grimaldi on a crater hop, the next feature you will en-counter is the walled plain of Hevelius. With a diameter of about 64 miles, this round area doesn’t have a height we can really measure because of its lunar position, but we can see that it does have some relatively steep walls around its edges. Hevelius was formed in the Nectarian geological period and if you look closely you’ll see that it has a small central peak, a fine rimae and many craterlet chains, too. Can you spot large interior Crater Hevelius A with just binoculars? How about companion crater Cavalerius which is part of its northern border?

While you’re out, take the time to look at lowly Theta Lupi about a fistwidth south-southwest of the mighty Antares. While this rather ordinary looking 4th magnitude star appears to be nothing special – there’s a lesson to be learned here. So often in our quest to look at the bright and incredible – the distant and the impressive – we often forget about the beauty of a single star. When you take the time to seek the path less traveled, you just might find more than you expected. Hiding behind a veil of the “ordinary” lies a trio of three spectral types and three magnitudes in a diamond-dust field. An undiscovered gem…

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: April 9-15, 2012

[/caption]Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s shaping up to be a great week to enjoy astronomy. For both hemispheres, the Virginid Meteor shower is underway and its peak occurs late Monday night / early Tuesday morning. Need more celestial fireworks? Then keep looking up as the “April Fireballs” will be visiting, with their peak beginning about a week from today and lasting for 24 days. Even if you only catch one of these bright travelers as they sparkle across the starry sky, it will make your night! But hang on, there will be plenty to explore. Bright stars and bright planets are featured – as well as some of the season’s best galaxies. Keep your telescope out and don’t get spooked, because the “Ghost of Jupiter” will be a challenge object! If you want to know more about astonomy history, and what you can see with just your eyes and your optics, then meet me in the back yard…

Monday, April 9 – Tonight let’s take a journey towards the 25th brightest star in the night sky – 1.3 magnitude, Alpha Leonis. Regulus, known as “The Little King,” is the brightest star in Leo. At 77 light-years away, this star is considered a “dwarf” despite shining with a visible light almost 150 times that of Sol. The orange-red giant Arcturus and the blue white “dwarf” Regulus both share a common absolute magnitude very close to 0. The reason the two stars shine with a similar intrinsic brightness – despite widely different physical sizes – is Regulus’ photosphere is more than twice as hot (12,000 C) as Arcturus. While observing Regulus, look for a distant companion of magnitude 8.5. Normally low powers would best concentrate the companion’s light, but try a variety of magnifications to help improve contrast. For those with large aperture scopes, look for a 13.1 magnitude “companion’s companion” a little more than 2 arc seconds away!

Tuesday, April 10 – Be sure to get up before dawn to enjoy the Virginid meteor shower. The radiant point will be near Gamma in the bowl of Virgo. The fall rate of 20 per hour is above average for meteor showers, and with the Moon partially out of the equation this morning, you’re in for a treat!

Tonight, let’s have a look at Arcturus – a star whose distance from the Earth (10 parsecs) and radial velocity (less than 200 meters per second) can almost be considered a benchmark. By skydark you will see 0.2 magnitude, Arcturus – the brightest star in Bootes and 4th brightest star in the night sky – some 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. Apparent to the eye is Arcturus’ orange color. Because a star’s intrinsic luminosity relates to its apparent brightness and distance, Arcturus’ absolute magnitude is almost precisely the same as its apparent magnitude. Just because Arcturus’ radial velocity is nearly zero doesn’t mean it isn’t on the move relative to our Sun. Arcturus is now almost as close as it will ever get and its large proper motion – perpendicular to our line of sight – exceeds 125 kilometers per second. Every 100 years Arcturus moves almost 1 degree across the sky!

Since you’ve looked at a red star, why not look at a red planet before you call it a night? Mars is still making a wonderful apparition. Have you noticed it dimming even more? Right now it should be about magnitude -0.5. You may have noticed something else about Mars in the eyepiece, too… It’s getting smaller!

Wednesday, April 11 – Today is the birthday of William Wallace Campbell. Born in 1862, Campbell went on to become the leader of stellar motion and radial velocity studies. He was the director of Lick Observatory from 1901 to 1930, and also served as president of the University of California and the National Academy of Sciences. Also born on this day – but in 1901 – was Donald H. Menzel – assistant astronomer at Lick Observatory. Menzel became Director of Harvard Observatory, an expert on the Sun’s coronosphere and held a genuine belief in the extraterrestrial nature of UFOs. Today in 1960, the first radio search for extraterrestrial civilizations was started by Frank Drake (Project Ozma). In 1986, Halley’s Comet closed within 65 million kilometers of the Earth – as close as it would get.

Tonight, why don’t we honor Campbell’s work as we try taking a look at a variable ourselves? RT (star 48) Aurigae is a bright cephid that is located roughly halfway between Epsilon Geminorum and Theta Aurigae. This perfect example of a pulsating star follows a precise timetable of 3.728 days and fluxes by close to one magnitude.

Thursday, April 12 – Today in 1961, Yuri Gagarin made one full orbit of the Earth aboard Vostok 1, while also becoming the first human in space. Also today (in 1981) Columbia became the first Space Shuttle to launch.

Break out the telescope tonight and launch your way towards Iota Cancri – a fine wide disparate double of magnitudes 4.0 and 6.6 separated by some 30 arc seconds. This true binary is so distant from one another that they take over 60,000 years to complete a single orbit around their common center of gravity! Located slightly less than a fist’s width due north of M44, this pair is about 300 light years distant. Both stars shine with a light considerably brighter than our Sun and observers may note a subtle gold and pale blue color contrast between them.

Friday, April 13 – With no early evening Moon to contend with, this is a fine opportunity to have a look at a group of galaxies between Leo’s paws. Start at Regulus and look due east toward Iota Leonis. Halfway between the two (less than a fist from Regulus) and two finger-widths northeast of Rho Leonis, you’ll encounter Messier Galaxies M95 (Right Ascension: 10 : 44.0 – Declination: +11 : 42) and M96 (Right Ascension: 10 : 46.8 – Declination: +11 : 49) – both within the same low power field of view. At magnitude 9.2, the brighter – and slightly rounder – M96 lies northeast of 9.7 magnitude, M95. Pierre Mechain discovered both galaxies on March 20, 1781 and Messier added them to his catalog 4 days later. These two galaxies are two of the brightest members of the Leo I galaxy group located some 38 million light-years away.

To see another Messier member of the Leo I group, center on M96 and shift the galaxy south. From the north side of the low power field, the 9.3 magnitude galaxy M105 (Right Ascension: 10 : 47.8 – Declination: +12 : 35), nearby 10th magnitude NGC 3384 (Right Ascension: 10 : 48.3 – Declination: +12 : 38), and 12th magnitude NGC 3389 (Right Ascension: 10 : 48.5 – Declination: +12 : 32) will come into view. M105 was discovered by Mechain on the night Messier catalogued M95 and 96 but was not formally added to Messier’s catalog. Based on Mechain’s observing notes, Helen Sawyer Hogg added it to Messier’s list in 1947 – along with galaxy M106 and globular cluster M107. Mechain failed to notice M105’s bright neighboring galaxy – NGC 3384. NGC 3384 is actually slightly brighter than the faintest Messier discovered – M91.

We’re not done yet! If you center on M105 and shift due north less than a degree and a half you will encounter 10th magnitude NGC 3377 (Right Ascension: 10 : 47.7 – Declination: +13 : 59) – a small elongated galaxy with a stellar core. There are a dozen galaxies visible to moderate amateur instruments (through magnitude 12) in the Leo I region of the sky!

Saturday, April 14 – Today is the birthday of Christian Huygens. Born in 1629, the Dutch scientist went on to become one of the leaders in his field during the 17th century. Among his achievements were promoting the wave theory of light, patenting the pendulum clock, and improving the optics of telescopes by inventing a new type eyepiece and reducing false color through increasing the focal length of refractor telescopes. Huygens was the first to discover Saturn’s rings and largest satellite – Titan. Of the rings, Huygens said, “Saturn: encircled by a ring, thin and flat, nowhere touching, and inclined to the ecliptic.”

Wanna’ check Saturn out? It will be rising in the constellation of Virgo not long after the sky begins to turn dark. If you’re not sure of which “star” it is, just wait for awhile and you’ll find it about a fistwidth northwest of bright, blue/white Spica. Be sure to check out the ring system! Right now they have a very nice southern tilt which will allow you a great view of the shadow of the planet on the rings – and the shadow of the rings on the planet. If the atmosphere will allow, power up! Something you may never have thought of looking for could be happening… Can you see the planet’s edge through the Cassini division? Be sure to look for wide orbiting Titan and some of Saturn’s smaller moons slipping around the ring edges.

Tonight our challenge is also planetary – but it’s the planetary nebula – the “Ghost of Jupiter”. Begin by identifying the constellation of Hydra. Starting at Alpha Hydrae, head east about a fist’s width to find Lambda within a field of nearby fainter stars. Continue less than a fist southeast and locate Mu. You’ll find the “Ghost of Jupiter” (NGC 3242) lurking in the dark less than a finger-width due south. At magnitude 9, the NGC 3242 (Right Ascension: 10 : 24.8 – Declination: -18 : 38) gives a strikingly blue-green appearance in even small scopes – despite being more than 1500 light years away.

Sunday, April 15 – Tonight keep a watch for the “April Fireballs.” This unusual name has been given to what may be a branch of the complex Virginid stream which began earlier in the week. The absolute radiant of the stream is unclear, but most of its long tails will point back toward southeastern skies. These bright bolides can possibly arrive in a flurry – depending on how much Jupiter’s gravity has perturbed the meteoroid stream. Even if you only see one tonight, keep a watch in the days ahead. The time for “April Fireballs” lasts for two weeks. Just seeing one of these brilliant streaks will put a smile on your face!

And if you can’t take your eyes off Leo, then there’s good reason. The combination of Theta Leonis, Regulus and Mars certainly calls attention to itself!

While we’re out, let’s journey this evening towards another lovely multiple system as we explore Beta Monocerotis. Located about a fist width northwest of Sirius, Beta is one of the finest true triple systems for the small telescope. At low power, the 450 light year distant white primary will show the blue B and C stars to the southeast. If skies are stable, up the magnification to split the E/W oriented pair. All three stars are within a magnitude of each other and make Beta one of the finest sights for late winter skies.

If you hadn’t noticed, Saturn is at opposition tonight, meaning it will be viewable from dusk until dawn. Be sure to check out the “Ring King” – but wait until it has risen well above the lower atmosphere disturbance for a superior view!

Until next week, I wish you clear and steady skies!

Solo Star Synthesis


“Swing your partner round and round… Out of the cluster and out of town” While that’s a facetious description as to how binary stars end up losing their companions, it’s not entirely untrue. In practicing the field of astronomy, we’re quite aware that not all stars are single entities and at least half of the stellar population of the Milky Way consists of binaries. However, explaining just exactly why some are loners and others belong to multiple systems has been somewhat of a mystery. Now a team of astronomers from Bonn University and the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio astronomy think they have the answer…

The team recently published their results in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Apparently the environment that forms a particular group of stars plays a huge role in how many stars lead a lone existence – or have one or more companions. For the most part, star-forming nebulae produce binary stars in clustered groups. These groups then quickly disband into their parent galaxy and at least half of them become loners. But why do some double stars end up leading a solitary life? The answer might very well be how they interact gravitationally.

“In many cases the pairs are torn apart into two single stars, in the same way that a pair of dancers might be separated after colliding with another couple on a crowded dance floor”, explains Michael Marks, a PhD student and member of the International Max-Planck Research School for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

If this is the case, then single stars take on that state long before they spread out into a galaxy. Since conditions in star-forming regions vary widely in both appearance and population, science is taking a closer look at density. The more dense the region is, the more binary stars form – and the greater the interaction that splits them apart. Every cluster of stars has a different population, too.. And that population is dependant on the initial density. By using computer modeling, astronomers are able to determine what regions are most likely to contribute single stars are multiple systems to their host galaxy.

“Working out the composition of the Milky Way from these numbers is simple: We just add up the single and binary stars in all the dispersed groups to build a population for the wider galaxy”, says Kroupa. Michael Marks further explains how this concept applies universally: “This is the first time we have been able to compute the stellar content of a whole galaxy, something that was simply not possible until now. With our new method we can now calculate the stellar contents of many different galaxies and work out how many single and binary stars they have.”

Original Story Source: RAS News. For further reading: Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Animations of the interactions of binary stars.