Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: June 4-10, 2012

Graphic Courtesy of Dave Reneke.

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Greeting, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s gonna’ be a great week! We start off with a partial lunar eclipse of the Strawberry Moon, head into the historic Venus Transit, study some Herschel objects, catch both the Scorpid and Arietid Meteor Showers, practice some binocular astronomy and even take on some challenge objects! How awesome is that? Whenever you’re ready, just follow me into the back yard…

Monday, June 4 – 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!

This evening as the Sun sets and the Moon rises opposite of it, take advantage of some quiet time and really stop to look at the eastern horizon. If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, you will see the Earth’s shadow rising – like a dark, sometimes blue band – that stretches around 180 degrees of horizon. Look just above it for a Rayleigh scattering effect known as the “Belt of Venus”. This beautiful pinkish glow is caused by the backscattering of sunlight and is often referred to as the anti-twilight arch. As the Sun continues to set, this boundary between our shadow and the arch rises higher in the sky and gently blends with the coming night. What you are seeing is the shadow of the Earth’s translucent atmosphere, casting a shadow back upon itself. This happens every night! Pretty cool, huh?

For some of us, it’s eclipse time! According to NASA’s Fred Espenak, most of the Americas will experience moonset before the partial lunar eclipse ends while eastern Asia will miss the beginning of the eclipse because it occurs before moonrise. The Moon’s contact times with Earth’s shadows are: Penumbral Eclipse Begins: 08:48:09 UT, Partial Eclipse Begins: 09:59:53 UT, Greatest Eclipse: 11:03:13 UT, Partial Eclipse Ends: 12:06:30 UT, Penumbral Eclipse Ends: 13:18:17. At the instant of greatest eclipse the umbral eclipse magnitude will reach 0.3705. At that time the Moon will be at the zenith for observers in the South Pacific. In spite of the fact that just a third of the Moon enters the umbral shadow (the Moon’s southern limb dips 12.3 arc-minutes into the umbra) the partial phase still lasts over 2 hours. Be sure to visit the resource pages for a visibility map and links to precise times and locations!

Tuesday, June 5 – Heads up for all observers! Today’s universal date marks an historic event – Venus will transit the Sun! This event will cross international date lines, so be sure to know ahead of time when and where to watch. North America will be able to see the start of the transit, while South Asia, the Middle East, and most of Europe will catch the end of it. For some great information on when, where and how to watch, visit www.transitofvenus.org. If you’re clouded out, there’s plenty of resources on-line to view this rare event. One that promises to have plenty of extra bandwidth to serve visitors is Astronomy Live. Be there!!

For all you Stargazers, keep watch for the Scorpid meteor shower. Its radiant will be near the constellation of Ophiuchus, and the average fall rate will be about 20 per hour with some fireballs.

While you’re out, take the time to check out Alpha Herculis -Ras Algethi. You will find it not only to be an interesting variable, but a colorful double as well. The primary star is one of the largest known red giants and at about 430 light years away, it is also one of the coolest. Its 5.4 magnitude greenish companion star is easily separated in even small scopes – but even it is a binary! This entire star system is enclosed in an expanding gaseous shell that originates from the evolving red giant. Enjoy it tonight.

Wednesday, June 6 – So far we’ve studied many Herschel objects in disguise as Messier catalog items – but we haven’t really focused on some mighty fine galaxies that are within the power of the intermediate to large telescope. Tonight let’s take a serious skywalk as we head to 6 Comae and drop two degrees south.

At magnitude 10.9, Herschel catalog object H I.35 is also known by its New General Catalog number of 4216 (Right Ascension: 12 : 15.9 – Declination: +13 : 09). This splendid edge-on galaxy has a bright nucleus and will walk right out in larger telescopes with no aversion required. But, the most fascinating part about studying anything in the Virgo cluster is about to be revealed.

While studying structure in NGC 4216, averted vision picks up magnitude 12 NGC 4206 (Right Ascension:12 : 15.3 – Declination: +13 : 02) to the south. This is also a Herschel object – H II.135. While it is smaller and fainter, the nucleus will be the first thing to catch your attention – and then you’ll notice it is also an edge-on galaxy! As if this weren’t distracting enough, while re-centering NGC 4216, sometimes the movement is just enough to allow the viewer to catch yet another edge-on galaxy to the north – NGC 4222 (Right Ascension: 12 : 16.4 – Declination: +13 : 19). At magnitude 14, you can only expect to be able to see it in larger scopes, but what a treat this trio is!

Is there a connection between certain types of galaxy structures within the Virgo cluster? Science certainly seems to think so. While low metallicity studies involving these galaxies are going on, research into evolution of galaxy clusters themselves continue to make new strides forward in our understanding of the universe. Capture them tonight!

Thursday, June 7 – If you’re up before dawn the next two days or out just after sunset, enjoy the peak of the June Arietid meteors – the year’s strongest daylight shower – with up to 30 visible per hour.

If you’d like to try your ear at radio astronomy with the offspring of sungrazing asteroid Icarus, tune an FM radio to the lowest frequency not receiving a clear signal. An outdoor antenna pointed at the zenith increases your chances, but even a car radio can pick up strong bursts! Simply turn up the static and listen. Those hums, whistles, beeps, bongs, and occasional snatches of signals are our own radio signals being reflected off the meteor’s ion trail!

Tonight let’s study a radio-source galaxy so bright it can be seen in binoculars – 8.6 magnitude M87 (Right Ascension: 12 : 30.8 – Declination: +12 : 24), about two fingerwidths northwest of Rho Virginis. This giant elliptical was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781 and cataloged as M87. Spanning 120,000 light-years, it’s an incredibly luminous galaxy containing far more mass and stars than the Milky Way – gravitationally distorting its four dwarf satellites galaxies. M87 is known to contain in excess of several thousand globular clusters – up to 150,000 – and far more than our own 200.

In 1918, H. D. Curtis of Lick Observatory discovered something else – M87 has a jet of gaseous material extending from its core and pushing out several thousand light-years into space. This highly perturbed jet exhibits the same polarization as synchrotron radiation – a property of neutron stars. Containing a series of small knots and clouds as observed by Halton Arp at Palomar in 1977, he also discovered a second jet in 1966 erupting in the opposite direction. Thanks to these two properties, M87 made Arp’s “Catalog of Peculiar Galaxies” as number 152.

In 1954 Walter Baade and R. Minkowski identified M87 with radio source Virgo A, discovering a weaker halo in 1956. Its position over an x-ray cloud extending through the Virgo cluster make M87 a source of an incredible amount of x-rays. Because of its many strange properties, M87 remains a target of scientific investigation. The Hubble has shown a violent nucleus surrounded by a fast rotating accretion disc, whose gaseous make-up may be part of a huge system of interstellar matter. As of today, only one supernova event has been recorded – yet M87 remains one of the most active and highly prized study galaxies of all. Capture it tonight!

Friday, June 8 – Born on this date in 1625 was Giovanni Cassini – the most notable observer following Galileo. As head of the Paris Observatory for many years, he was the first to observe seasonal changes on Mars and measure its parallax (and so, its distance). This set the scale of the solar system for the first time. Cassini was the first to describe Jovian features, and studied the Galilean moons’ orbits. He also discovered four moons of Saturn, but he is best remembered for being the first to see the namesake division between the A and B rings.

Why not honor Cassini’s work by visiting Saturn tonight? In case you hadn’t noticed, the beautiful yellowish “star” has been on the move and is now around a degree away to the southeast from a previous study star – Porrima! Not only is this a lovely visual, but an easy way to find Saturn if you’re new to the game. Seeing the Cassini Division in Saturn’s ring structure and some of the smaller moons will require at least a 114mm telescope and steady seeing. Use as much magnification as conditions will allow and look for unusual things – like seeing the planet edge through the gap!

Tonight we’ll use Rho Virginis as a stepping stone to more galaxies. Get on your mark and move one and a half degrees north for M59 (Right Ascension:12 : 42.0 – Declination: +11 : 39)…

First discovered in 1779 by J. G. Koehler while studying a comet, this 11th magnitude elliptical galaxy was observed and labeled by Messier who was just a bit behind him. Much denser than our own galaxy, M59 is only about one-fourth the size of the Milky Way. In a smaller telescope, it will appear as a faint oval, while larger telescopes will make out a more concentrated core region.

Now shift one half degree east for brighter and larger M60. Also caught first by Koehler on the same night as M59, it was “discovered” a day later by yet another astronomer who had missed M59! It took Charles Messier another four days until this 10th magnitude galaxy interfered with his comet studies and was cataloged. At around 60 million light-years away, M59 is one of the largest ellipticals known and has five times more mass than our galaxy. As a study object of the Hubble Telescope, this giant has shown a concentrated core with over 2 billion solar masses. Photographed and studied by large terrestrial telescopes, M59 may contain as many as 5100 globular clusters in its halo.

While our backyard equipment is essentially revealing M59?s core, there is a curiosity here. It shares “space” with spiral galaxy NGC 4647 (Right Ascension: 12 : 43.5 – Declination: +11 : 35). Telescopes of even modest aperture will pick up the nucleus and faint structure of this small face-on galaxy. Harlow Shapely found the pair odd because – while they are relatively close in astronomical terms – they are very different in age and development. Halton Arp also studied this combination of an elliptical galaxy affecting a spiral and cataloged it as “Peculiar Galaxy 116.” Be sure to mark your notes!

Saturday, June 9 – Today is the birthday of Johann Gottfried Galle. Born in Germany in 1812, Galle was the first observer to locate Neptune. He is also known for being Encke’s assistant – and he’s one of the few astronomers ever to have observed Halley’s Comet twice. Unfortunately, he died two months after the comet passed perihelion in 1910, but at a ripe old age of 98! I wonder if he knew Mark Twain?

Tonight while we’re out, let’s have a look at a Virgo galaxy bright enough for smaller instruments and detailed enough to delight larger scopes. Starting at Delta Virginis, move about a fistwidth to the west where you will see two fainter stars, 16 (south) and 17 (north) Virginis. You’ll find M61 (Right Ascension:12 : 21.9 – Declination: +04 : 28) located about one-half degree south of the yellow double star 17.

Its discovery was credited to Barnabus Oriani during that fateful year of 1779 when Messier was so avid about chasing a comet that he mistook it for one. While Charles had seen it on the same night, it took him two days to figure out it wasn’t moving and four more before he cataloged it. Fortunately, 7 years later Mr. Herschel assigned it his own number of H I.139, even though he wasn’t fond of assigning his own number to Messier catalog objects.

At near 10th magnitude, this spiral galaxy will show a slightly elongated form and brighter core area to small telescopes, and really come to life in larger ones. Close to our own Milky Way galaxy in size, this larger member of the Virgo cluster has great spiral arm structure that displays both knots and dark dustlanes – as well as a beautifully developed nucleus region. M61 has also been host to four supernova events between 1926 and 1999 – all of which have been well within range of amateur telescopes.

For an added Herschel treat tonight for larger scopes, hop back to star 17 and head about one half degree due west for near galactic pair NGC 4281 (H II.573) and NGC 4273 (H II.569). Here is a study of two galaxies similar in magnitude (12) and size – but of different structure. Northeastern NGC 4281 (Right Ascension: 12 : 20.4 – Declination: +05 : 23) is an elliptical, and by virtue of its central concentration will appear slightly larger and brighter – while southwestern NGC 4273 (Right Ascension: 12 : 19.9 – Declination: +05 : 21) is an irregular spiral which will appear brighter in the middle but more elongated and faded along its frontiers. Sharp-eyed observers may also note fainter (13th magnitude) NGC 4270 (Right Ascension: 12 : 19.8 – Declination: +05 : 28) north of this pairing.

Now, go back to Rho once again and about a fingerwidth northwest for yet another bright galaxy – M58 – a spiral galaxy actually discovered by Messier in 1779! As one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo cluster, M58 (Right Ascension: 12 : 37.7 – Declination: +11 : 49) is one of only four that have barred structure. It was cataloged by Lord Rosse as a spiral in 1850. In binoculars, it will look much like our previously studied ellipticals, but a small telescope under good conditions will pick up the bright nucleus and a faint halo of structure – while larger ones will see the central concentration of the bar across the core. Chalk up another Messier study for both binoculars and telescopes and let’s get on to something really cool!

Around a half degree southwest are NGC 4567 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.5 – Declination: +11 : 15) and NGC 4569 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.8 – Declination: +13 : 10). L. S. Copeland dubbed them the “Siamese Twins,” but this galaxy pair is also considered part of the Virgo cluster. While seen from our viewpoint as touching galaxies, no evidence exists of tidal filaments or distortions in structure, making them a line of sight phenomenon and not interacting members. While that might take little of the excitement away from the “Twins,” a supernova event has been spotted in NGC 4569 as recently as 2004. While the duo is visible in smaller scopes as two, with soft twin nuclei, intermediate and larger scopes will see an almost V-shaped or heart-shaped pattern where the structures overlap. If you’re doing double galaxy studies, this is a fine, bright one! If you see a faint galaxy in the field as well, be sure to add NGC 4564 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.4 – Declination: +11 : 26) to your notes.

Sunday, June 10 – While I’m sure that unaided eye viewers and binocular users are tired of the galaxy hunt, be sure to take the time to look at many old favorites that are now in view. To the eye, one of the most splendid signs of the changing seasons is the Ursa Major Moving Group which sits above Polaris for northern hemisphere observers. For the southern hemisphere, the return of Crux serves the same purpose.

Old favorites have now begun to appear again, such as Hercules, Cygnus and Scorpius… and with them a wealth of starry clusters and nebulae that will soon come into view as the night deepens and the hour grows late. Before we leave Virgo for the year, there is one last object that is seldom explored and such a worthy target that we must visit it before we go. Its name is NGC 5634 and you’ll find it halfway between Iota and Mu Virginis (RA 14 29.37 Dec -05 58.35)…First discovered by Sir William Herschel on March 5, 1785 and cataloged as H I.70, this magnitude 9.5 small globular cluster isn’t for everyone, but thanks to an 11th magnitude line-of-sight star on its eastern edge, it sure is interesting. At class IV, it’s more concentrated than many globular clusters, although its 19th magnitude members make it near impossible to resolve with backyard equipment.

Located a bit more than 82,000 light-years from our solar system and about 69,000 light-years from the galactic center, you’ll truly enjoy this globular for the randomly scattered stellar field which accompanies it. In the finderscope, an 8th magnitude star will lead the way – not truly a member of the cluster, but one that lies between us. Capturable in scopes as small as 4.5?, look for a concentrated central area surrounded by a haze of stellar members – a huge number of which are recently discovered variables. While you look at this globular, keep this in mind… Based on observations with the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo, it is now surmised that the NGC 5634 globular cluster has the same position and radial velocity as does the Sagittarius dwarf spheroidal galaxy. Because of the dwarf galaxy’s metal-poor population of stars, it is believed that NGC 5634 may have once been part of the dwarf galaxy – and been pulled away by our own tidal field to become part of the Sagittarius stream!

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies for the Partial Lunar Eclipse, Venus Transit and the meteor showers!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – March 19-25, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! The week starts off with new Moon and the perfect opportunity to do a Messier Marathon. The planets continue to dazzle as we not only celebrate the Vernal Equinox, but the March Geminid meteor shower as well! If that doesn’t get your pulsar racing – nothing will. It’s time to get out your binoculars and telescopes and meet me in the backyard!

Monday, March 19 – Right now the Moon is between the Earth and the Sun, and you know what that means…New Moon! Tonight we’ll start in northern Puppis and collect three more Herschel studies as we begin at Alpha Monoceros and drop about four fingerwidths southeast to 19 Puppis.

NGC 2539 (Right Ascension: 8 : 10.7 – Declination: -12 : 50) averages around 6th magnitude and is a great catch for binoculars as an elongated hazy patch with 19 Puppis on the south side. Telescopes will begin resolution on its 65 compressed members, as well as split 19 Puppis – a wide triple. Shift about 5 degrees southwest and you find NGC 2479 (Right Ascension: 7 : 55.1 – Declination: -17 : 43) directly between two finderscope stars. At magnitude 9.6 it is telescopic only and will show as a smallish area of faint stars at low power. Head another degree or so southeast and you’ll encounter NGC 2509 (Right Ascension: 8 : 00.7 – Declination: -19 : 04) – a fairly large collection of around 40 stars that can be spotted in binoculars and small telescopes.

Tuesday, March 20 – Today is Vernal Equinox, one of the two times of the year that day and night become equal in length. From this point forward, the days will become longer – and our astronomy nights shorter! To the ancients, this was a time a renewal and planting – led by the goddess Eostre. As legend has it, she saved a bird whose wings were frozen from the winter’s cold, turning it into a hare which could also lay eggs. What a way to usher in the northern spring!

With the Moon still out of the picture, let’s finish our study of the Herschel objects in Puppis. Only three remain, and we’ll begin by dropping south-southeast of Rho and center the finder on a small collection of stars to locate NGC 2489 (Right Ascension: 7 : 56.2 – Declination: -30 : 04). At magnitude 7, this bright collection is worthy of binoculars, but only the small patch of stars in the center is the cluster. Under aperture and magnification you’ll find it to be a loose collection of around two dozen stars formed in interesting chains.

The next are a north-south oriented pair around 4 degrees due east of NGC 2489. You’ll find the northernmost – NGC 2571 (Right Ascension: 8 : 18.9 – Declination: -29 : 44) – at the northeast corner of a small finderscope or binocular triangle of faint stars. At magnitude 7, it will show as a fairly bright hazy spot with a few stars beginning to resolve with around 30 mixed magnitude members revealed to aperture. Less than a degree south is NGC 2567 (Right Ascension: 8 : 18.6 – Declination: -30 : 38). At around a half magnitude less in brightness, this rich open cluster has around 50 members to offer the larger telescope, which are arranged in loops and chains.

Congratulations on completing these challenging objects!

Are you up for another challenge? Then test your ability to judge magnitude as Mars has now dimmed to approximately -1.0. Does it look slightly different in size and brightness than it did a week or so ago? Keep watching!

Wednesday, March 21 – Take your telescopes or binoculars out tonight to look just north of Xi Puppis for a celebration of starlight known as M93 (Right Ascension: 7 : 44.6 – Declination: -23 : 52). Discovered in March of 1781 by Charles Messier, this bright open cluster is a rich concentration of various magnitudes that will simply explode in sprays of stellar fireworks in the eyepiece of a large telescope. Spanning 18 light-years of space and residing more than 3400 light-years away, it contains not only blue giants, but lovely golds as well. Jewels in the night…

Thursday, March 22 – Today in 1799 Friedrich Argelander was born. He was a compiler of star catalogues, studied variable stars and created the first international astronomical organization.

Tonight let’s celebrate no Moon and have a look at an object from an alternative catalog that was written by Lacaille, and which is about two fingerwidths south of Eta Canis Majoris.

Also known as Collinder 140, Lacaille’s 1751 catalog II.2 “nebulous star cluster” is a real beauty for binoculars and very low power in telescopes. More than 50% larger than the Full Moon, it contains around 30 stars and may be as far as 1000 light-years away. When re-cataloged by Collinder in 1931, its age was determined to be around 22 million years. While Lacaille noted it as nebulous, he was using a 15mm aperture reflector, and it is doubtful that he was able to fully resolve this splendid object. For telescope users, be sure to look for easy double Dunlop 47 in the same field.

Now, kick back and enjoy a spring evening with two meteor showers. In the northern hemisphere, look for the Camelopardalids. They have no definite peak, and a screaming fall rate of only one per hour. While that’s not much, at least they are the slowest meteors – entering our atmosphere at speeds of only 7 kilometers per second!

Far more interesting to both hemispheres will be the March Geminids which peak tonight. They were first discovered and recorded in 1973 and then confirmed in 1975. With a much faster fall rate of about 40 per hour, these slower than normal meteors will be fun to watch! When you see a bright streak, trace it back to its point of origin. Did you see a Camelopardalid, or a March Geminid?

Friday, March 23 – Today in 1840, the first photograph of the Moon was taken. The daguerreotype was exposed by American astronomer and medical doctor J. W. Draper. Draper’s fascination with chemical responses to light also led him to another first – a photo of the Orion Nebula.

Our target for tonight is an object that’s better suited for southern declinations – NGC 2451 (Right Ascension: 7 : 45.4 – Declination: -37 : 58). As both a Caldwell object (Collinder 161) and a southern skies binocular challenge, this colorful 2.8 magnitude cluster was probably discovered by Hodierna. Consisting of about 40 stars, its age is believed to be around 36 million years. It is very close to us at a distance of only 850 light-years. Take the time to closely study this object – for it is believed that due to the thinness of the galactic disk in this region, we are seeing two clusters superimposed on each other.

With the Moon out of the picture early, why not get caught up in a galaxy cluster study – Abell 426. Located just 2 degrees east of Algol in Perseus, this group of 233 galaxies spread over a region of several degrees of sky is easy enough to find – but difficult to observe. Spotting Abell galaxies in Perseus can be tough in smaller instruments, but those with large aperture scopes will find it worthy of time and attention.

At magnitude 11.6, NGC 1275 (Right Ascension: 3 : 19.8 – Declination: +41 : 31) is the brightest of the group and lies physically near the core of the cluster. Glimpsed in scopes as small as 150 mm aperture, NGC 1275 is a strong radio source and an active site of rapid star formation. Images of the galaxy show a strange blend of a perfect spiral being shattered by mottled turbulence. For this reason NGC 1275 is thought to be two galaxies in collision. Depending on seeing conditions and aperture, galaxy cluster Abell 426 may reveal anywhere from 10 to 24 small galaxies as faint as magnitude 15. The core of the cluster is more than 200 million light-years away, so it’s an achievement to spot even a few!

Saturday, March 24 – Today is the birthday of Walter Baade. Born in 1893, Baade was the first to resolve the Andromeda galaxy’s individual stars using the Hooker telescope during World War II blackout times, and he also developed the concept of stellar populations. He was the first to realize that there were two types of Cepheid variables, thereby refining the cosmic distance scale. He is also well known for discovering an area towards our galactic center which is relatively free of dust, now known as “Baade’s Window.”

Just after sunset, you really need to take a look out your western window for a really beautiful bit of scenery. As the sky darkens, look for the very tender crescent Moon lit with “Earthshine”. Above it you will see bright Jupiter. Above that you will see blazing Venus. And, if that’s not enough, just a little higher will bring you to the Pleiades! What a great way to start a weekend evening!

With the Moon so near the horizon, we have only a short time to view its features. Tonight let’s start with a central feature – Langrenus – and continue further south for crater Vendelinus. Spanning 92 by 100 miles and dropping 14,700 feet below the lunar surface, Vendelinus displays a partially dark floor with a west wall crest catching the brilliant light of an early sunrise. Notice also that its northeast wall is broken by a younger crater – Lame. Head’s up! It’s an Astronomical League challenge.

Once the Moon has set, revisit M46 in Puppis – along with its mysterious planetary nebula NGC 2438. Follow up with a visit to neighboring open cluster M47 – two degrees west-northwest. M47 may actually seem quite familiar to you already. Did you possibly encounter it when originally looking for M46? If so, then it’s also possible that you met up with 6.7 magnitude open cluster NGC 2423 (Right Ascension: 7 : 37.1 – Declination: -13 : 52), about a degree northeast of M47 and even dimmer 7.9 magnitude NGC 2414 (Right Ascension: 7 : 33.3 – Declination: -15 : 27 ) as well. That’s four open clusters and a planetary nebula all within four square arc-minutes of sky. That makes this a cluster of clusters!

Let’s return to study M47. Observers with binoculars or using a finderscope will notice how much brighter, and fewer, the stars of M47 are when compared to M46. This 12 light-year diameter compact cluster is only 1600 light-years away. Even as close as it is, not more than 50 member stars have been identified. M47 has about one tenth the stellar population of larger, denser, and three times more distant, M46.

Of historical interest, M47 was “discovered” three times: first by Giovanni Batista Hodierna in the mid-17th century, then by Charles Messier some 17 years later, and finally by William Herschel 14 years after that. How is it possible that such a bright and well-placed cluster needed “re-discovery?” Hodierna’s book of observations didn’t surface until 1984, and Messier gave the cluster’s declination the wrong sign, making its identification an enigma to later observers – because no such cluster could be found where Messier said it was!

Sunday, March 25 – Today in 1655, Titan – Saturn’s largest satellite – was discovered by Christian Huygens. He also discovered Saturn’s ring system during this same year. 350 years later, the probe named for Huygens stunned the world as it reached Titan and sent back information on this distant world. How about if we visit Saturn? You’ll find the creamy yellow planet located about a fistwidth northwest of bright, white Spica! Even a small telescope will reveal Titan, but remember… it orbits well outside the ring plane, so don’t mistake it for a background star! While you’re there, look closely around the ring edges for the smaller moons. A 4.5” telescope can easily show you three of them. How about the shadow the rings on the planet’s surface? Or how about the shadow of the planet on the rings? Is the Cassini division visible? If you have a larger telescope, look for other ring divisions as well. All are part and parcel of viewing incredible Saturn!

If you missed yesterday evening’s scenic line-up, don’t despair. Just after the Sun sets tonight – and above the western horizon – you’ll find the young Moon very closely paired with Jupiter. Keep traveling eastward (up) and you’ll encounter Venus. Continue east and the next stop is M45. Watch in the days ahead as the Moon sweeps by, continuing to provide us with a show! Need more? Then check out Leo and Mars! You’ll find a great triangulation of Regulus to the west, Mars to the east and Algieba to the north. If you didn’t know better, you’d almost swear the Lion swallowed the red planet.

Tonight let’s return to our previous studies of the Moon and revisit a challenging crater. Further south than Vendelinus, look for another large, mountain-walled plain named Furnerius, located not too far from the terminator. Although it has no central peak, its walls have been broken numerous times by many smaller impacts. Look at a rather large one just north of central on the crater floor. If skies are stable, power up and search for a rima extending from the northern edge. Keep in mind as you observe that our own Earth has been pummeled just as badly as its satellite.

On this day in 1951, 21 cm wavelength radiation from atomic hydrogen in the Milky Way was first detected. 1420 MHz H I studies continue to form the basis of a major part of modern radio astronomy. If you would like to have a look at a source of radio waves known as a pulsar, then aim your binoculars slightly more than a fistwidth east of bright Procyon. The first two bright stars you encounter will belong to the constellation of Hydrus and you will find pulsar CP0 834 just above the northernmost – Delta.

Unitl next week? May all your journeys be at light speed!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – March 12-18, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! What an awesome display of planets! Please take the time to walk outdoors just after skydark – regardless of where you live – and enjoy the bright display of Venus and Jupiter! However, this isn’t the only planetary action going on this week… Mars and M96 pair up, as well as Uranus and the Moon. There’s even a Southern Hemisphere meteor shower to enjoy! Pretty exciting, huh? Join the party by getting out your binoculars or telescopes and meet me for more in the backyard…

Monday, March 12 – No. That’s not the “headlights” of a UFO on the western horizon tonight… It’s a very cool pairing of Venus and Jupiter! It’s not often you see the two visually brightest planets making a close visual pass at each other and tonight you’ll spot the inner planet to the south and the outer planet to the north. This would make a great photo opportunity! Why not consider adding something interesting to your picture like a scenic building, tree, or even a person? Watch in the days ahead as Jupiter appears to stay in the same spot at the same time, yet Venus will climb higher.

Tonight let’s return again to NGC 2362 and start at the cluster’s north-northeast corner to have a look at a single, unusual star – UW Canis Majoris. At magnitude 4.9, this super-giant spectroscopic binary is one of the most massive and luminous in our galaxy. Its two stars are separated by only 27 million kilometers (17 million miles) and revolve around each other at a frenzied pace – in less than four and a half days. This speed means the stars themselves are flattened and would appear to be almost egg-shaped. The primary itself is shedding material that’s being collected by the secondary star.

Now drop southwest of NGC 2362 for another open cluster – NGC 2354 (Right Ascension: 7 : 14.3 – Declination: -25 : 44). While at best this will appear as a small, hazy patch to binoculars, NGC 2354 is actually a rich galactic cluster containing around 60 metal-poor members. As aperture and magnification increase, the cluster shows two delightful circle-like structures of stars, similar to a figure 8. Be sure to make a note… You’ve captured another Herschel 400 object!

Tuesday, March 13 – On this day in 1781, Uranus was discovered by William Herschel. Also on this day, in 1855, Percival Lowell was born in Boston. Educated at Harvard, Lowell went on to found the observatory which bears his name in Flagstaff, Arizona, and spent a lifetime studying Mars. During the early morning hours, you can honor Lowell by seeing Mars yourself – it’s best viewed when as high a possible on the ecliptic. While there won’t be a great many details, think of how many strides have been made since Lowell’s time and how advanced our knowledge of Mars has become!

Tonight let’s hop about four fingerwidths east-northeast of Sirius. Look for 5th magnitude SAO 152641 to guide you to a faint patch of stars in binoculars and a superb cluster in a telescope – NGC 2360 (Right Ascension: 7 : 17.8 – Declination: -15 : 37). Comprised of around eighty 10th magnitude and fainter stars, this particular cluster will look like a handful of diamond dust scattered on the sky. Discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783, this intermediate-aged galactic cluster is home to red giants and heavy in metal abundance. Mark your notes, because not only is this a Herschel object, but is known as Caldwell 58 as well!

Wednesday, March 14 – Today is the birthday of Albert Einstein. Born in 1879, Einstein was one of the finest minds of our times. He developed the theory of gravity in terms of spacetime curvature – dependent on the energy density. Winner of the 1921 Physics Nobel prize, Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect is the basis of modern light detectors.

Tonight let’s hop about a fistwidth north of bright Eta Canis Majoris and have a look at a “double cluster” – NGC 2383 (Right Ascension: 7 : 24.8 – Declination: -20 : 56) and NGC 2384 (Right Ascension: 7 : 25.1 – Declination: -21 : 02). Just showing in binoculars as a faint patch, this pair will begin resolution with larger scopes. Studied photometrically, it would appear these fairly young clusters have contaminated each other by sharing stars – which has also occurred in some clusters located in the Magellanic Clouds. Enjoy this unusual collection of stars…

Thursday, March 15 – Today celebrates the birth of Nicolas Lacaille. Born in 1713, Lacaille’s measurements confirmed the Earth’s equatorial bulge. He also named fourteen southern constellations. To honor Lacaille tonight, let’s begin some explorations in a constellation he named – Puppis!

For SkyWatchers living in high northern latitudes, you’ll never see all of this constellation, but there will be some things for you to explore, as well as a great deal for our friends in the southern hemisphere. The first is a Herschel object that lies directly on the galactic equator around five degrees north-northwest of Xi.

NGC 2421 (Right Ascension: 7 :36.3 – Declination: -20 : 37) is a magnitude 8.3 open cluster that will look like an exquisitely tiny “Brocchi’s Cluster” in binoculars and begin good resolution of its 50 or so members to an intermediate telescope, in an arrowhead-shaped pattern. It’s bright, it’s fairly easy to find, and it’s a great open cluster to add to your challenge study lists!

If you’re looking for a curiosity, then look no further than Leo and Mars. Tonight the happy red planet is situated just to the east of Messier 96 (Right Ascension: 10 : 46.8 – Declination: +11 : 49)! Enjoy celestial mechanics over the next few nights as Mars gently changes its position in relation with this distant galaxy… and gets much closer!

Friday, March 16 – On this day in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fuel rocket. But he was first noticed in 1907 when a cloud of smoke issued from a powder rocket fired in the basement of the physics building in Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Needless to say, the school took an interest in the work of this shy student. Thankfully they did not expel him, and thus began his lifetime of work in rocket science. Goddard was also the first to realize the full implications of rocketry for missiles and space flight, and his lifetime of work was dedicated to bringing this vision to realization. While most of what he did went unrecognized for many years, tonight we celebrate the name of Robert H. Goddard. This first flight may have gone only 12 meters, but forty years later on the date of his birth, Gemini 8 was launched, carrying Neil Armstrong and David Scott into orbit!

Let’s begin our observing evening with Mars. While you may have been keeping track of its position, did you know that it’s less than a degree away from a Messier object tonight? That’s right! You’ll find the dusty red planet just to the north of M96 (Right Ascension: 10 : 46.8 – Declination: +11 : 49).

Tonight we’ll pick up a challenge cluster and a planetary nebula on the Herschel list by returning to NGC 2421 and hopping about a fingerwidth northeast for NGC 2432 (Right Ascension: 7 : 40.9 – Declination: -19 : 05). This small, loose open cluster is rather dim and contains around 20 or so faint members shaped like the letter B. About another degree northeast is NGC 2440 – an elongated, small 11th magnitude planetary nebula. Look for its central star to cause a brightening and up the magnifying power to reveal it.

While out, be on watch for the Corona-Australids meteor shower. While the fall rate is low – 5 to 7 per hour – our friends in the southern hemisphere might stand a chance with this one!

Saturday, March 17 – On this day in 1958, the first solar-powered spacecraft was launched. Named Vanguard 1, it was an engineering test satellite. From its orbital position, the data taken from its transmission helped to redefine the true shape of the Earth.

Tonight let’s return to Xi Puppis and head less than a fingerwidth east-northeast for Herschel study NGC 2482 (Right Ascension: 7 : 54.9 – Declination: -24 : 18). At magnitude 7, this small fuzzy spot in binoculars will resolve into around two dozen stars to the telescope. Look for the diagonal chain of stars along its edge.

Now let’s have a look at an open cluster easily located in northeastern Orion. This 5.9 magnitude scattered group of stars may have been first observed by Giovanni Batista Hodierna in the mid-17th century. While bright enough to have been a Messier object, William Herschel added it to his log of discoveries on October 15, 1784, as H VIII.24. Of the 30 known stars associated with this 3,600 light-year distant group, the brightest is 50 million years old. A half-dozen of the cluster’s very brightest members can be seen in small scopes at mid-range powers. Look for NGC 2169 (Right Ascension: 6 : 08.4 – Declination: +13 : 57) slightly less than a fist width north-northeast of Betelguese and slightly south of Xi and Nu Orionis.

Sunday, March 18 – Although you can’t see it with just your eyes, Uranus is less than a degree from the Moon this morning. For some areas this could be an occultation, so be sure to check IOTA information!

Today in 1965, the first ever spacewalk was performed by Alexei Leonov onboard the Soviet Voskhod spacecraft. The “walk” only lasted around 20 minutes and Alexei had problems in re-entering the spacecraft because his space suit had enlarged slightly. Imagine his fear as he had to let air leak out of his space suit in order to squeeze back inside. When they landed off target in the heavily forested Ural Mountains, the crew of two had to spend the night in the woods surrounded by wolves. It took over twenty-four hours before they were located and workers had to chop their way through the forest and recover them on skis. Brave men!

Tonight let’s honor them by studying a small area which contains not only three Herschel objects – but two Messiers as well – M46 and M47. You’ll find them less than a handspan east of Sirius and about a fistwidth north of Xi Puppis.

The brighter of the two clusters is M47 (Right Ascension: 7 : 36.6 – Declination: -14 : 30) and at 1600 light-years away, it’s a glorious object for binoculars. It is filled with mixed magnitude stars that resolve fully to aperture with the double Struve 1211 near its center. While M47 is in itself a Herschel object, look just slightly north (about a field of view) to pick up another cluster which borders it. At magnitude 6.7, NGC 2423 isn’t as grand, but it contains more than two dozen fairly compressed faint stars with a lovely golden binary at its center.

Now return to M47 and hop east to locate M46 (Right Ascension: 7 : 41.8 – Declination: -14 : 49). While this star cluster will appear to be fainter and more compressed in binoculars, you’ll notice one star seems brighter than the rest. Using a telescope, you’ll soon discover the reason. 300 million year old M47 contains a Herschel planetary nebula known as NGC 2438 in its northern portion. The cluster contains around 150 resolvable stars and may involve as many as 500. The bright planetary nebula was first noted by Sir William Herschel and then again by John. While it would appear to be a member of the cluster, the planetary nebula is just a little closer to us than the cluster. Be sure to mark your notes… There’s a lot there in just a little area!

Until next week? May all of your journeys be at light speed!

Many thanks to John Chumack for the inspiring image!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: February 19-25, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be an awesome week as we watch the planets – Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury – dance along the ecliptic plane. You don’t even need a telescope for this show! But that’s not all. We’ll take a look at a wealth of bright star clusters, challenging studies and lots more. I’ll see you in the back yard…

Sunday, February 19 – Today is the birthday of Nicolas Copernicus. Born in 1473, he was the creator of the modern solar system model which illustrated the retrograde motion of the outer planets. Considering this was well over 530 years ago, and in a rather “unenlightened” time, his revolutionary thinking about what we now consider natural is astounding.

Have you been observing retrograde motion while keeping track of Mars? Good for you! You may have also noticed that Mars has dimmed slightly over the last few weeks. Right now it’s around -1.0. Keep track of its many faces!

While we still have dark skies on our side, let’s head for a handful of difficult nebulae in a region just west of Gamma Monocerotis. For binoculars, check out the region around Gamma, it is rich in stars and very colorful! You are looking at the very outer edge of the Orion spiral arm of our galaxy. For small scopes, have a look at Gamma itself – it’s a triple system that we’ll be back to study. For larger scopes? It’s Herschel hunting time…

NGC 2183 (Right Ascension: 6 : 10.8 – Declination: -06 : 13 ) and NGC 2185 (Right Ascension: 6 : 11.1 – Declination: -06 : 13 ) will be the first you encounter as you move west of Gamma. Although they are faint, just remember they are nothing more than a cloud of dust illuminated by faint stars on the edge of the galactic realm. The stars that formed inside provided the light source for these wispy objects and at their edges lay in intergalactic space.

To the southwest is the weaker NGC 2182 (Right Ascension: 6 : 09.5 – Declination: -06 : 20), which will appear as nothing more than a faint star with an even fainter halo about it, with NGC 2170 (Right Ascension: 6 : 07.5 – Declination: -06 : 24) more strongly represented in an otherwise difficult field. While the views of these objects might seem vaguely disappointing, you must remember that not everything is as bright and colorful as seen in a photograph. Just knowing that you are looking at the collapse of a giant molecular cloud that’s 2400 light-years away is pretty impressive!

Monday, February 20 – Today in history celebrates the Mir space station launch in 1986. Mir (Russian for “peace”) was home to both cosmonauts and astronauts as it housed 28 long duration crews during its 15 years of service. To date it is one of the longest running space stations and a triumph for mankind. Spasiba! Today in 1962, John Glenn was onboard Friendship 7 and became the first American to orbit the Earth. As Colonel Glenn looked out the window, he reported seeing “fireflies” glittering outside his Mercury space capsule. Let’s see if we can find some…

The open cluster M41 (Right Ascension: 6 : 46.0 – Declination: -20 : 44) in Canis Major is just a quick drift south of the brightest star in the northern sky – Sirius. Even the smallest scopes and binoculars will reveal this rich group of mixed magnitude stars and fill the imagination with strange notions of reality. Through larger scopes, many faint groupings emerge as the star count rises to well over 100 members. Several stars of color – orange in particular – are also seen along with a number of doubles.

First noted telescopically by Giovanni Batista Hodierna in the mid-1500s, ancient texts indicate that Aristotle saw this naked-eye cluster some 1800 years earlier. Like other Hodierna discoveries, M41 was included on Messier’s list – along with even brighter clusters of antiquity such as Praesepe in Cancer and the Pleiades in Taurus. Open cluster M41 is located 2300 light years away and recedes from us at 34km/sec – about the speed Venus moves around the Sun. M41 is a mature cluster, around 200 million years old and 25 light years in diameter. Remember M41… Fireflies in night skies.

Tuesday, February 21 – Tonight is New Moon! Tonight let’s take a journey just a breath above Zeta Tauri and spend some quality time with a pulsar embedded in the most famous supernova remnant of all. Factually, we know the Crab Nebula to be the remains of an exploded star recorded by the Chinese in 1054. We know it to be a rapid expanding cloud of gas moving outward at a rate of 1,000 km per second, just as we understand there is a pulsar in the center. We also know it as first recorded by John Bevis in 1758, and then later cataloged as the beginning Messier object – penned by Charles himself some 27 years later to avoid confusion while searching for comets. We see it revealed beautifully in timed exposure photographs, its glory captured forever through the eye of the camera — but have you ever really taken the time to truly study M1 (Right Ascension: 5 : 34.5 – Declination: +22 : 01)? Then you just may surprise yourself…

In a small telescope, M1 might seem to be a disappointment – but do not just glance at it and move on. There is a very strange quality to the light which reaches your eye, even though initially it may just appear as a vague, misty patch. Allow your eyes to adjust and M1 will appear to have “living” qualities – a sense of movement in something that should be motionless. The “Crab” holds true to many other spectroscopic studies. The concept of differing light waves crossing over one another and canceling each other out – with each trough and crest revealing differing details to the eye – is never more apparent than during study. To observe M1 is to at one moment see a “cloud” of nebulosity, the next a broad ribbon or filament, and at another a dark patch. When skies are stable you may see an embedded star, and it is possible to see six such stars.

Many observers have the ability to see spectral qualities, but they need to be developed. From ionization to polarization – our eye and brain are capable of seeing to the edge of infra-red and ultra-violet. Even a novice can see the effects of magnetism in the solar “Wilson Effect.” But what of the spinning neutron star at M1’s heart? We’ve known since 1969 that M1 produces a “visual” pulsar effect. About once every five minutes, changes occurring in the neutron star’s pulsation affect the amount of polarization, causing the light waves to sweep around like a giant “cosmic lighthouse” and flash across our eyes. M1 is much more than just another Messier. Capture it tonight!!

Wednesday, February 22 – Today in 1966, Soviet space mission Kosmos 110 was launched. Its crew was canine, Veterok (Little Wind) Ugolyok (Little Piece of Coal); both history making dogs. The flight lasted 22 days and held the record for living creatures in orbit until 1974 – when Skylab 2 carried its three-man crew for 28 days.

Since we’ve studied the “death” of a star, why not take the time tonight to discover the “birth” of one? Our journey will start by identifying Aldeberan (Alpha Tauri) and move northwest to bright Epsilon. Hop 1.8 degrees west and slightly to the north for an incredibly unusual variable star – T Tauri.

Discovered by J.R. Hind in October 1852, T Tauri and its accompanying nebula, NGC 1555 (Right Ascension: 4 : 22.9 – Declination: +19 : 32), set the stage for discovery with a pre-main sequence variable star. Hind reported the nebula, but also noted that no catalog listed such an object in that position. His observations also included a 10th magnitude uncharted star and he surmised that the star in question was a variable. On each count Hind was right, and both were followed by astronomers for several years until they began to fade in 1861. By 1868, neither could be seen and it wasn’t until 1890 that the pair was re-discovered by E.E. Barnard and S.W. Burnham. Five years later? They vanished again.

T Tauri is the prototype of this particular class of variable stars and is itself totally unpredictable. In a period as short as a few weeks, it might move from magnitude 9 to 13 and other times remain constant for months on end. It is about equal to our own Sun in temperature and mass – and its spectral signature is very similar to Sol’s chromosphere – but the resemblance ends there. T Tauri is a star in the initial stages of birth!

T Tauri are all pre-main sequence and are considered “proto-stars”. In other words, they continuously contract and expand, shedding some of their mantle of gas and dust. This gas and dust is caught by the star’s rotation and spun into an accretion disc – which might be more properly referred to as a proto-planetary disc. By the time the jets have finished spewing and the material is pulled back to the star by gravity, the proto-star will have cooled enough to have reached main sequence and the pressure may have allowed planetoids to form from the accreted material.

Thursday, February 23 – If you have an open western horizon, then be out at twilight! Right now the speedy inner planet – Mercury – will make a brief appearance. Depending on your time zone, you might also spot a very young Moon just above it! For curiosity seekers, you can also find asteroid Vesta to the south of the Moon, along with planet Uranus to the south-east. How cool is that?!

In 1987, Ian Shelton made an astonishing visual discovery – SN 1987a. This was the brightest supernova in 383 years. More importantly, before it occurred, a blue star of roughly 20 solar masses was already known to exist in that same location within the Large Magellanic Cloud. Catalogued as Sanduleak -69-202, that star is now gone. With available data on the star, astronomers were able to get a “before and after” look at one of the most extraordinary events in the universe! Tonight, let’s have a look at a similar event known as “Tycho’s Supernova.”

Located northwest of Kappa Cassiopeia, SN1572 appeared so bright in that year that it could be seen with the unaided eye for six months. Since its appearance was contrary to Ptolemaic theory, this change in the night sky now supported Copernicus’ views and heliocentric theory gained credence. We now recognize it as a strong radio source, but can it still be seen? There is a remnant left of this supernova, and it is challenging even with a large telescope. Look for thin, faint filaments that form an incomplete ring around 8 arc minutes across.

Friday, February 24 – Tonight the slender first crescent of the Moon makes its presence known on the western horizon. Before it sets, take a moment to look at it with binoculars. The beginnings of Mare Crisium will show to the northeast quadrant, but look just a bit further south for the dark, irregular blotch of Mare Undarum – the Sea of Waves. On its southern edge, and to lunar east, look for the small Mare Smythii – the “Sea of Sir William Henry Smyth.” Further south of this pair and at the northern edge of Fecunditatis is Mare Spumans – the “Foaming Sea.” All three of these are elevated lakes of aluminous basalt belonging to the Crisium basin.

For telescope users, wait until the Moon has set and return to Beta Monocerotis and head about a fingerwidth northeast for an open cluster challenge – NGC 2250 (Right Ascension: 6 : 32.8 – Declination: -05 : 02). This vague collection of stars presents itself to the average telescope as about 10 or so members that form no real asterism and makes one wonder if it is indeed a cluster. So odd is this one, that a lot of star charts don’t even list it!

Today in 1968, during a radar search survey, the first pulsar was discovered by Jocelyn Bell. The co-directors of the project, Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle, matched these observations to a model of a rotating neutron star, winning them the 1974 Physics Nobel Prize and proving a theory of J. Robert Oppenheimer from 30 years earlier.

Would you like to get a look at a region of the sky that contains a pulsar? Then wait until the Moon has well westered and look for guidestar Alpha Monocerotis to the south and bright Procyon to its north. By using the distance between these two stars as the base of an imaginary triangle, you’ll find pulsar PSR 0820+02 at the apex of your triangle pointed east.

Saturday, February 25 – As the Moon begins its westward journey after sunset in a position much easier to observe. The lunar feature we are looking for is at the north-northeast of the lunar limb and its view is often dependent on libration. What are we seeking? “The Sea of Alexander von Humboldt”…

Mare Humboldtianum can sometimes be hidden from view because it is an extreme feature. Spanning 273 kilometers, the basin in which it is contained extends for an additional 600 kilometers and continues around to the far side of the Moon. The mountain ranges which accompany this basin can sometimes be glimpsed under perfect lighting conditions, but ordinarily are just seen as a lighter area. The mare was formed by lava flow into the impact basin, yet more recent strikes have scarred Humboldtianum. Look for a splash of ejecta from crater Hayn further north, and the huge, 200 kilometer strike of crater Bel’kovich on Humboldtianum’s northeast shore.

When the Moon begins to wester, let’s head for Beta Monocerotis and hop about 3 fingerwidths east for an 8.9 magnitude open cluster that can be spotted with binoculars and is well resolved with a small telescope – NGC 2302 (Right Ascension: 6 : 51.9 – Declination: -07 : 04). This very young stellar cluster resides at the outer edge of the Orion spiral arm. While binoculars will see a handful of stars in a small V-shaped pattern, telescope users should be able to resolve 40 or so fainter members.

Until next week, may all of your journeys be at light speed!

If you enjoy the weekly observing column, then you’ll love the book, The Night Sky Companion 2012 written by Tammy Plotner. This fully illustrated observing guide includes star charts for your favorite objects and much more!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – February 12-18, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! As the Moon fades away, dark sky studies return and so do we as we take a look at a great collection of nebulae this week and expand your Herschel studies. Get out your binoculars and telescopes, because here’s what’s up!

Sunday, February 12 – Today is the anniversary (2001) of NEAR landing on asteroid Eros. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission was the first to ever orbit an asteroid, successfully sending back thousands of images. Although it was not designed to land on Eros, it survived the low speed impact and continued to send back data. Would you like to view Eros for yourself? It will be visible a few hours after sky dark. At somewhere between magnitude 11 and 12, Eros will require at least a mid-sized telescope, but is very viewable to both hemispheres along the Hydra/Crater border… and about a handspan southwest of Mars! Be sure to check resources for a planetarium program or on-line service which will give you a precise location for your time and area.

Tonight we’ll continue onward with our studies of Lepus as we head for two more of the coveted Herschel 400 objects. Our hop starts with beautiful Gamma and NGC 2073. Located less than a fingerwidth northeast of Gamma (RA 05 45 53.90 Dec -21 59 59.0), NGC 2073 might be magnitude 12.4, but its small size makes it anything but easy. Even if it does have some highly studied molecular cloud structure, be prepared to see nothing but a tiny, egg-shaped contrast change in the elliptical Herschel 241.

Continue northeast a little more than 2 degrees (RA 05 54 52.30 Dec -20 05 03.0) to encounter Herschel 225 – NGC 2124. Although it is slightly fainter, we are at least picking up something with more recognizable structure. Oriented north/south, Herschel 225 is an inclined spiral with a bright nucleus. Set in a wonderfully rich star field, it’s difficult to spot at first with low power, but its slim structure holds up well to magnification. This one is really a pleasure.

Monday, February 13 – Today is the birthday of J.L.E. Dreyer. Born in 1852, the Danish-Irish Dreyer came to fame as the astronomer who compiled the New General Catalogue (NGC) published in 1878. Even with a wealth of astronomical catalogs to chose from, the NGC objects and Dreyer’s abbreviated list of descriptions still remain the most widely used today.

Tonight let’s make Dreyer proud as we finish up our Herschel 400 studies for Herschel 267. At magnitude 13, NGC 2076 (Right Ascension: 5 : 46.8 – Declination: -16 : 46 ) is a lot less forgiving of scope size and sky conditions than some galaxies, but if aperture and sky cooperate, you are in for a real treat! Although it is fairly small and somewhat faint, NGC 2076 is an edge-on that will show indications of a dark dustlane across its brighter nucleus, when using aversion. The lane itself has been highly studied for dust extinction and star forming properties and as recently as 2003 a supernova event was reported just south of the nucleus.

Now let’s drop south about one degree and pick up Herschel 270! Far brighter at magnitude 11.9, don’t let the ordinary elliptical NGC 2089 (Right Ascension: 5 : 47.8 – Declination: -17 : 36) fool you. What would appear to be a stellar nucleus is indeed stellar. Studies done by AAVSO have shown that the bright point of light is actually a line of sight star. Congratulations on your studies and be sure to write down your Herschel “homework!”

Tuesday, February 14 – Happy Valentine’s Day! Today is the birthday of Fritz Zwicky. Born in 1898, Zwicky was the first astronomer to identify supernovae as a separate class of objects. His insights also proposed the possibility of neutron stars. Among his many achievements, Zwicky also catalogued galaxy clusters and designed jet engines.

In mythology, Lepus the Hare is hiding in the grass at Orion’s feet. As we have seen, there are many objects of beauty hidden within what seems to be a very ordinary constellation. Before we leave the “Rabbit” for this year, there is one last object that is worthy of attention. If you look to the feet of Orion and the brightest star of Lepus, you will see that they make a triangle in the sky. Tonight we are headed towards the center of that triangle for a singular object – the Spirograph Nebula.

Shown in all its glory through the eye of the Hubble Telescope, the light you see tonight from the IC 408 (Right Ascension: 5 : 17.9 – Declination: -25 : 05) planetary nebula left in the year 7 AD. Its central star, much like our own Sol, was in the final stages of its life at that time, and but a few thousand years earlier was a red giant. As it shed its layers off into about a tenth of a light-year of space, only its superheated core remained – its ultraviolet radiation lighting up the expelled gas. Perhaps in several thousand years the nebula will have faded away, and in several billion years more the central star will have become a white dwarf – a fate that also awaits our own Sun.

At magnitude 11, it is well within reach of a small to mid-size telescope. Like all planetary nebulae, the more magnification – the better the view. The central star is easily seen against a slightly elongated shell and larger telescopes bring an “edge” to this nebula that makes it very worthwhile studying. Spend some quality time with this object. With larger scopes, there is no doubt a texture to this planetary that will delight the eye…and touch the heart!

Wednesday, February 15 – Born on this day in 1564 was the man who fathered modern astronomy – Galileo Galilei. Two and a half centuries ago, he became first scientist to use a telescope for astronomical observation and his first target was the Moon. Just before dawn this morning you will have the opportunity to observe the waning crescent and the tiny crater named for Galileo. Almost central along the terminator and caught near the edge of Oceanus Procellarum, you will see a small, bright ring. This is Reiner Gamma and you will find Galileo just a short hop to the northwest as a tiny, circular crater. What a shame the cartographers did not pick a more vivid feature to name after the great Galileo!

With absence of the Moon in our favor tonight, it’s time to learn the constellation of Monoceros as the skies darken and Orion begins to head west. By using the red giant Betelgeuse, diamond-bright Sirius and the beacon of Procyon, we can see these three stars form a triangle in the sky with Sirius pointing towards the south. The “Unicorn” is not a bright constellation, and most of its stars fall inside this area with its Alpha star almost a handspan south of Procyon.

Using the belt of Orion as a guide, look a handspan east, this is Delta. A fistwidth away to the southeast is Gamma; with Beta about two fingerwidths further along. About a palmwidth southeast of Betelguese is Epsilon. Although this might seem simplistic, knowing these stars will help you find many wonderful objects. Let’s start our journey tonight two fingerwidths northwest of Epsilon… NGC 2186 (Right Ascension: 6 : 12.2 – Declination: +05 : 2) is a triangular open cluster of stars set in a rich field that can be spotted with binoculars and reveals as many as 30 or more stars to even a small telescope. Not only is this a Herschel 400 object that can be spotted with simple equipment, but a highly studied galactic cluster that contains circumstellar discs!

Thursday, February 16 – On this day in 1948, Gerard Kuiper was celebrating his discovery of Miranda – one of Uranus’ moons. Just 42 years earlier on this day, both Kopff and Metcalf were also busy – discovering asteroids! Today is the birthday of Francois Arago. Born in 1786, Arago became the pioneer scientist in the wave nature of light. His achievements were many and he is also credited as the inventor of the polarimeter and other optical devices.

Tonight let’s celebrate Arago’s achievements in polarization as we return again to Epsilon Monocerotis. Our destination is around a fingerwidth east as we seek out another star cluster that has an interesting companion – a nebula!

NGC 2244 (Right Ascension: 6 : 32.4 – Declination: +04 : 52) is a star cluster embroiled in a reflection nebula spanning 55 light-years and most commonly called “The Rosette.” Located about 2500 light-years away, the cluster heats the gas within the nebula to nearly 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing it to emit light in a process similar to that of a fluorescent tube. A huge percentage of this light is hydrogen-alpha, which is scattered back from its dusty shell and becomes polarized.

While you won’t see any red hues in visible light, a large pair of binoculars from a dark sky site can make out a vague nebulosity associated with this open cluster. Even if you can’t, it is still a wonderful cluster of stars crowned by the yellow jewel of 12 Monocerotis. With good seeing, small telescopes can easily spot the broken, patchy wreath of nebulosity around a well-resolved symmetrical concentration of stars. Larger scopes, and those with filters, will make out separate areas of the nebula which also bear their own distinctive NGC labels. No matter how you view it, the entire region is one of the best for winter skies.

Friday, February 17 – Tonight is a good time for us to go hunting some obscure objects that will require the darkest of skies. Once again, we’ll use our guide star Epsilon and tonight we’ll be heading about three fingerwidths northeast for a vast complex of nebulae and star clusters.

To the unaided eye, 4th magnitude S Monocerotis is easily visible and to small binoculars so are the beginnings of a rich cluster surrounding it. This is NGC 2264 (Right Ascension: 6 : 41.1 – Declination: +09 : 53). Larger binoculars and small telescopes will easily pick out a distinct wedge of stars. This is most commonly known as the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” its name given 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.

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 (Right Ascension: 6 : 32.7 – Declination: +10 : 10), which is fairly large, but faint, and accompanies an 11th magnitude star. NGC 2247 (Right Ascension: 6 : 33.2 – Declination: +10 : 20) 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!

Enjoy your nebula quest…

Saturday, February 18 – On this day in 1930, a young man named Clyde Tombaugh was very busy checking out some photographic search plates taken with the Lowell Observatory’s 13″ telescope. His reward? The discovery of Pluto! And just where is the planet that isn’t a planet any more? You can find it before dawn! The little rascal is hiding out in a very stellar field just east of M25 and a couple of degrees northwest of the slender crescent Moon. How do you know which faint “star” is Pluto? Well, if you set a computerized telescope to RA 18h 24m 59s – Dec 19°18’44”, it will be precisely in the center of the field if you are perfectly polar aligned. If you are using a manual telescope, you will need to sketch the field and return over a period of several days to see which “star” moves. It would be a great lesson – since early astronomers did it that way!

This evening let us return to the realm of binoculars and small telescopes as we head now for Beta Monocerotis and a little more than a fingerwidth north for NGC 2232 (Right Ascension: 6 : 26.6 – Declination: -04 : 45). This wonderful collection of stars sparkles with chains and various magnitudes – the brightest of which is 5th magnitude 10 Monocerotis. Well resolved with a small telescope, its apparent size of about a full moon-width makes it a true delight and it can even be spotted unaided from a dark sky site. Be sure to note it, because it is on many open cluster study lists.

Now head back to Beta and about the same distance west for Class D cluster NGC 2215 (Right Ascension: 6 : 21.0 – Declination: -07 : 17). At magnitude 8, it is still within the realm of binoculars, but will look like a small fuzzy patch beyond resolution. Try this one with a telescope! Set in a rich field, the compressed area of near equal magnitude stars isn’t the most colorful in the sky, but you can add another to your Herschel hits!

Until next week, may all your journeys be at light speed!