Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: October 22-28, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to enjoy lunar studies, but why don’t we take a look at couple of other interesting objects, too? I think this would be the perfect opportunity to chase an asteroid! Not enough? Then get out your zombie hunting equipment and we’ll have a look at the “Demon Star”, too! Whenever you’re ready to learn a little more about the history and mystery of what’s out there, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, October 22 – Something very special happened today in 2136 B.C. There was a solar eclipse, and for the very first time it was seen and recorded by Chinese astronomers. And probably a very good thing because in those days the royal astronomers were executed for failure to predict! Today is also the birthday of Karl Jansky. Born in 1905, Jansky was an American physicist as well as an electrical engineer. One of his pioneer discoveries was non-Earth-based radio waves at 20.5 MHz, a detection he made while investigating noise sources during 1931 and 1932. And, in 1975, Soviet Venera 9 was busy sending Earth the very first look at Venus’ surface.

Also today in 1966 Luna 12 was launched towards the Moon – as so shall we be. We’ll continue our lunar explorations as we look for the “three ring circus” of easily identified craters – Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catherina – a challenging crater which spans 114 kilometers and goes below the lunar surface by 4730 meters. Are you ready to discover a very conspicuous lunar feature that was never officially named? Cutting its way across Mare Nectaris from Theophilus to shallow crater Beaumont in the south, you’ll see a long, thin, bright line. What you are looking at is an example of a lunar dorsum – nothing more than a wrinkle or low ridge. Chances are good that this ridge is just a “wave” in the lava flow that congealed when Mare Nectaris formed. This particular dorsa is quite striking tonight because of low illumination angle. Has it been named? Yes. It is unofficially known as “Dorsum Beaumont,” but by whatever name it is called, it remains a distinct feature you’ll continue to enjoy! Also to the far south along the terminator you will see Mutus, a small crater with black interior and bright, thin west wall crest. Angling further southwest from Mutus, look for a “bite” taken out of the terminator. This is crater Manzinus.

Tuesday, October 23 – Now it’s time to look for Mare Vaporum – “The Sea of Vapors” – on the southwest shore of Mare Serenitatis. Formed from newer lava flow inside an old crater, this lunar sea is edged to its north by the mighty Apennine Mountains. On its northeastern edge, look for the now washed-out Haemus Mountains. Can you see where lava flow has reached them? This lava has come from different time periods and the slightly different colorations are easy to spot even with binoculars.

Further south and edged by the terminator is Sinus Medii – the “Bay in the Middle” of the visible lunar surface. Central on the terminator, and the adopted “center” of the lunar disc, this the point from which latitude and longitude are measured. This smooth plain may look small, but it covers about as much area as the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. During full daylight temperatures in Sinus Medii can reach up to 212 degrees! On a curious note, in 1930 Sinus Medii was chosen by Edison Petitt and Seth Nicholson for a surface temperature measurement at full Moon. Experiments of this type were started by Lord Rosse as early as 1868, but on this occasion Petit and Nicholson found the surface to be slightly warmer than boiling water. Around a hundred years after Rosse’s attempt, Surveyor 6 successfully landed in Sinus Medii on November 9, 1967, and became the very first probe to “lift off” from the lunar surface.

Wednesday, October 24 – Today in 1851, a busy astronomer was at the eyepiece as William Lassell discovered Uranus’ moons Ariel and Umbriel. Although this is far beyond backyard equipment, we can have a look at that distant world. While Uranus’ small, blue/green disc isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to see in a small telescope or binoculars, the very thought that we are looking at a planet that’s over 18 times further from the Sun than we are is pretty impressive! Usually holding close to a magnitude 6, we watch as the tilted planet orbits our nearest star once every 84 years. Its atmosphere is composed of hydrogen, helium and methane, yet pressure causes about a third of this distant planet to behave as a liquid. Larger telescopes may be able to discern a few of Uranus’ moons, for Titania (the brightest) is around magnitude 14.

Let’s begin our lunar studies tonight with a deeper look at the “Sea of Rains.” Our mission is to explore the disclosure of Mare Imbrium, home to Apollo 15. Stretching out 1123 kilometers over the Moon’s northwest quadrant, Imbrium was formed around 38 million years ago when a huge object impacted the lunar surface creating a gigantic basin.

The basin itself is surrounded by three concentric rings of mountains. The most distant ring reaches a diameter of 1300 kilometers and involves the Montes Carpatus to the south, the Montes Ap-enninus southwest, and the Caucasus to the east. The central ring is formed by the Montes Alpes, and the innermost has long been lost except for a few low hills which still show their 600 kilometer diameter pattern through the eons of lava flow. Originally the impact basin was believed to be as much as 100 kilometers deep. So devastating was the event that a Moon-wide series of fault lines appeared as the massive strike shattered the lunar lithosphere. Imbrium is also home to a huge mascon, and images of the far side show areas opposite the basin where seismic waves traveled through the interior and shaped its landscape. The floor of the basin rebounded from the cataclysm and filled in to a depth of around 12 kilometers. Over time, lava flow and regolith added another five kilometers of material, yet evidence remains of the ejecta which was flung more than 800 kilometers away, carving long runnels through the landscape.

Thursday, October 25 – And who was watching the planets in 1671? None other than Giovanni Cassini – because he’d just discovered Saturn’s moon Iapetus.

Tonight let’s discover our own Moon as we take a look at Mare Insularum, the “Sea Of Islands”. Ir will be partially revealed tonight as one of the most prominent of lunar craters – Copernicus – guides the way. While only a small section of this reasonably young mare is now visible southwest of Copernicus, the lighting will be just right to spot its many different colored lava flows. To the northeast is a lunar club challenge: Sinus Aestuum. Latin for the Bay of Billows, this mare-like region has an approximate diameter of 290 kilometers, and its total area is about the size of the state of New Hampshire. Containing almost no features, this area is low albedo and provides very little surface reflectivity. Can you see any of Copernicus’ splash rays beginning to appear yet?

Today is the birthday of Henry Norris Russell. Born in 1877, Russell was the American leader in establishing the modern field of astrophysics. As the namesake for the American Astronomical Society’s highest award (for lifetime contributions to the field), Mr. Russell is the “R” in HR diagrams, along with Mr. Hertzsprung. This work was first used in a 1914 paper, published by Russell.

Tonight let’s have a look at a star that resides right in the middle of the HR diagram as we have a look Beta Aquarii.

Named Sadal Suud (“Luck of Lucks”), this star of spectral type G is around 1030 light-years distant from our solar system and shines 5800 times brighter than our own Sun. The main sequence beauty also has two 11th magnitude optical companions. The one closest to Sadal Suud was discovered by John Herschel in 1828, while the further star was reported by S.W. Burnham in 1879.

Friday, October 26 – It’s big. It’s bright. It’s the Moon! Look for a small, but very bright, small crater that you just can’t miss… Kepler! This great landmark crater named for Johannes Kepler only spans 32 kilometers, but drops to a deep 2750 meters below the surface. It’s a class I crater that’s a geological hotspot! As the very first lunar crater to be mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, the area around Kepler contains many smooth lava domes reaching no more than 30 meters above the plains. 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. According to records, in 1963 a glowing red area was spotted near Kepler and extensively photographed. Normally one of the brightest regions of the Moon, the brightness value at the time nearly doubled! Although it was rather exciting, scientists later determined the phenomenon was caused by high energy particles from a solar flare reflecting from Kepler’s high albedo surface – a sharp contrast from the dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – similar to Earth’s shield volcanoes – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. In the days ahead all details around Kepler will be lost, so take this opportunity to have a good look at one awesome small crater.

This evening we are once again going to study a single star, which will help you become acquainted with the constellation of Perseus. Its formal name is Beta Persei and it is the most famous of all eclipsing variable stars. Tonight, let’s identify Algol and learn all about the “Demon Star.”

Ancient history has given this star many names. Associated with the mythological figure Perseus, Beta was considered to be the head of Medusa the Gorgon, and was known to the Hebrews as Rosh ha Satan or “Satan’s Head.” 17th century maps labeled Beta as Caput Larvae, or the “Specter’s Head,” but it is from the Arabic culture that the star was formally named. They knew it as Al Ra’s al Ghul, or the “Demon’s Head,” and we know it as Algol. Because these medieval astronomers and astrologers associated Algol with danger and misfortune, we are led to believe that Beta’s strange visual variable properties were noted throughout history.

Italian astronomer Geminiano Montanari was the first to record that Algol occasionally “faded,” and its methodical timing was cataloged by John Goodricke in 1782, who surmised that it was being partially eclipsed by a dark companion orbiting it. Thus was born the theory of the “eclipsing binary” and this was proved spectroscopically in 1889 by H. C. Vogel. At 93 light-years away, Algol is the nearest eclipsing binary of its kind, and is treasured by the amateur astronomer because it requires no special equipment to easily follow its stages. Normally Beta Persei holds a magnitude of 2.1, but approximately every three days it dims to magnitude 3.4 and gradually brightens again. The entire eclipse only lasts about 10 hours!

Although Algol is known to have two additional spectroscopic companions, the true beauty of watching this variable star is not telescopic – but visual. The constellation of Perseus is well placed this month for most observers and appears like a glittering chain of stars that lie between Cassiopeia and Andromeda. To help further assist you, re-locate last week’s study star, Gamma Andromedae (Almach) east of Algol. Almach’s visual brightness is about the same as Algol’s at maximum.

Saturday, October 27 – Tonight let’s skip the Moon and hunt down an asteroid! We’ll be locating Vesta which will be cruising along the southern border of Taurus, just about a handspan north/northwest of Betelgeuse. However, since asteroids are always on the move, the position will need to be calculated for your area, so use your local planetarium programs to get an accurate map. When you’re ready, let’s talk…

Asteroid Vesta is considered to be a minor planet since its approximate diameter is 525 km (326 miles), making it slightly smaller in size than the state of Arizona. Vesta was discovered on March 29, 1807 by Heinrich Olbers and it was the fourth such “minor planet” to be identified. Olbers’ discovery was fairly easy because Vesta is the only asteroid bright enough at times to be seen unaided from Earth. Why? Orbiting the Sun every 3.6 years and rotating on its axis in 5.24 hours, Vesta has an albedo (or surface reflectivity) of 42%. Although it is about 220 million miles away, pumpkin-shaped Vesta is the brightest asteroid in our solar system because it has a unique geological surface. Spectroscopic studies show it to be basaltic, which means lava once flowed on the surface. (Very interesting, since most asteroids were once thought to be rocky fragments left-over from our forming solar system!)

Studies by the Hubble telescope have confirmed this, as well as shown a large meteoric impact crater which exposed Vesta’s olivine mantle. Debris from Vesta’s collision then set sail away from the parent asteroid. Some of the debris remained within the asteroid belt near Vesta to become asteroids themselves with the same spectral pyroxene signature, but some escaped through the “Kirkwood Gap” created by Jupiter’s gravitational pull. This allowed these small fragments to be kicked into an orbit that would eventually bring them “down to Earth.” Did one make it? Of course! In 1960 a piece of Vesta fell to Earth and was recovered in Australia. Thanks to Vesta’s unique properties, the meteorite was definitely classified as once being a part of our third largest asteroid. Now, that we’ve learned about Vesta, let’s talk about what we can see from our own backyards.

As you can discern from images, even the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t give incredible views of this bright asteroid. What we will be able to see in our telescopes and binoculars will closely resemble a roughly magnitude 7 “star,” and it is for that reason that I strongly encourage you to visit Heavens Above, follow the instructions and print yourself a detailed map of the area. When you locate the proper stars and the asteroid’s probable location, mark physically on the map Vesta’s position. Keeping the same map, return to the area a night or two later and see how Vesta has moved since your original mark. Since Vesta will stay located in the same area for awhile, your observations need not be on a particular night, but once you learn how to observe an asteroid and watch it move – you’ll be back for more!

Sunday, October 28 – Today in 1971, Great Britain launched its first satellite – Prospero.

Tonight we’ll launch our journey along the southern shore of Mare Humorum and identify ancient crater Vitello. Notice how this delicate ring resembles earlier study Gassendi on the opposite shore. Its slopes have been crushed by the impact that formed crater Lee to its west. As you begin to circle around Mare Humorum and start northward again, you’ll be traveling along the Rupes Kelvin – ending in the spearhead formation of Promentorium Kelvin. Here again is another extremely old feature, a triangular mountainous cape born in the pre-Imbrian period and as much as 4 billion years old. It could be as long as 41 miles and about as wide as 21 miles, but its height is impossible to judge.

Take a breath now, and we’ll look for two more dark patches to guide us on. 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?

Until next week, wishing you clear and steady skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: August 20-26, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to catch up on your lunar studies, but be sure to mark your calendar for Tuesday’s splendid conjunction! There will be bright stars and clusters to study, so enjoy these temperate nights while they last! Whenever you’re ready to learn more about the history, mystery and majesty of what’s out there, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, August 20 – Tonight the Moon sets by skydark, but if you’re looking for a lunar challenge, return to crater Petavius about one-third the way up from the southern cusp just after sunset. This ancient crater is a wonderland of detail when lying on the terminator. Look for its rugged walls interrupted by crater Wrottesley to the northwest and elongated Palitzsch southeast. If conditions are stable, power up to look for a massive, multi-peaked central mountain region, along with a deep scar – Rima Petavius – cutting diagonally across the wavelike floor.

When the Moon has set, look for the southern Crown – Corona Australis. Its hidden jewel is 7.3 magnitude, 28,000 light-year distant globular cluster NGC 6723 (Right Ascension: 18 : 59.6 – Declination: -36 : 38). Discovered on June 3, 1826 by James Dunlop of New South Wales, Australia, NGC 6723 can be best found by heading less than 7 degrees due south of Zeta Sagittarii. This mid-sized cluster gives a surprising view, but if you’re more north, best catch it at its highest.

Now, relax! Tonight is the peak of the Kappa Cygnid meteor shower. Although the Moon will interfere early in the evening, wait until it has set and watch the area near Deneb. Discovered in the late 1800?s, the Kappa Cygnids are often overlooked because the grander, more prolific Perseids tend to get more attention. Although the stream has been verified, peak dates and fall rates vary from year to year. The average fall rate is usually no more than 5 per hour, but it is not uncommon to see 12 or more per hour with many fireballs. The stream’s duration is around 15 days. Clear skies!

Tuesday, August 21 – Deep Blue Celestial Scenery Alert! Don’t goof around tonight. Find yourself an open western horizon and be outside at sky dark for the awe inspiring combination of the Moon, Spica, Mars and Saturn. The powerful blue/white star will be located just northeast of the lunar edge while Mars resides to the east/southeast and Saturn reigns above them all. This will be a very photographic opportunity, so be sure to take advantage of this splendid conjunction. Tell your family and friends!

Although we have traveled this road before, let’s go further south than last night’s lunar study and have another look at Furnerius. Shallower and less impressive than Petavius, Furnerius will fade to obscurity as the Moon waxes. This flooded old crater has no central peak, but a much younger crater has punched a hole in its lava-filled floor. Look for the long “crack” extending from Furnerius’ north shore to crater rim. Perhaps it was caused by the impact? Sharp-eyed observers with good conditions and high power will also spot a multitude of small craters within and along Furnerius’ walls. For binocular viewers, try spotting crater Stevinus to the north and Fraunhofer to the south.

Now let’s go have a look at a star buried in one of the spiral arms of our own galaxy – W Sagittarii…

Located less than a fingerwidth north of Gamma, the tip of the “teapot spout,” W is a Cepheid variable that’s worth keeping an eye on. While its brightness only varies by less than a magnitude, it does so in less than 8 days! Normally holding close to a magnitude 4, nearby field stars will help you correctly assess when minimum and maximum occur. While it’s difficult for a beginner to see such changes, watch it over a period of time. At maximum, it will be only slightly fainter than Gamma to the south. At minimum, it will be only slightly brighter than the stars to its northeast and southwest.

While you watch W go through its changes – think on this: not only is W a Cepheid variable (a standard for distance measurements), but it is also one that periodically changes its shape. Not enough? Then think twice… Because W is also a Cepheid binary. Still not enough? Then you might like to know that recent research points toward W having a third companion as well!

Wednesday, August 22 – On the lunar surface tonight, head to the eastern shore of Mare Nectaris to catch an easily noticed broken black line. This is the western flank of the Pyrenees Mountains which stretch close to 350 kilometers north to south. The black line you see is a good example of a lunar scarp, a feature more like a cliff than a true mountain range. This scarp ends to the north in crater Guttenberg. Just south of Guttenberg, you will find high contrast Santbech.

Although it will be tough to locate with the unaided eye thanks to the Moon, let’s take a closer look at one of the most unsung stars in this region of sky – Eta Sagittarii. This M-class giant star will show a wonderful color contrast to binoculars or scopes, being slightly more orange than the surrounding field. Located 149 light-years away, this irregular variable star is a source of infrared radiation and is a little larger than our own Sun – yet 585 times brighter. At around 3 billion years old, Eta has either expended its helium core or just begun to use it to fuse carbon and oxygen – creating an unstable star capable of changing its luminosity by about 4%. But have a closer look… For Eta is also a binary system with an 8th magnitude companion!

Thursday, August 23 – Do you remember a few days ago in history when Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched? Well, on this day in history it made headlines as it sent back the very first photo of Earth seen from space!

On the lunar surface tonight, we’ll return to identify Metius, Fabricus and Janssen to the south. Southwest of this trio you will see a sharply defined small crater known as Vlacq. Power up to resolve its small central mountain peak. Angling off to the west and extending westward is multiple crater Hommel. Look especially for Hommel A and Hommel C which fit nicely and precisely within the borders of the older crater. Note how many individual craters make up its borders. Just north of Hommel is Pitiscus and to its south is Nearch.

Now let’s have a look at the brightest star in the “Archer” – Epsilon Sagittarii. Known as Kaus Australis, or the “Southern Bow,” Epsilon holds a respectable magnitude 1.8 and is located around 120 light-years from Earth. This sparkling blue/white star is 250 times brighter than our own Sun. While a major challenge would be to spot Epsilon’s 14th magnitude companion star located about 32? away, even the smallest of telescopes and most binoculars can try for the 7th magnitude visual companion widely spaced to the north-northwest.

Friday, August 24 – Today in 1966 from an Earth-orbiting platform, the Luna 11 mission was launched on a three day trip. After successfully achieving orbit, the mission went on to study many things, including lunar composition and nearby meteoroid streams.

Tonight’s prominent lunar features are also Astronomical League challenges. Look southwest of previous study Theophilus for the huge form of Maurolycus. Its cratered floor may be either partially lit or fully disclosed depending on your observing time. Note especially Maurolycus’ multiple central mountains. North of Maurolycus you will see the well-eroded remains of Gemma Frisius. Its broken walls will show well under current illumination. Finally look carefully for crater Goodacre which has destroyed Gemma Frisius’ northern wall.

The Moon is now becoming the “highlight” of the night sky. Try using “higher power” to diminish some of its glare. While southwestern Sagittarius is also high, why not observe some of its other globular clusters?

Center the scope on Epsilon and sweep less than 3 degrees north-northeast to find small 7.7 magnitude globular M69 (Right Ascension: 18 : 31.4 – Declination: -32 : 21). M69 gives an appearance similar to that of other compact clusters – such as M28 and M80. Small and moderately bright, it appears coarsely textured through smaller instruments and requires larger scopes to bring out its brightest 14th magnitude members. This cluster sits near a blue 7th magnitude star which complicates seeing M69 through binoculars and finderscopes.

Now head a little more than a degree southeast, then north of a pair of 6th magnitude stars to locate NGC 6652 (Right Ascension: 18 : 35.8 – Declination: -32 : 59) – a very small 9th magnitude globular. Go less than 2 degrees northeast to find brighter (8.1 magnitude), larger M70 (Right Ascension: 18 : 43.2 – Declination: -32 : 18). Notice how more of M70?s light is concentrated in its core than M69. Continuing a little more than 3 degrees in the direction of Zeta we encounter M54 (Right Ascension: 18 : 55.1 – Declination: -30 : 29). Through a modest scope, this 7.7 magnitude globular is small, very blue, and intensely concentrated at the core. Larger amateur instruments will only bring out a few 15th magnitude members out of this globular’s faintly glowing form.

Charles Messier discovered M69 and M70 on August 31, 1780 from Paris while trying to confirm a discovery made by Lacaille using a half-inch spyglass in South Africa. These two globulars lie within 2,000 light-years of each other and less than 30,000 light-years from Earth. Due to unusual richness in metal content – for astronomers, “metals” are any elements other than hydrogen and helium – M69 may be a relatively young cluster. At some 90,000 light-years, M54 is the most distant Messier globular cluster – and may not be a globular at all – but the core of a dwarf galaxy beyond the bounds of the Milky Way! In fact M54 is intrinsically larger (300 light-years in diameter) and brighter (magnitude 10.1) than any other globular within the Milky Way itself.

Saturday, August 25 – Tonight the waxing Moon’s most notable features will be the vast area of craters dominating the south-central portion near and along the terminator. Now emerging is Ptolemaeus – just north-northeast of Albategnius. This large round crater is a mountain walled plain filled with lava flow. With the exception of interior crater Ptolemaeus A, binoculars will see it as very smooth. Telescopes however can reveal faint mottling in the surface of the crater’s interior, along with a single elongated craterlet to the northeast. Despite its apparent uniformity, close inspection has revealed as many as 195 interior craterlets within Ptolemaeus! Look for a variety of interior ridges and shallow depressions.

With the moonlight causing studies to be mildly hampered, our main feature for tonight will definitely improve once the Moon sets – so while we’re waiting, let’s drop by open cluster M29 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.9 – Declination: +38 : 32) less than 2 degrees south-southeast of Gamma Cygni. At lower power, or through small scopes, its handful of brightest members makes this 6.6 magnitude open cluster look more like an asterism than a real group. Lacking any sense of a core, higher power and larger scopes will bring out another dozen or so stars. Those with binoculars will enjoy seeing a few of M29?s brightest stars against a vague nebulosity.

Now let’s see what the “I” can “C”… Less than 2 degrees southwest of M29 (just south of 5th magnitude P Cygni) lies another open cluster of similar brightness and size to M29 – IC 4996 (Right Ascension: 20 – : 16.5 – Declination: +37 : 38). How do these two compare? The less conspicuous IC 4996 lies in a richer Milky Way field and consists of fewer and more compact bright stars. Smaller scopes see this one as a patch of nebulosity.

Now for M55 (Right Ascension: 19 : 40.0 – Declination: -30 : 58). Found in the far reaches of eastern Sagittarius, and west-southwest of Zeta, M55 is one of the coarsest globulars known. At magnitude 7.0, M55 can be seen as a large pale ghost of luminosity in binoculars or finderscopes. This is one very open globular cluster! A multitude of fine, easily resolved stars spread oblately over the mid-power field. Long exposure photos show this to be a true globular glowing with the combined light of almost 100,000 suns.

Tonight is also the peak of the Northern Iota Aquarid meteor shower. While the Moon will totally interfere most of the evening, you still might catch a bright streak!

Sunday, August 26 – The most outstanding feature tonight on the Moon will be a southern crater near the terminator – Maurolycus. Depending on your viewing time, the terminator may be running through it. These shadows will multiply its contrast many times over and display its vivid formations. As true lunar challenge, Maurolycus will definitely catch your eye with its black interior and western crest stretched over the terminator’s darkness. Too many southern craters to be sure? Don’t worry. Maurolycus dominates them all tonight. Look for its double southern wall and multiple crater strikes along its edges. Maurolycus is found about two Crisium lengths southwest of Theophilus and in tonight’s light will appear especially fine. But look just north of Maurolycus to pick out the battered remains of Class III crater Gemma Frisius, another lunar challenge. Spanning 56 miles and descending 17,100 feet below the Moon’s surface, you’ll find its walls broken, yet enough of its northern boundary remains to clearly reveal the impact that created Goodacre. Look for the shadows which blend Goodacre and Gemma Frisius together.

On this date in 1981, Voyager 2 made a fly-by of Saturn. Eight years later in 1989, Voyager 2 flew by Neptune on this date. Why don’t we make a “date” tonight to have a look at this distant blue world? You’ll find it on the ecliptic plane. While large binoculars can pick up Neptune’s very tiny blue orb, you’ll need a telescope tonight to spot it through the lunar glare.

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

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: May 28 – June 3, 2012


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! As the Venus Transit draws closer, our bright neighboring planet is quickly disappearing into the sunset glow. As we await this astronomical piece of history, let’s take the time this week to have a look at a host of wonderful lunar features and bright stars. Be sure to catch the conjunction of Spica, Saturn and the Moon – and to catch a shooting star from the Tau Herculid meteor shower! If you’re ready to learn more about the history, mystery and magic of astronomy, then grab your optics and meet me in the back yard…

Monday, May 28 – On this day in 1959, the first primates made it to space. Abel (a rhesus monkey) and Baker (a squirrel monkey) lifted off in the nose cone of an Army Jupiter missile and were carried to sub-orbital flight. Recovered unharmed, Abel died just three days later from anesthesia during an electrode removal, but Baker lived on to a ripe old age of 27.

Our first challenge for the evening will be a telescopic one on the lunar surface known as the Hadley Rille. Using our past knowledge of Mare Serenitatis, look for the break along its western shoreline that divides the Caucasus and Apennine mountain ranges. Just south of this break is the bright peak of Mons Hadley. You’ll find this area of highest interest for several reasons, so power up as much as possible.

Impressive Mons Hadley measures about 24 by 48 kilometers at its base and reaches up an incredible 4572 meters. If this mountain was indeed caused by volcanic activity on the lunar surface, this would make it comparable to some of the very highest volcanically caused peaks on Earth, such as Mount Shasta or Mount Rainer. To its south is the secondary peak Mons Hadley Delta – the home of the Apollo 15 landing site just a breath north of where it extends into the cove created by Palus Putredinus.

Along this ridgeline and smooth floor, look for a major fault line known as the Hadley Rille, winding its way across 120 kilometers of lunar surface. In places, the rille spans 1500 meters in width and drops to a depth of 300 meters below the surface. Believed to have been formed by volcanic activity some 3.3 billion years ago, we can see the impact that lower gravity has had on this type of formation, since earthly lava channels are less than 10 kilometers long and only around 100 meters wide.

During the Apollo 15 mission, Hadley Rille was visited at a point where it was only 1.6 kilometers wide – still a considerable distance as seen in respect to astronaut James Irwin and the lunar rover. Over a period of time, its lava may have continued to flow through this area, yet it remains forever buried beneath years of regolith.

Now let’s head about four fingerwidths northwest of Beta Virginis for another unusual star – Omega. Classed as an M-type red giant, this 480 light-year distant beauty is also an irregular variable which fluxes by about half a magnitude. Although you won’t notice much change in this 5th magnitude star, it has a very pretty red coloration and is worth the time to view.

Tuesday, May 29 – Today in 1919, a total eclipse of the Sun occurred and stellar measurements taken along the limb agreed with predictions based on Einstein’s General Relativity theory – the first such confirmation. Although we call it gravity, space/time curvature deflects the light of stars near the limb, causing their apparent positions to differ slightly. Unlike today’s astronomy, at that time you could only observe stars near the Sun’s limb (within less than an arc second) during an eclipse. It’s interesting to note that even Newton had his own theories on light and gravitation which predicted some deflection!

Tonight on the Moon we’ll be looking for another challenging feature and a crater which conjoins it – Stofler and Faraday.

Located along the terminator to the south, crater Stofler was named for Dutch mathematician and astronomer Johan Stofler. Consuming lunar landscape with an immense diameter of 126 kilometers and dropping 2760 meters below the surface, Stofler is a wonderland of small details in an eroded surrounding. Breaking its wall on the north is Fernelius, but sharing the southeast boundary is Faraday. Named for English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, it is more complex and deeper at 4090 meters, but far smaller at 70 kilometers in diameter. Look for myriad smaller strikes which bind the two together!

If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge, then let’s head about 59 light-years away in Virgo for star 70. You’ll find it located about 6 degrees northeast of Eta and right in the corner of the Coma, Bootes, and Virgo border. So what’s so special about this G-type, very normal-looking 5th magnitude star?

It’s a star that has a planet.

Long believed to be a spectroscopic binary because of its 117 day shifts in color, closer inspection has revealed that 70 Virginis actually has a companion planet. Roughly 7 times larger than Jupiter and orbiting no further away than Mercury from its cooler-than-Sol parent star, 70 Virginis B just might well be a planet cool enough to support water in its liquid form.

How “cool” is that? Try about 85 degrees Celsius…

Wednesday, May 30 – Are you ready to explore some more history? Then tonight have a look at the Moon and identify Alphonsus – it’s the centermost in a line of rings which looks much like the Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina trio.

Alphonsus is a very old, Class V crater which spans 118 kilometers in diameter and drops below the surface by about 2730 meters and contains a small central peak. Partially flooded, Eugene Shoemaker had made of study of this crater’s formation and found dark haloes on the floor. Again, this could be attributed to volcanism and Shoemaker believed them to be maar volcanoes, and the haloes to be dark ash. Power up and look closely at the central peak, for not only did Ranger 9 hard land just northeast, but this is the only area on the Moon where an astronomer has observed a change and back up that observation with photographic proof.

On November 2, 1958 Nikolai Kozyrev’s long and arduous study of Alphonsus was about to be rewarded. Some two years earlier Dinsmore Alter had taken a series of photographs from the Mt. Wilson 60? reflector that showed hazy patches in this area that could not be accounted for. Night after night, Kozyrev continued to study at the Crimean Observatory – but with no success. During the process of guiding the scope for a spectrogram the unbelievable happened – a cloud of gas containing carbon molecules had been captured! Selected as the last target for the Ranger photographic mission series, Alphonsus delivered 5814 spectacular high-resolution images of this mysterious region before Ranger 9 splattered nearby.
Capture it yourself tonight!

Now let’s add to our double star list as we hunt down Zeta Bootes located about 7 degrees southeast of Arcturus. This is a delightful multiple star system for even small telescopes.

Thursday, May 31 – As we begin the evening, be sure to note a splendid conjunction. Tonight the waxing Moon will dominate the sky, but it’s joined by the visage of Spica and Saturn. Look for the brilliant star located just to the lunar north and the gentle giant planet about 10 degrees or so further north.

Now, let’s have a look at awesome crater Clavius. As a huge mountain-walled plain, Clavius will appear near the terminator tonight in the lunar southern hemisphere, rivaled only in sheer size by similar structured Deslandres and Baily. Rising 1646 meters above the surface, the interior wall slopes gently downward for a distance of almost 24 km and a span of 225 km. Its crater-strewn walls are over 56 km thick!

Clavius is punctuated by many pockmarks and craters; the largest on the southeast wall is named Rutherford. Its twin, Porter, lies to the northeast. Long noted as a test of optics, Clavius crater can offer up to thirteen such small craters on a steady night at high power. How many can you see?

While the glare will make it difficult to do many things, we can still have a look at other bright objects! Let’s start tonight by going just north of Zeta Bootes for Pi. With a wider separation, this pair of whites will easily resolve to the smaller telescope.

Now skip up northeast about a degree for Omicron Bootes. While this is not a multiple system, it makes for a nice visual pairing for a binocular challenge. For telescopes, the southeastern star holds interest as a small asterism.
Continue northeast another two degrees to discover Xi Bootes. This one is a genuine multiple star system with magnitude 5 and 7 companions. Not only will you enjoy this G-type sun for its duplicity, but for the fine field of stars in which it resides!

Now have a look at Mars. Over the last few weeks it has dropped significantly in brightness and has now reached an approximate +0.5 magnitude. Have you been watching its progress against the background stars? It won’t be long until it crosses constellation boundaries again.

Friday, June 1 – Tonight on the Moon, crater Copernicus will try to steal the scene, head further south to capture another lunar club challenge – Bullialdus. Even binoculars can make out this crater with ease near the center of Mare Nubium. If you’re scoping – power up – this one is fun! Very similar to Copernicus, note Bullialdus’ thick, terraced walls and central peak. If you examine the area around it carefully, you can note it is a much newer crater than shallow Lubiniezsky to its north and almost non-existent Kies to the south. On Bullialdus’ southern flank, it’s easy to make out its A and B craters, as well as the interesting little Koenig to the southwest.

Now let’s have a look at a tasty red star – R Hydrae. You’ll find it about a fistwidth south of Spica or about a fingerwidth west of Gamma Hydrae.

R was the third long term variable star to be discovered and it is credited to Maraldi in 1704. While it had been observed by Hevelius some 42 years earlier, it was not recognized immediately because its changes happen over more than a year. At maximum, R reaches near 4th magnitude – but drops well below human eye perception to magnitude 10. During Maraldi’s and Hevelius’ time, this incredible star took over 500 days to change, but it has speeded up to around 390 days in the present century.

Why such a wide range? Science isn’t really sure. R Hydrae is a pulsing M-type giant whose evolution may be progressing more rapidly than expected due to changes in structure. What we do know is that it is around 325 light-years away and is approaching us at around 10 kilometers per second.

In the telescope, R will have a pronounced red coloration which deepens near minima. Nearby is 12th magnitude visual companion star Ho 381, which was first measured for position angle and distance in 1891. Since that time no changes in separation have been noted, which leads us to believe that the pair may be a true binary.

Saturday, June 2 – Tonight would be a wonderful opportunity for Moongazers to return to the surface and have a look at the peaceful Sinus Iridum area. If you’ve been clouded out before, be sure to have a look for telescopic lunar club challenges – Promontoriums Heraclides and LaPlace.

Now let’s return again to R Hydrae. While observing a variable star with either the unaided eye, binoculars, or a telescope can be very rewarding, it’s often quite difficult to catch changes in long-term variables, because there are times when the constellation is not visible. While R Hydrae is unique in color, let’s drop about half a degree to the southeast to visit another variable star – SS Hydrae.

SS is a quick change artist – the Algol-type. While you will need binoculars or a telescope to see this normally 7.7 magnitude star, at least its fluctuations are far more rapid, with a period of only 8.2 days. With R Hydrae we have a star that expands and contracts causing the changes in brightness – but SS is an eclipsing binary. While less than a half magnitude is not a noteworthy amount, you will notice a difference if you view it over a period of time. Be sure to note that this is actually a triple star system, for there is also a 13th magnitude companion star located 13? from the primary. Watch if as often as possible and see if you can detect changes in the next few weeks!

Sunday, June 3 – If you’re up early, why not keep a watch out for the peak of the Tau Herculids meteor shower? These are the offspring of comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3, which broke up in 2006. The radiant is near Corona Borealis and we’ll be in this stream for about a month. At best when the parent comet has passed perihelion, you’ll catch about 15 per hour maximum. Most are quite faint and the westering Moon will interfere, but sharp-eyed observers will enjoy it.

Tonight let’s have a look at a very bright and changeable lunar feature that is often over-looked. Starting with the great grey oval of Grimaldi, let your eyes slide along the terminator towards the south until you encounter the bright crater Byrgius. Named for Joost Burgi, who made a sextant for Tycho Brahe, this “seen on the curve” crater is really quite large with a diameter of 87 kilometers. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of all is high albedo Byrgius A, which sits along its east wall line and produces a wonderfully bright ray system. While it is not noted as a lunar club challenge, it’s a great crater to help add to your knowledge of selenography!

Now let’s try a visual double for the unaided eye – Eta Virginis. Can you distinguish between a 4th and 6th magnitude pair?

The brighter of the two is Zaniah (Eta), which through occultation had been discovered to be a triple star. In 2002, Zaniah became the first star imaged by combining multiple telescopes with the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer. This was the first time the three were split. Two of them are so close that they orbit in less than half the distance between the Earth and Sun!

Binocular users should take a look at visual double Rho Virginis about a fistwidth west-southwest of Epsilon. This pair is far closer and will require an optical aid to separate. The brighter of this pair – Rho – is a white, main sequence dwarf with a secret… It’s a variable! Known as a Delta Scuti type, this odd star can vary slightly in magnitude in anywhere from 30 minutes to two and a half hours as it pulsates.

For mid-to-large telescopes, Rho offers just a little bit more. The visual companion star has a visual companion as well! Less than a half degree southwest of Rho is a small, faint spiral galaxy – NGC 4608 (Right Ascension: 12 : 41.2 – Declination: +10 : 09) – at 12th magnitude, it’s hard to see because of Rho’s brightness…but it’s not alone. Look for a small, but curiously shaped galaxy labeled NGC 4596 (Right Ascension: 12 : 39.9 – Declination: +10 : 11). Its resemblance to the planet Saturn makes it well worthwhile!

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