The Attendants of Mirfak

The star Mirfak and its 'Attendants', the cluster known as Melotte 20, are at the bottom of this image, just right of center. Closer to the center of the image, just rightward, lies the famous Double Cluster.

The star Mirfak and its ‘Attendants’, the cluster known as Melotte 20, are at the bottom of this image, just right of center. Closer to the center of the image, just rightward, lies the famous Double Cluster.

Nearly overhead in the after-dinner hours of a northern winter night, the rich constellation Perseus offers even a modestly-equipped amateur astronomer many hours of pleasant stargazing. Named after the great hero of Greek mythology, Perseus finds itself in the starry plane of the Milky Way Galaxy where thousands of brilliant blue-white stars have coalesced in the the last few tens of millions of years. Near the star Mirfak, or α (alpha) Persei, the brightest star in Perseus, lies a particularly dazzling collection of associated blue-white stars  that make up a loose cluster often called the “Attendants of Mirfak”. This little group is a beautiful sight in binoculars…

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Three Clusters and a Cheshire Cat

The stars along the northern Milky Way rising in the eastern sky. To the right lies the Hyades above which is the smaller Pleiades star cluster. To the right lies the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.

The stars along the northern Milky Way rising in the eastern sky. To the right lies the Hyades above which is the smaller Pleiades star cluster. To the left of center in this image lies the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.

Visible nearly overhead in the northern hemisphere, the bright constellation Auriga makes for pleasant viewing this time of year. The constellation, which looks like a big hexagon about 15° across, sits in a fine star field along the northern Milky Way directly opposite the much richer sky near the galactic center in Sagittarius. Auriga also holds the dazzling star Capella, the most northerly first-magnitude star in the skies. The constellation is also visible above the northern horizon from most populated parts of the southern hemisphere. Whether you have a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, make an appointment to examine the three finest open star clusters of Auriga– M36, M37, and M38– along with a smiling asterism embedded in the stream of the Milky Way…

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A Guide to Observing Comet 45/P Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova imaged by amateur astronomer Tim Puckett in 2011.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova imaged by amateur astronomer Tim Puckett in 2011.

A little periodic comet is visiting the inner solar system over the next few months. Comet 45/P Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková, a tiny piece of ice and dust left over from the earliest days of the solar system, moves periodically around the Sun every 5.25 years. It made its closest approach to the Sun on December 31, 2016 and it’s visible now. As it passes close to Earth in February, it will brighten and appear to move quickly across the sky from day to day. You’ll need binoculars to see it, but it’s worth following this little leftover hunk of the early solar system…

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Venus and the “New Year” Crescent Moon

venus-moon-new-year-2017

Venus and the crescent Moon on the evening of January 1, 2017, imaged from Bethesda, MD.

The waning of the first day of 2017 sees the slender crescent Moon, rounded out by Earthshine, and the brilliant planet Venus in the western sky after sunset. Venus puts on quite a show this month as it reaches greatest eastern elongation on January 12 and lies some 47° east of the Sun. The planet then grows in brightness to magnitude -4.7 by month’s end. That’s as bright as the planet ever gets, bright enough to cast shadows on a dark night.

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The Sky This Month – January 2017

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova on Dec. 23, 2016. A skinny gas or ion tail extends to the east of the blue-green coma. The comet is currently visible near the end of evening twilight. Credit: Jose Chambo

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova on Dec. 23, 2016. A thin ion tail extends to the east of the coma. The comet is visible in evening twilight through mid-January, then reappears after it swings around the Sun in late January and into February and March 2017. Credit: Jose Chambo at cometografia.es

“And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

1 January 2017. Begin the new year by counting your blessings, then strolling out after sunset to examine the dazzling sight of a slender crescent Moon within 5° of Venus in the southwestern sky…

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The Golden Light of a Winter Solstice

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
― John Steinbeck

On December 21, 2016 at 10:44 Universal Time, the Sun reaches the December solstice, its most southern point on the ecliptic. This marks the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere…

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The Merope Nebula

A wide field and detailed image of the Pleiades and its enveloping nebulosity by Terry Hancock and Robert Fields. See image details at this link.

A wide field and detailed image of the Pleiades and its enveloping nebulosity by Terry Hancock and Robert Fields. See image details at this link.

In the months from late November through early March, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, the famous Pleiades star cluster grabs the attention of experienced and untutored stargazers alike. The little dipper-shaped cluster, which is about the width of your little finger held at arm’s length, takes its name from the seven sisters who were daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione, but nearly every world culture has a name and legend for this group. In Sanskrit, the cluster is called Kṛttikā, which refers to the six sisters of the god Murugan. The Japanese refer to this cluster as Subaru, from which the famous car company takes its name and logo. In the middle ages in Europe, the Pleiades was associated with Halloween because it reached its highest point near midnight on that date. Legend also tells of the Pleiades reaching high into the sky on a night in 1650 B.C. when the island of Santorini in Greece exploded in a volcanic eruption and destroyed the Minoan civilization on a nearby island.

Without the help of optics, most observers can pick out the six brightest stars in the Pleiades. In a good pair of binoculars or a wide-field telescope at lowest magnification, the cluster explodes into dozens of blue-white stars packed into a 2° field of view. But there’s more to see here than just stars. In 1859, an extensive blue-white nebula was discovered enveloping the stars of the Pleiades. It appears in early images as an oval blue-white gauziness with the cluster member Merope immersed in the brightest end of it. The nebula is easily seen in images from modern amateur astronomers, most particularly in the expert image at the top of this page from astrophotographers Terry Hancock and Robert Fields. The most conspicuous part of the nebula around the star Merope (“mare-OH-pee”) is sometimes called the Merope Nebula or, more formally, NGC 1435.

The stars of the Pleiades. Image credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory/David Malin.

The stars of the Pleiades. Image credit: Australian Astronomical Observatory/David Malin.

As longtime readers of this site and keen students of the annual Fundamentals of Stargazing course have come to understand, many star clusters are bathed in gauzy blue nebulosity generated by blue-white starlight reflected by fine and sooty dust particles left over from the formation of the cluster. But at 100 million years of age, the Pleiades is a little long in the tooth for that sort of light show. Modern studies suggest the dust enveloping the Merope and the other stars of the Pleiades is simply a relatively sooty section of the interstellar medium through which the cluster is passing. As the Pleiades moves through this part of space over the next many hundreds of thousands of years, it will leave this patch of interstellar dust behind and the nebula will disappear.

Getting the Merope Nebula to show up in images isn’t a huge challenge these days. But seeing it visually is not easy with anything other than binoculars of 70-80 mm or more in aperture and pristine dark sky. A larger scope with a 4″ or 6″ objective works better, but again, dark sky is essential to see the faint nebulosity. A magnification of 50x will do the job– you don’t need high power here. To reduce the overwhelming glow of Merope, place it just out of the field of view as you first look for the nebula. At first, you may see nebulosity everywhere among the glow of the bright stars of the Pleiades. This is illusory, or it may be caused by dew formation on your objective lens or your warm breathe condensing on your eyepiece. The Merope Nebula itself will be more localized near the star.

 

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The Sky This Month – December 2016

Meteors from the Geminid meteor shower (credit: Asim Patel)

Meteors from the Geminid meteor shower (credit: Asim Patel)

It’s an excellent month for stargazers, so I encourage you to take some time out of your busy holiday preparations to enjoy the night sky. There are two respectable meteor showers, and the Moon passes close to five major planets during the month. Brilliant Venus dominates the western sky after sunset, while Jupiter outshines every star as it continues to brighten in the eastern sky before sunrise. And on the last day of 2016, Neptune comes within 0.1º of the planet Mars, the closest approach of these two planets in more than 700 years! Here’s what to see in the night sky this month……

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A Brief Guide to Observing the Planet Venus

venusThe planet Venus is the third brightest object in our skies after the Sun and the Moon. Known since the first humans turned their gaze to the sky, the striking appearance of Venus compelled the ancient Greeks and Romans to name the planet after the goddess of love and beauty. Other cultures, including the Sumerians and the Pawnee in North America also linked this brilliant planet to objects of feminine beauty.  The ancient Mayans had a particular interest in Venus and built an observatory at Chichen Itza to, among other things, precisely measure the position of the planet, and some aspects of the Mayan calendar are based on the motions of Venus. While Venus reveals little detail in a telescope, it grows and shrinks and goes through a series of phases similar to the Moon, and comes closer to Earth than any other planet. Here’s a little background on the planet Venus and a few tips to help you see the planet for yourself and understand its apparitions and motion in our skies…

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Video – Star Chasers, Episode 1

This is the first in a series of short documentary videos about amateur astronomers, star parties, and the lure of the night sky. It was created by Jon Baker at Stab You Productions and supported by the folks at Explore Scientific. Been a while since you’ve brought your telescope out? Then play this video for a little inspiration…

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