Two Fine Galaxies in the Sculptor Group

Image of NGC 55 acquired by Brett Soames of NSW, Australia and processed by Warren Keller at www.billionsandbillions.com.

Image of galaxy NGC 55 acquired by Brett Soames of NSW, Australia and processed by Warren Keller at www.billionsandbillions.com.

One of the closest congregations of galaxies to our own, the Sculptor Group consists of a series of relatively bright and shapely galaxies clustered in the barren sky near the south galactic pole. The group is anchored by the majestic NGC 253, the Silver Coin Galaxy, one of the most beautiful galaxies for a small telescope. But a little farther south lie two more gems, NGC 55, also called the ‘String of Pearls’, and NGC 300, one of a handful of galaxies known as the ‘Southern Pinwheel’. For northern observers, this pair is low in the thick air over the southern horizon in the late months of the year. Southern-hemisphere observers, however, see these galaxies nearly overhead where it’s much easier to see their distinctive shape and features in a small telescope…

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IC342: An Obscured Spiral Galaxy, Hiding in Plain Sight

The nearly face-on spiral galaxy IC342 (Caldwell 5) in the constellation Cepheus. Image credit: Terry Hancock.

The nearly face-on spiral galaxy IC342 (Caldwell 5) in the constellation Camelopardalis. Image credit: Terry Hancock.

The galaxy IC342 ranks as one of the under-appreciated gems of the northern night sky. As you can see in the image above, this elegant nearby spiral galaxy in the far-northern constellation Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) is a photogenic target for experienced imagers. But it’s rather challenging to see visually in all but the darkest skies. It is, however, worth the effort to see this swirling assembly because it lies in an unusually beautiful field of foreground stars…

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The Sky This Month – October 2016

harvest_moonThey’ve put on a brilliant show in the past several months, but Saturn and Mars slowly fade into the sunset this month in the southwestern sky. The two planets, along with the Moon and Venus, are a beautiful sight on Oct. 3-5 in the southwest. The Orionid meteor shower also peaks this month as the Earth passes through a stream of debris from Comet Halley. And there’s a “Black Moon” this month, defined as two New Moons in a single calendar month (as defined in Universal Time). Here’s what to look for in the night sky this month……

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The Blinking Planetary Nebula

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the Blinking Planetary Nebula NGC 68226 (with additional processing by Judy Schmidt)

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the Blinking Planetary Nebula NGC 68226 (with additional processing by Judy Schmidt)

While the Milky Way along the backbone of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, offers many fine targets for stargazers, the wings of the constellation are also well worth exploring, especially in the months of July through October when the constellation lies near the meridian. In this short tour, let’s tiptoe through the western wing of the Swan and inspect the remarkable Blinking Planetary, NGC 6826, and a few more intriguing deep-sky objects…

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Mini-Documentary Shows Incredible View of the Night Sky

Infinity ² from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.

Here’s an incredible video that’s as close as it comes to the actual feeling of being under a clear dark sky. Created by Ben Canales and John Waller of Uncage the Soul Productions, this short work features 20 high-school students at a summer astronomy camp in Oregon. The producers simply ask, “What do you feel?” The film also visits the Oregon Star Party where 600 astronomers camp out with their scopes.

This isn’t a timelapse. It’s a video of the night sky in real time. It shows what’s possible with current camera technology, in this case a Canon MH20f-SH set at ISO400,000, along with a fast 20 mm Sigma Art lens.

In this video, along with wide-field views of the late-summer sky, you can see stars reflected in the primary mirror of a big Dob as it turns, a live view of the star Capella through an eyepiece, and a view of the Perseid meteor shower. Just amazing.

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Touring the Backbone of Cygnus, the Swan

The Milky Way through the constellation Cygnus. The dark cloud bisecting the Milky Way is the Great Rift.

The Milky Way through the constellation Cygnus. The dark cloud bisecting the Milky Way is the Great Rift.

In the late days of northern summer, the constellation Cygnus lies nearly overhead in the mid-evening hours. A long, conspicuous constellation, Cygnus stretches along the diffuse arc of the Milky Way and is packed full of lovely deep-sky objects for stargazers of all skill levels.

Cygnus is an ancient star group and goes back at least 2,000 years. In Greek legend, Cygnus was a friend of Phaeton, the son of Helios, the Sun god. Phaeton met his demise while foolishly trying to drive his father’s sun-chariot across the sky. When Phaeton fell into the river Eridanus, Cygnus begged Zeus to turn him into a swan so he could fly down to retrieve his friend’s body. In doing so, however, he gave up his immortality. Zeus was touched by the selfless act of Cygnus in honoring his friend, so he cast the swan in a place of honor in the night sky…

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Almost Heaven (Star Party), West Virginia

The late summer Milky Way from the Almost Heaven Star Party, West Virginia, on Sept. 4, 2016.

The late summer Milky Way from the Almost Heaven Star Party, West Virginia, on Sept. 4, 2016. Click image to enlarge.

Once in a while, you have to get yourself to dark skies. Forget the excuses, the lost sleep, the long drive. Just go. It will regenerate you, reconnect you to the cosmos, and help you remember why you became a stargazer in the first place.

Which is why I powered down the computer and packed a simple Dobsonian telescope, a binoviewer, and a couple of eyepieces and headed out to the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP) in West Virginia, an event held this year on September 2-6, 2016…

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The Sky This Month – September 2016

The zodiacal light as seen from La Silla, Chile (credit: ESO).

The zodiacal light as seen from La Silla, Chile (credit: ESO).

Jupiter finally fades from view this month but it goes out in style, attended in the west after sunset by brilliant Venus and, at the beginning of the month, by a slender crescent Moon. Mars lingers in the starry sky of Scorpius and Sagittarius, and finally starts to move eastward and pull away from Saturn and Antares. And the Sun reaches the September equinox and marks the changing of the seasons. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month……

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Vixen’s Astonishing SG 2.1×42 Wide-Field Binoculars

Vixen Optics SG 2.1x42 binoculars (credit: Vixen)

Vixen Optics SG 2.1×42 binoculars (credit: Vixen)

While Galileo’s profound discoveries with his first telescope in 1609 are rightly celebrated in the annals of science, the optical design of his first telescope is not. Based on a simple convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece, Galileo’s early telescopes gave drinking-straw-narrow fields of view and and image brightness that dropped off drastically at the edge. His design was quickly replaced by the so-called Keplerian telescope which we all use today. So imagine my surprise when I discovered a relatively new set of binoculars from Vixen Optics that are based on a modern version of Galileo’s original telescope design. These Vixen SG 2.1×42 binoculars, which magnify just 2.1 times and have objective lenses 42 mm diameter, give extraordinary wide-field views of entire constellations, and some say that observing with these binoculars is like having ‘super vision’…

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Touring Clusters and Stars in Ophiuchus

Messier 12 (credit: Hunter Wilson)

Messier 12 (credit: Hunter Wilson)

As befits a large constellation at the edge of the Milky Way, Ophiuchus is packed with deep-sky sights for observers with small and large telescopes. Open and globular star clusters abound here, along with many fine double stars. Let’s have a short tour of a handful of the highlights of the constellation, moving from easy objects to more difficult sights…

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