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 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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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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The Sky This Month – November 2016

Taurids

Taurid fireball imaged on October 28, 2005 by Hiroyuki Iida.

The sky this month brings a splendid array of planets, all of which are attended by the Moon at one time or other.  November also brings two meteor showers and the grand and starry constellations Taurus, Auriga, and Orion rising one after the other in the eastern sky. Here’s what to see in the sky this month……

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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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