Happy New Year! Here we are in a brand new year, with the promise of more observing, sketching and imaging over the coming months. I hope you will get out as often as possible to enjoy the night sky. It is a unique and calming experience to commune with the universe in such a personal manner. We are unique as we understand the wonder of standing under a night sky and taking in the immensity and diversity that the universe offers to us.
This month we shall investigate some objects that you will hopefully enjoy. Some may be familiar to you, and some may not be. Some may be old friends while others may be new acquaintances. I know many folks struggle with light pollution or more localized glaring issues from neighbor’s lights. Regardless, get out there and engage the night sky, and rejoice in what you can see. I encourage all to observe with their minds and not just their eyes. Contemplate what it is you are seeing, even if it is a simple dim smudge. Revel in the fact that feeble light has traversed enormous distances and time to reach your eye in that moment. And finally rejoice in the fact that you have seen something that the vast majority of the world has not. In the big scheme of things we amateur astronomers are a very small minority. While others busy themselves with all the distractions and trappings of life, both good and bad, we like to take time out from our lives to immerse ourselves in the vastness of the night sky. So get out there, and simply enjoy.
Northern Celestial Hemisphere
Messier 38 / NGC 1912 (Auriga, open cluster, mag=6.4, size=15.0’, class=II2r):
Nearly 5° WSW of the double star Theta Aurigae (mag 2.6 and 7.2, sep of 3.5”) one can find this beautiful cluster. In an optical finder scope it will appear as a somewhat large circular hazy object inviting further investigation. With the main scope it dissolves into a mass of minute pinpricks of light overlaying the diffuse glow of further members out of reach. As one increases aperture and magnification it becomes a richer object with increasing resolution of its members. However, with smaller apertures there is still plenty to see here, as the cluster contains several 9th and 10th magnitude stars that draw the eye into their midst. Stars form close pairs and streamers of stars within the cluster field and give the senses a jolt with its beauty. Under a dark rural sky it may even be glimpsed with the naked eye. This cluster was discovered in 1654 by Giovanni Hodierna, and was later rediscovered by Le Gentile 1749 and Charles messier in 1764. So spend some time with this beauty and see just how wonderful an open cluster can be.
Messier 36 / NGC 1960 (Auriga, open cluster, mag=6.0, size=10.0’, class= II3m):
Just over 2° southeast of Messier 38, you will likely notice this small concentration in the same finder field. Visually it is smaller and a little less flashy to the eye than M38. Nonetheless, it is a fine visual object at all aperture levels, and may also be picked up with the naked eye in dark skies. A nice line of brighter stars crosses the center of its field and the cluster contains numerous pairs and curves of stars. Its visual character is certainly different than that of M38, but remains a visual treat for the observer. Increasing aperture and magnification brings out more of its dimmer members, giving it a deeper personality of its own. This cluster was also recorded by Giovanni Hodierna in 1654, and rediscovered by Le Gentil in 1749 and Messier in 1764.
Messier 37 / NGC 2099 (Auriga, open cluster, mag=5.6, size=15.0’, class=II1r):
Continuing to the southeast from M36 one can easily locate this beautiful cluster about 5° SSW of Theta Aurigae and 4° east of Chi Aurigae (mag 4.8). Another Hodierna discovery in 1654, Messier then rediscovered this delightful cluster in 1764. Under dark skies the cluster is obvious to the naked eye as a diffuse glow. Through a scope it is a very rich and dizzying array of stellar points, even with smaller aperture. A backdrop of haziness promises resolution of more members as aperture and magnification are increased. The magnitude 9.2 star HD 39183 displaying a reddish tint marks the center of the cluster’s field.
NGC 1514 (Taurus, planetary nebula, mag=10.9, size=2.2’, SBr=12.3):
Since the first three objects are bright and easily located, I wanted to add an additional object to challenge you a bit more. This curious object is located almost 2° NNE of mag 5.2 Psi Tauri very near the border with Perseus, and carries the nickname of the Crystal Ball Nebula. It sits between two 8th magnitude field stars about 17’ apart and oriented in a north-south line. You will first notice the 9.4 magnitude central star between the other two stars. With careful study you may be able to discern the round gaseous shell surrounding the star. However, if you have either an O-III line filter or a narrow-band nebula filter, I recommend using them. This will make the task of seeing the shell around the star much easier. With larger aperture the surrounding halo of gas may reveal an uneven surface brightness.
Discovered by William Herschel in 1790, this object gave him pause to reconsider the nature of nebulae. He previously assumed they were simply unresolved clusters of stars. But in this case he observed the central star surrounded by the nebulosity and thus had to rethink his opinion of their nature. The following quote is what he wrote about this planetary: "A most singular phenomenon. A star of about 8th magnitude with a faint luminous atmosphere of a circular form, and about 3' in diameter. The star is perfectly in the center and the atmosphere is so diluted, faint and equal throughout that there can be no surmise of its consisting of stars; nor can there be a doubt of the evident connection between the atmosphere and the star. Another star, not much less in brightness and in the same field with the above, was perfectly free from any such appearance."
Southern Celestial Hemisphere
Messier 79 / NGC 1904 (Lepus, globular cluster, mag=7.7, size=9.6’, SBr=12.3, class=5:
This nice globular cluster discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780. Charles Messier confirmed its position and posted it to his catalogue. This globular is the primary reason that many venture into the celestial hare, though to be very honest, the constellation has a nice collection of galaxies as well, but that is another story for another night. It is located almost 4° SSW of magnitude 2.8 Beta Leporis (Nihal), and about half a degree northeast of the double star HJ 3752 (mag 5.0 and 6.6 with 3.9” sep).
This cluster is fairly bright, but small in visual extent. In small to medium apertures, one may resolve a modest number of stars around the edges of the halo, depending on local conditions and observing skills of the observer. However, its concentrated core does not give up the goods easily. In larger apertures more resolution is achieved, with a few at the edge of the core and across its face possibly being picked up. Its core can appear mottled, with larger apertures, hinting that additional resolution is just out of reach. While not one of the showpiece globulars in the Messier list, it nonetheless can be a very easy and bright object in an often bypassed constellation.
NGC 1788 (Orion, reflection nebula, mag=9.0, size=10.0’x6.0’):
This nice reflection nebula is often overlooked by observers who travel to Orion for the more popular sights of M42/43 and M78; all covered a year ago in the inaugural edition. Discovered by William Herschel in 1786, he described it as "bright, considerably large, round.” I could not find a listed magnitude for this object, but magnitude estimates for extended nebulae are not always easy. Nonetheless, I find it almost as apparent as Messier 78, the more famous reflection nebula in Orion. It carries the nickname of the “Cosmic Bat” based on deep images. A 10th magnitude star shines at its center while a second star of 9th magnitude lies just inside its northern edge. The nebula is found along the northern edge of a triangle of three 8th magnitude field stars, which in turn lie northeast of a second triangle of field stars (7th, 8th and 9th mag). The nebula’s field is not quite 2° north of mag 2.8 Beta Eridani (Cursa). So swing your scopes its way and see just what you can discern of this brighter reflection nebula. I also encourage imagers to give this object a try, as it presents a fine target to work your magic upon.
NGC 1566 (Dorado, barred spiral galaxy, mag=9.7, size=8.3’x6.6’, SBr=13.9):
Located about 2° west of magnitude 3.3 Alpha Doradus this barred spiral was discovered by James Dunlop in 1826 during his survey of the southern skies from Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. Oriented face-on to us, it displays two bright spiral arms curve out from its central bar. They are rife with HII regions and clusters along their length. Visually it should appear as a bright oval glow, and if you have enough aperture, dark enough skies and are blessed to be farther south, it should present a very nice visual and imaging target. It is also a Type 1.5 Seyfert galaxy with a strong core, plus an added bonus currently is that it has an active supernova inn one of its arms. This transient star is fading as we speak and is currently listed at magnitude 13.2. It did reach into the 12th magnitude range earlier this month, and should still e within easy reach for those that have access to this delightful galaxy.
Okay folks there you have it for another month. As we make our way through this coming year, I hope that I can highlight some interesting objects, both easy and challenging. Keep getting out there as much as time and conditions permit. The more we observe the more we learn. Learning is fun and it keeps our minds and curiosity fresh and alive.
Astro Sky 17.5 f/4.5 Dob || Apertura AD12 f/5 Dob || Zhumell Z10 f/4.9 Dob
ES AR127 f/6.5 & ED80 f/6 on Twilight-II || Apertura 6" f/5 Newtonian on Twilight-I
TV Ethos 100° 21mm, 13mm || ES 82° 24mm, 18mm || Vixen LVW 65° 22mm
Pentax XW 70° 10mm, 7mm, 5mm || barlows
DGM NPB Filter || Orion Ultra Block, O-III and Sky Glow Filters || Baader HaB Filter
Primary Field Atlases: Interstellarum and Uranometria All-Sky Edition
"Astronomers, we look into the past to see our future." (me)
"Seeing is in some respect an art, which must be learnt." (William Herschel)
"What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean." (Sir Isaac Newton)
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me...." (Blaise Pascal)
"No good deed goes unpunished." (various)
"I have become comfortably numb." (Roger Waters)