As in Piazzi's day, Ceres is far too close to the Sun now for observation, but let's start our year by exploring one of the most magnificent sights in the heavens - the "Great Orion Nebula".
Although seasoned observers already know how to find the M42, perhaps you are just learning. Relax, because this is one of the easiest studies in the sky to find. Once your new telescope or binoculars are ready, avoid all light sources while waiting on the sky to get good and dark. Go out and face southeast. See those three bright stars in a row? They form the "Belt of Orion". Now, hold your left hand out with your arm extended as far as possible. The constellation of Orion is quite large and your hand spans about 20 degrees of sky. If you cover the "Belt" with your palm, the bright red star at the tip of your little finger is Betelgeuse and the bright blue star by your thumb is Rigel. Congratulations, you've learned a lot in just a few minutes!
Now look again at the belt of Orion and give it the "thumb's up". About a thumb's length below it is a curved line of dimmer stars. Good job! This is Orion's "Sword". If skies are dark, you will see a faint, glowing patch in the center of this area. Now, aim your telescope or binoculars there...
The Great Orion Nebula is one of the most breathtaking sights in the sky and holds a wealth of fine details. Great swirls and whorls of flourescent nebula fan their way outwards across the field of view. Later, we'll explore its many riches, but for now... Welcome to the Night Sky and prepare to journey with us as we explore together throughout the year.
Monday,January 2 - In 1959, the USSR launched the very first Moon probe. Named Luna 1, it was Earth's first extraterrestrial craft.
Although the slender crescent Moon is low on the eastern horizon, we can still look at the lunar surface. Just slightly lunar south of center where light and shadow meet (the terminator), look for large crater Humboldt. Stretching 125 miles in length and reaching a depth of 15,400 feet, this excellent old crater will show a dark, inner east wall that runs almost parallel to the terminator.
Since the Moon will set quickly, we'll have early evening dark skies. Let's take this opportunity to explore a distant galaxy much like our own – the M74.
Located about a finger-width east/northeast of Eta Piscium, this large spiral galaxy was first discovered by Piere Mechain in 1780. The M74 is possibly one of the faintest and most elusive of the Messier objects and it's a challenge for small telescopes with its low surface brightness and a distance of 43 million light years. With mid-sized scopes, expect nothing more than a faint, round glow from this galaxy - but larger scopes will reveal a condensed nucleus and hints of faint swirling spiral arms.
Tuesday, January 3 - Tonight the waxing Moon will be a bit higher above the horizon. This will give us a splendid opportunity to study it. Let's begin with binoculars and start by identifying the partially disclosed Mare Crisium just lunar north of center along the terminator. Seen along the curve of the surface, our emerging mare doesn't look large, but it's actually the size of the state of Washington. If you are using a telescope, look along the eastern edge of its walls. Roughly to the middle, you will see two small craters - Alhazen to the north and Hansen to the south.
When the Moon sets, we have an opportunity to do some deep sky observing. Let's focus our attention on M77. Located less than a finger-width southeast of Delta Ceti, this 10th magnitude spiral is bright, compact and within small scope range. The M77 is a member of a galaxy group including NGC 1055, NGC 1073, NGC 1087, and NGC 1090. The bright, inner spiral pattern around the nucleus of the M77 is easily resolved by large scope, but you might catch a glimpse through small scopes on a dark and steady night. For large aperture, many small knots and brightenings await you as you view this 60 million year distant galaxy!
Wednesday, January 4 - 386 years ago on this night, Galileo Galilei began to make a series of observations that revolutionized the study of the sky. Using his handmade refractor telescope of less than 2" aperture, Galileo saw craters and mountains on the Moon! Tonight let's celebrate Galileo's many achievements by taking our own lunar journey of discovery.
Using binoculars, return to the Mare Crisium area and look just lunar north for spectacular Cleomides. This two million year old crater is separated from Crisium by some 60 kilometers of mountainous terrain. Telescopically, Cleomides is a true delight at high power. Look for two small interior craterlets and a surface crack called a rimae cutting diagonally through its northern interior. Can you spot small craters Debes and Trailes on Cleomedes northwestern edge?
Later tonight will be the perfect time to watch the Quadrantid meteor shower. Its source point, called a radiant, belongs to an extinct constellation - Quadrans - now associated with bright Arcturus and Bootes. The fall rate varies, but you might be able to spot around 60 per hour from a dark location. Look for trails that have a blue tint.
Thursday, January 5 - Tonight let's return to the lunar surface and begin our explorations using binoculars to identify Mare Fecunditatus - just lunar south of Mare Crisium. This "fertile sea" is an area around of the size of the state of California. Look on its eastern shore to see the flat, bright oval of Langrenus. This is an opportunity to challenge yourself by identifying two small craters just slightly northwest of the mare's central point - Messier and Messier A - named for the famous French comet hunter. Keep them in mind, for in a few days you will see a pair of "rays" extending out from them.
Now turn your binoculars and telescopes towards one of the finest pair of galactic clusters in the sky. Look midway between the lazy "W" of Cassiopeia and the long backwards "J" of Perseus for the "Double Cluster".
Known more properly as the NGC 869 and NGC 884, each of these "gatherings of stars" is a fine example of a galactic cluster and together they are outstanding. Noted in records from as early as 150 B.C, they are roughly 8000 light years away, and contain many supergiant stars 10 times more massive than our own Sun!
Friday, January 6 - The first atomic clock was built on this day in 1949. Based on theoretical work by Isidor Rabi and Norman Ramsey, it used ammonia as a "pendulum". Eight years later, the first cesium beam device was built and its successors now keep time to one-millionth of a second per year. This type of accuracy makes possible high resolution radio interferometry, tests of Einstein's theory of general relativity, runs the Global Positioning Satellite systems, and accurately determines the Earth's changing rotation rate!
On the lunar surface tonight, let's look at Mare Serenitatus. On its northeast shore, binoculars will have no trouble spotting the shallow ring of crater Posidonius. Almost flat from eons of lava flows, this crater shows numerous variations in texture along its floor in small telescopes. Look a bit south of Posidonius and almost parallel to the terminator for a curious feature known as the Serpentine Ridge. This thin, white line wanders across the western portion of Mare Serenitatus for a distance of about 250 miles. In some places it rises as high as 1000 feet above the smooth sands. This lunar "wrinkle" is an amazing 6 miles wide.
While you're out, why not try asteroid Vesta? It's at opposition tonight and you can find accurate locator charts at www.heavens-above.com. If you're not too sure of which stellar point is the asteroid, try printing out the map and looking over a period of several night for which "star" moves.
Sunday, January 7 - On this night in 1610, Galileo discovered three of Jupiter's four largest satellites, now refered to as the Galilean Moons. His discovery shocked Europe, proving that not all bodies revolve around the Earth. If you're up before dawn this morning, why not have a look at the Galilean Moons yourself? Jupiter will be the brightest "star" in the sky and can be found in the constellation of Libra. Even binoculars can show the Galileans!
Let's start the evening with Moon study and explore the edges of a feature that's about the same size as the state of New Mexico - Mare Serenitatus. On its southwest border stands the Haemus Mountains, which will continue on beyond the terminator. While the Montes Haemus look pretty impressive, they are foothills compared to the Apennines which have yet to emerge. Look at Serenitatus' northwest edge to view some real mountains. These are the Montes Caucasus, rising up to 17,000 feet above the plains.
Now let's turn toward Cetus to have a look at a star known as "The Wonderful".
Omicron Ceti, best known as Mira, was the first variable discovered (in 1596) and is the prototype of all long term variable stars. When Fabricus first viewed it, he believed it to be a nova and did not wait for a return. Consequently, Mira wasn't seen again until 1603 when Bayer added it to his catalog as a 4th magnitude stars and assigned it the designation of Omicron. Imagine his embarrassment when it later disappeared! Careful observation revealed its presence a year later and the age of variable stars was ushered in. Oddly enough, Mira has a blue companion star. First viewed in 1918, it is far too faint for backyard telescopes, but we can still enjoy Mira... Or not!
Tonight the huge, hexagonal walled plain of Albategnius - one of the most prominent craters on the Moon – is visible in binoculars and telescopes. Located one third the way north from the southern pole near the terminator, Albategnius is a very old crater. Stretching 81 miles in diameter and 14,400 feet deep, look for a brilliant inner west wall and, if the timing is right, a small central peak on its dark floor. Albategnius' walls themselves are marred with many craters, but one of the finest is Klein extending from the southwest to almost touch the central peak.
Despite the Moon we can still have a look at open cluster NGC 1342 in Perseus. Located about halfway between Beta (Algol) and Rho, this fairly large binocular patch will show a distinct X pattern in its handful of starry members.
Monday, January 9 - Today in 1839, South African Thomas Henderson, measured the distance to the closest bright star other than the Sun. Using geometrical parallax, Alpha Centauri was found to be 4.3 light years away – this amounted to a distance of almost 41 trillion kilometers! Such a distance is the equivalent of over 270,000 earth-sun distances (astronomical units – AU).
Speaking of parallax, let's take a look at a star with the precisely measured distance of 10.67 light years from our Sun - Epsilon Eridani. Epsilon is the third closest of the visible stars and can be found tonight by starting at Rigel. About a handspan southwest, locate Gamma Eridani and head another fist-width northwest for a pair of easy stars. Epsilon is the westernmost.
At magnitude 3.7, Epsilon is not one of the brightest stars in the night sky because it has only 85% of the mass of our own Sun. It is also a young star, some 4 billon years younger than Sol and slightly variable. But, like our own "star", Epsilon has no companion. On a curious note, science fiction chose Epsilon Eridani to be the home of the Vulcans!
Now let's have a look at the Moon and a crater so prominent that it can be spotted unaided. To the lunar north, look for the dark ellipse of Plato. This mountain walled plain with the dark floor is a Class V crater. Its slightly oval shape spans 64 by 67 miles in diameter, but appears far more elliptical due to its northern latitude. Plato's floor is its most curious feature. Consisting of 2,700 square miles of unique lava, and only broken by a couple of very minor and supremely challenging craters, Plato is one of the very few areas on the lunar surface that seems to have changed in recent history.
Be sure to notice how close the Moon and Pleiades are tonight and check on the internet (IOTA) for grazing and occultation events visible from your area.
Tuesday, January 10 - Robert W. Wilson was born this day in 1936. Wilson is co-discoverer, along with Arno Penzias, of the cosmic microwave background and in 1978, won the Physics Nobel Laureate. On this day in 1946, the US Army's Signal Corps became the first to successfully bounce radar waves off the Moon. Although this might sound like a minor achievement, let's look just a bit further into what it really meant.
Known as "Project Diana", scientists were hard at work to find a way to pierce the Earth's ionosphere with radio waves - a feat believed impossible at the time. Headed by Lt. Col. John DeWitt, and working with only a handful of full-time researchers, a modified bedspring-type radar antenna was set up at Camp Evans, Georgia. Anxiously, the power was cranked up and the antenna aimed at the rising Moon. A series of radar signals were broadcast and echoes were picked up exactly 2.5 seconds later - the time it takes light to travel to the Moon and back. The significance of Project Diana cannot be underestimated. Because the ionosphere could be pierced, communications became possible between Earth and future space exploration. Although it would be more than a decade before the first satellites and manned missions were launched into space, Project Diana had paved the way.
To commemorate Project Diana, let's have a look at one of the most impressive craters on the Moon - Copernicus.
While Copernicus is not the oldest, deepest, largest, or brightest crater on the Moon, it certainly is one of the most detailed. Visible in binoculars toward Plato and near the terminator, this youthful crater gives a highly etched appearance. Its location in a fairly smooth plain near the center of the Moon's disc, and prominent "splash" ray system, all combine to make Copernicus visually stunning in a small telescope.
Tonight let's try our hand at splitting double star - Gamma Arietis. Known as Mesarthim, Gamma is the third star in the line of bright stars - about a handspan west of the Plieades - pointing in the direction of Eta Piscium. This orange and green pair gives the appearance of two glowing eyes in the night. Seeing two equal magnitude stars so close together can't help but get you out observing – even when there's Moon!
Wednesday, January 11 - Tonight in 1787, Sir Willian Herschel discovered Uranus' largest moons - Oberon and Titania. Let's have a look. Sixth magnitude Uranus is around two finder-widths south/southwest of Lambda Aquarii. Its small, pale blue disc will be distinguishable from neighboring stars. Under the right conditions, the planet can sometimes be seen unaided and was once given the designation "34 Tauri" by 17th century astronomer John Flamsteed. The two satellites - both 14th magnitude – can be seen with very large scopes with excellent seeing conditions.
The most outstanding feature on the northern lunar surface this evening is the "Bay of Rainbows" - Sinus Iridum. Take the time to power up and enjoy its many wonderful features including the bright Promontorium LaPlace to the northeast and Heraclides to the southwest. Ringed by the Juras Mountains, Sinus Iridum also includes crater Bianchini at center and Sharp to the west.
Thursday, January 12 - This date celebrates the 1830 founding of what – one year later - would become the Royal Astronomical Society. Conceived by John Herschel, Charles Babbage, James South and others, the RAS has continuously published its Monthly Notices since 1831.
Tonight our primary lunar study is crater Kepler. Look for it as a bright point, slightly lunar north of center near the terminator. Its home is the Oceanus Procellarum - a sprawling dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. Bright, young Kepler will display a wonderfully developed ray system. 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 occured. The region is also home to features known as "domes" - seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. So unique is Kepler's geological formation that it became the first crater mapped by U.S. Geological Survey in 1962.
With the nearly full Moon in Gemini, go north to Cassiopeia and check out wide double star 35 Cassiopeia about two finger-widths west of Epsilon and an equal distance north of Gamma. This is an easy split for telescopes and can be resolved in steady binoculars.
Friday, January 13 - Tonight let's give the Moon a rest and turn our scopes to Mars high overhead. With the exception of Sirius, Mars remains brighter than any star in the sky. To the eye, the planet's ruddy glow makes it unmistakable. Through the telescope, observers can make out large-scale details such as the planets polar caps, Syrtis Major, Sinus Sabaeus, and the three major Mares - Cimmerium, Sirenum and Acidalium. Although good "seeing" makes high power and fine details possible, sometimes just "viewing" is half the fun!
Saturday, January 14 - Tonight's Full Moon is known as the Wolf Moon. For the northern hemisphere in January, extreme cold and deep snows gave rise to the legend of wolf packs howling hungrily outside Indian villages. Sometimes the January Full Moon is also referred to as the Old Moon, or the Moon After Yule. No matter what it is called, it is still a lovely sight to watch rise and glide across the luminous night sky.
As a challenge this evening, try tracking down 5th magnitude double star Zeta Piscium. Located two finger widths due east of Epsilon, this pair is easily resolved at low magnification due to its near matched brightness. Look for subtle shades of color displayed by the blue primary, and ivory-colored secondary.
Sunday, January 15 - With only a short time before the Moon rises tonight, let's start our evening by viewing distant multiple star system - Sigma Orionis.
You'll easily find 1400 light year distant Sigma less than a finger-width below the left hand star in Orion's "Belt" (Zeta or Alnitak). What won't be easy is to distinguish the closest and brightest pair! 3.8 magnitude A and 6.6 magnitude B revolve around each other every 170 years and are separated by a close 0.3 arc seconds. Among the most massive binaries known, these two stars have extremely hot surfaces (approaching 50,000 degrees K) and both appear white in the eyepiece.
At a more comfortable separation, the white 8.8 magnitude C star resides 11.4 arc seconds southwest of the brighter pair. At a similar distance from AB to the east, look for red 6.7 magnitude D. Considerably further away at 41 arc seconds, the blue E star resides east-northeast of the AB primary. Unusual star E shares the same spectral qualities as the AB primary, yet is rich in helium light (emission lines) within its color spectrum. If five isn't enough, then look 30 arc seconds southwest of E - because it, too, has a companion. All of these stars are part of the same physical system spanning about one-third light year.
If you choose to look at the lunar surface, carefully check along the eastern edge where the terminator is now receding. In the north, look for the dark shades of Mare Humboldtianum and the equally dark floor of crater Endymion to its west. This lava filled area is around 70 miles in diameter.
Monday, January 16 - Although the early rise of tonight's Moon will hamper the Delta Cancrid meteor shower, be on the lookout for fast moving meteors appearing to radiate from an area just west of the "Beehive" - M44. It's a minor shower, with a fall rate of about 4 per hour, but it's fun to catch one!
While we're watching, take a look at the M44 with binoculars or low power telescopes. You'll find it in the center of the triangle of bright stars, Pollux, Regulus, and Procyon, and is usually visible to the unaided eye from dark sky locations. Better known as the "Beehive", M44 shows several dozen stars through binoculars. Through the scope, the cluster reveals up to 100 stars! Of the 400 known members, most congregate in an elliptical "swarm" spanning 15 light years. The "Beehive" is only slightly more distant than the Pleiades at 500 light years away. Thanks to its advanced stellar evolution, it contains several red giants, leading astronomers to believe it is around 400 million years old.
After moonrise, have a look at the lunar surface as the terminator reaches the edge of Mare Crisium in the northeastern quarter. Depending on your viewing time, you may have the opportunity to spot small craters Alhazen and Hansen on its eastern edge. Look for a long "wrinkle" creasing Crisium's smooth sands. Such lunar features are known as dorsae. Dorsa Tetyaev and Dorsa Harker come together along Mare Crisium's eastern shore. Look for south/central Dorsa Termier and Dorsum Oppel along Crisium's west bank. These frozen "waves" of lava are millions of years old.
Tuesday, January 17 - With time to spare before Moon rise tonight, let's hunt down that "wascally wabbit" Lepus and have a look at the M79. Let Alpha and Beta be your guide as you drop the same distance between them to the south for double star ADS3954 and this cool little globular cluster.
Discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780, the M79 is not large, nor bright, but is visible in binoculars. Large telescopes will find it well resolved with a rich core area. Around 50,000 light years away, this particular globular is very low in variables and receeds from us at a "rabbit" speed of 118 miles per second. But, don't worry - it will remain visible for a very long time!
Now, take a quick look at tonight's Moon. The terminator has advanced through Mare Crisium and looks like a gigantic "bite" taken out of the lunar edge.
Wednesday, January 18 - If you are up before dawn, why not spend a moment looking at the sky? Although the Moon will still be bright, stay on watch for meteors belonging to the Coma Berenicid shower. The fall rate is very modest with only one or two per hour, but these are among the very fastest meteors known. Blazing through the atmosphere at 65 kilometers per second, the trails will point back to the Coma Berenices star cluster east of Leo.
Since we'll have early dark skies, let's have a look at single star - R Leporis. Because it is variable, ranging in magnitude from 5.5 to 11.7, R may or may not be visible to the unaided eye tonight. Use a telescope or binoculars, to locate it west of Mu. Look for a line of three dim stars and chose the centermost.
Most commonly known as "Hind's Crimson Star", this long term, pulsating red variable was discovered in 1845 by J.R. Hind. Its light changes by a factor of 250 times during its period of 432 days, but R Leporis can sometimes stall while brightening. As an old red star, R takes on a unique ruby-red color as it dims. To understand carbon stars, picture a kerosene lamp burning with its wick up high. This "high burn" causes the glass to smoke, dimming the light and changing the color. Although this example is simplistic, it hints at how carbon stars work. When it sloughs off the soot? It brightens again!
"Hind's Crimson Star" is believed to be about 1500 light years distant and moving slowing away from us at about 32 km per second. No matter how "bright" you find it tonight, its unusually deep red color makes it a true pleasure.
Thursday, January 19 - Johann Bode was born today in 1747. Bode publicized the Titus-Bode law, a nearly geometric progression of the distances of the planets from the Sun and made a number of discoveries of deepsky studies. Also born today in 1851, was Jacobus Kapteyn. Kapteyn studied the distribution and motion of almost a half a million stars and created the first modern model of the size and structure of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Tonight in celebration of them both, let's have a first look at a pair of circumpolar galaxies known as "Bode's Nebulae". Discovered by Johann in 1774, the galaxies known as M81 and M82 were first described by him as "nebulous". In Bode's time, it was thought such patches were solar systems in formation, but by Kapteyn's time in the late 1800's, astronomers were beginning understand the mechanics of stellar motion in the Milky Way galaxy. While the M81 and M82 are not in good sky position right now, you can still track them down in binoculars. Look for the bowl of the "Big Dipper" and draw an imaginary line from stars Phecda to Dubhe (the southeastern and northwestern stars) and extend it the same distance northwest. Fade ever so slightly toward Polaris and enjoy this bright pair of island universes sharing space in the night.
Friday, January 20 - Born this day in 1573 was Simon Mayr. Although Mayr's name is not widely recognized, we know the names he has given to Jupiter's satellites. During 1609 and 1610, Mayr was observing moons of Jupiter at about the same time as Galileo. Though discovery was creditied to Galileo, Mayr was given the honor of naming them. If you're up before dawn, look for Jupiter in the constellation Libra and see if you can spot Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa for yourself!
Early dark skies mean a chance for serious study, and tonight our target will be a challenge. Head towards Zeta Ceti and neighboring Chi Ceti. When you've identifed Chi, power up and look north/northwest to locate small, 11.8 magnitude galaxy NGC 681. It might be small and faint, but it's a great example of barred spiral seen near edge-on. Mid-sized scopes will see little detail, but large instruments reveal a broad equatorial dust lane. At a distance of 55 million light years, this peculiar galaxy is a rare. All its stars move at the same orbital speed around the core – hinting at vast quantities of unseen, mysterious "dark matter"!
Saturday, January 21 - John Couch Adams was born today in 1792. Adams, along with Urbain Le Verrier, mathematically predicted the existence of Neptune. Also born today in 1908 was Bengt Stromgren - developer of the theory of ionization nebulae (H II regions). Tonight we'll take a look at an ionization nebula as we return for a more in-depth look at the M42.
Known as "The Great Orion Nebula", let's learn what makes it glow. The M42 is a great cloud of gas spanning more than 20,000 times the size of our own solar system and its light is mainly florescent. For most observers, it appears to have a slight greenish color - caused by oxygen being stripped of electrons by radiation from nearby stars. At the heart of this immense region is an area known as the "Trapezium" - its four brightest stars perhaps the most celebrated multiple star system in the night sky. The Trapezium itself belongs to a faint cluster of stars now approaching main sequence and resides in an area of the nebula known as the "Huygenian Region" (named after 17th century astronomer and optician Christian Huygens who first observed it in detail).
Buried amidst the bright ribbons and curls of this cloud of predominately hydrogen gas are many star forming regions. Appearing like "knots", these Herbig-Haro objects are thought to be stars in the earliest stages of condensation. Associated with these objects are a great number of faint red stars and erratically luminous variables - young stars possibly the T Tauri type. There are also "flare stars", whose rapid variations in brightness mean an ever changing view.
While studying the M42, you'll note apparent turbulence of the area - and with good reason. The "Great Nebula's" many different regions move at varying speeds. The rate of expansion at the outer edges may be caused by radiation from the very youngest stars present. Although the M42 may have been luminous for as long as 23,000 years, it is possible that new stars are still forming, while others were ejected by gravitation. Known as "runaway" stars, we'll look at these strange members later in detail. A tremendous X-ray source (2U0525-06) is quite near the Trapezium and hints at the possibility of a black hole present within the M42!
Sunday, January 22 - With tonight's dark skies let's have a look at another "cloud in space" - M78. The M78 is easily located around two fingerwidths north/northeast of Alnitak. Despite being 8th magnitude, you'll probably need a telescope to see it. M78 is actually a bright outcropping of an extended region of nebulosity (the Orion Complex) including M42, 43, NGC 1975-77-79, the Flame Nebula, and Horsehead. There's plenty of material for future starbirth here! Nicknamed "Casper the Friendly Ghost Nebula", M78 was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780. It shines almost purely by reflection and is the brightest non-emission nebula observable by amateurs. For larger scopes, look at nearby nebulae NGC 2071. Unlike M78, the NGC 2071 is associated with a single 10th magnitude star instead of the pair that gives "Casper" his glowing eyes.
Monday, January 23 - Thanks to dark skies, tonight will be the perfect opportunity to "go crabbing" in Taurus. Although M1 was discovered by John Bevis in 1731, it became the first object on Charles Messier's astronomical list. He rediscovered M1 while searching for the expected return of Halley's comet in late August 1758 and these "comet confusions" prompted Messier to start cataloging. It wasn't until Lord Rosse gathered enough light from M1 in the mid-1840's that the faint filamentary structure was noted (although he may not have given "The Crab Nebula" its name). To have a look for yourself, locate Zeta Tauri and look about a fingerwidth northwest. You won't see the "Crab legs" in small scopes - there's much more to learn about this famous "supernova remnant" in the future.
Tuesday, January 24- Today is the birthday of American solar astronomer Harold Babcock. Born in 1882, Babcock proposed that the sunspot cycle was a result of the Sun's differential rotation and magnetic field in 1961. Would you like to have a look at the Sun? Although solar observing is best done with a proper filter, it is perfectly safe to use the "solar projection method".
Before we start, NEVER look at the Sun directly with the eye or with any unfiltered optical device, such as binoculars or a telescope. We're not joking when we say this will blind you. Exposed film, mylar, and smoked glass are also UNSAFE. But don't be afraid, because we're here to tell you how you can enjoy solar viewing. A safe way to observe sunspots is to "project" an image of the Sun through a telescope or binoculars onto a screen. This can be a simple as cardboard, a paper plate, a wall or whatever you have handy. If you're using a telescope be sure the finderscope is securely capped. If you use binoculars, cover one of the two tubes. By using the shadow method to aim, you will see a bright circle of light on your makeshift screen. This is the solar disc. Adjust the focus by moving the distance of the screen from your optics until it's about the size of a small plate. If the image is blurry, use manual focus until the edges of the disc become sharp. Even though it might take a little practice, you'll soon become proficient at this method and be able to see a surprising amount of details in and around sunspot areas. Happy and SAFE viewing to you!
Today in 1986, the United States Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to flyby Uranus, providing us with the most outstanding photographs and information on the planet to date. After 10,382 days of successful operation, Voyager 2 still continues on towards the stars carrying "The Sounds of Earth".
Speaking of stars, turn your scope on brilliant Rigel - Orion's south/westernmost bright star. Enjoy its cool radiance and look for an 8th magnitude companion just outside the spikes of light caused by the Earth's atmosphere.
Wednesday, January 25 - This morning before dawn, look for the Moon very near Antares. Many observers will have the opportunity to see it occulted, so please check with the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA) for details.
Today is the birthday of Joseph Louis Lagrange. Born in 1736, the famed French mathematician made important contributions to the field of celestial mechanics. We're not talking "wrenches in space", but how "masses" interact gravitationally to keep things orderly in the solar system and beyond. If you're up early this morning, have a look at the lunar crater named for him. You'll find LaGrange on the southern limb about one-quarter the distance up from the cusp. But, you won't find SOHO there. NASA's "eye on Sol" is parked at Lagrange point one (L1) between the Earth and Sun.
Tonight let's journey to Orion and have a look at a pair of neighboring open clusters. Found a little less than a handspan northwest of Betelguese, the NGC 1807 and NGC 1817 aren't exactly twins. Both clusters are of similar magnitude and can be seen as faint patches in binoculars. Through a telescope, the NGC 1817 appears far more populated with stars than its neighbor. Studies based on stellar motion reveal that NGC 1817 has far more stars than the brighter NGC 1807. Although the two are quite distant from one another in space, we get to see them both as close friends...
Thursday, January 26 - In keeping with our dark sky studies, tonight we'll explore planetary nebula NGC 1514 in Taurus. Locate it by moving about two finger-width's south/east of Zeta Perseii. Planetary nebulae were first described as "planetary" by William Herschel in 1785. Before then, all were simply considered "nebulae". It was once thought they were made of stars, but today we know planetaries are created from material given off by a single star. Many show well-defined rings of one type or another. Others - like M1 - are irregularly shaped supernova remnants. NGC 1514's material is slowly boiled off over time, rather than caused by a violent explosion.
It would be very hard to find the neutron central star in M1, but almost any scope can make out the NGC 1514's 10th magnitude fueling star as it quietly cooks away gases to feed its nebulous shroud. Because it is so bright, it can easily overwhelm the eye. This makes the NGC 1514 similar to the famous "Blinking Planetary" - NGC 6826 - in Cygnus.
Friday, January 27 - The planet Saturn is at opposition tonight, meaning it rises as the Sun sets. Look for it late in the evening moving past M44 - "the Beehive" cluster in Cancer. The 2006 apparition will continue to feature Saturn's rings and the planet's southern hemisphere.
Are you ready for more deep sky? Then let's head off towards galaxy NGC 1023 in Perseus. It's a beautiful example of a slightly tilted "SB0" spiral galaxy. You won't see any "spiral arms" on this one - but not because your telscope isn't large enough. Unlike our own Milky Way, the NGC 1023 it really doesn't have any. But, it does have a bright galactic hub bending like a thick lens going outward. At the center of the hub is one of the most massive black holes within a hundred million light years. Don't worry about being pulled in, because this galaxy is located 33 million light years away! You'll find it a bit closer to home about a fist's width southwest of Algol - Beta Persei.
There is a much closer supermassive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. It's a profound gravitational anomaly causing stars to take on strange, highly elliptical orbits at very high speeds - some which have orbits taking far less time than Jupiter revolves around the Sun. The stars involved ("S-stars") appear mysteriously young to astronomers. This might occur because their outer atmospheres are being stripped away by gravitational tidal forces. It's happening in NGC 1023 as well, but it's ten times more massive than our own!
Saturday, January 28 - It's Saturday and New Moon! Many amateurs will be out tonight "partying" beneath the darkest night sky of the month. All that's needed is a wide-open field well away from glow from artificial lights and a variety of optical instruments - eyes, binculars, and telescopes. The joy of observing can be multiplied many times over when shared with others!
What should you bring to a "star party"? Start with your favorite scope and a short list of things to observe including both "everybody's favorites" and a least one "special study" that others may not have observed before! Tonight, the two "Greats" - M31 and M42 - will be on everyone's list, but what about those "great" unknowns?
Consider NGC 1535 - a fine planetary nebula with central star in Eridanus. At magnitude 10, this 1600 light year distant beauty has a easy 12th magnitude star providing illumination at its core. Use high power to give "image scale" to this small, subtle study. You'll find it just about a fist's width east/northeast of Gamma Eridani. If you find it difficult, you'd be right - but that's why this aqua blue planetary is not more widely appreciated!
Sunday, January 29, 2006 - Today is the birthday of Johannes Hevelius. Born in 1611, Hevelius was the first to publish detailed maps of the Moon. His book, entitled "Selenographia", debuted in 1647. That's 359 years ago - and it's still accurate! Too bad there's no Moon to celebrate with... Or is it?
Let's have a look instead at the Pleaides - M45. We aren't finished observing the Pleiades yet, because the "Seven Sisters" may not be finished either. On a moonless night, you can see the afterbirth of stellar creation - the faint sheen of nebulosity illuminated by hot stars doing their best to "light up the night". Most easily spotted is NGC 1435 associated with Merope and NGC 1432 near Maia. To be sure you are seeing the nebulosity, look well away from both stars. From Merope (the southernmost bright star) look due south - away from the brightest stars of the cluster. Compare that to the nebulosity which surrounds all seven major stars - but especially Maia - north of Merope. Be sure not to stare directly. They will appear like a pale smear or a "fog" on your optics. Move your eyes around to activate the sensitive light-receptors in the brain - that's using your lobes to advantage!
Monday, January 30 - The Moon is now a thin crescent at sunset but no problem for dark sky observing. Tonight let's have a look at the "Great Nebula" in Orion and its shy neighbor - M43.
M43 has its own special beauty. First discovered by Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan in the early eighteenth century, M43 is actually a continuation of M42 blocked by a dark slash of nebulosity called the "Fishmouth". The star illuminating M43 is variable NU Orionus - which ranges about one a magnitude in brilliance. Like its overpowering neighbor, the M43 is a stellar nursery with the beginnings of its own cluster held close to its heart.
Tuesday, January 31 - Tonight in 1862, Alvan Graham Clark, Jr. made an unusual discovery. While watching Sirius, Clark uncovered the intense star's faint companion while testing an 18" refractor for Dearborn Observatory. The scope itself was built by Clark, his father and his brother. Imagine his excitement when it turned up the white dwarf - Sirius B! Based on the strange way Sirius-A wobbles in the sky, Friedrich Bessel proposed its existence back in 1844, but this is the first time it was confirmed visually.
Nicknamed "the Pup", tonight we'll have a serious look at Sirius, and see what it takes to uncover its little companion. Sirius is the brightest star that normally graces the night sky. At magnitude -1.6, it produces so much light that the atmosphere won't stand still for it - sometimes even flashing in vibrant colors! This means that poor "Pup" hardly stands a chance of being seen. At magnitude 8.5 it could easily be caught in binoculars if it were on its own. So how do you find it? First, you'll need a mid-to-large with a high power eyepiece. Second, add a stable evening - not night - sky around the time Sirius is as high up as possible. Third, you'll have to train your eye to perceive something that will cause you to say "I could hardly believe my eyes!" - because it's that faint. Seeing the Pup is a Sirius matter, but practice will help you walk "the Pup" out of the evening sky!
If you had problems finding it, don't worry... Others have problems, too. On this night in 1948, the first test photos using the Hale 5-meter (200-inch) telescope at Mt. Palomar were underway. Believe it or not, problems with the configuration and mounting of the mirror meant that it was almost 2 years later before the first observing run was made by an scheduled astronomer!