Well, it has come again, hasn't it? Time to wear extra shirts and socks... time to fumble at the eyepiece wearing gloves... time to shovel out a snow drift and a path to your favorite spot in the "backyard"... time to breath carefully, lest you fog up your own optics... and swear you've discovered a new nebula! Time to freeze...
And it's also time to explore the brightest and most beautiful constellations! Many of them hold special secrets, and all of them are just begging us to "explore"!!
So let's head on out to the backyard, shall we?
Ah,Taurus! This one be MY constellation...(stubborn and "full of bull"! it fits, eh?) This wedge-shaped constellation, headed by that bright red star, Aldeberan, is home to the greatest unaided eye cluster of all time... the M45, better known as "The Pleiades". This fantastic assortment of blue stars is a "prime time" object for the smaller scope! Larger aperature reveals a wealth of doubles and triples, and an excellent night brings out their nebulous natures. Another terrific target is the Hyades, a geometric grouping of stars that is sure to please! Smaller scopes will find the M1, "Crab Nebula", somewhat of a challenge, but given dark sky, it is a piece of cake! This unusual supernova remnant lies north above Zeta Tauri, and will become an observing favorite!
Next on the "hit list" is the bright constellation of Auriga. Headed by the bright yellow/white star Capella, it is easily recognized by it roughly pentagon shape. Three wonderfully bright clusters reside here, and are perfect targets for the smaller scope or binoculars. The M36 is a loose, open cluster with a concentration toward the center. The M37 is much more dense, containing some bright components. But, when you're looking to resovle yourself happy, go visit the M38! It is a cloud of stars! Once you "hop" into this field, you will return again and again! Now, carve three more notches on the tripod leg, and let's see what else we can find...
How about if we make the "Hunter" the hunted for tonight, and visit in one of the mostly easily recognized constellations... Orion! You may see it as an "hourglass" or a "bowtie" but none can miss the three bright stars that make up the "belt". So let's go for a hit "below the belt" and pick up the best nebula around... the M42! This fantastic beauty only requires dark sky to be visible to the naked eye, and becomes awe-inspiring to the telescopic view. At the heart of it all lies the Trapezium, the "power plant" of this diffuse nebula. Also visible in the area is the M43, a playmate of its' larger companion. Move up a bit and find exquisite triple, Sigma Orionis, for it holds its' own special challenge! (Pick your jaw up off the ground, ok? And let's move on....)
The constellation of Monoceros fairly well bears its' name out... for it only contains "one" decent target for the small scope or binoculars,the M50. But don't count the "Unicorn" out, for it is home to a great many star chains and asterisms.. (and a challenge or two! ;) and triple star, Beta Monoceros is well worth just taking your time to explore!
Now for a visit with the "Twins"... Double star, Castor is a wonderful place to start! And just for fun, compare colors with Pollux... Now for some target practice... head to the feet of this pair to pick up the M35! (sssssh! there is a "challenge" here, but we'll save it for later! ;) And, if you feel like "clowning around", let's look up the NGC2392, "Clown Face" or "Eskimo" nebula... a sweet little planetary that lies east of central star, Wasat.
Time to get off the porch and run with the big dogs, baby! Because the constellation of Canis Major is next... Headed by the brightest star in the sky, M41 is a stellar grouping of bright members. It stands up very well to both aperature and high magnification... revealing a tiny red star that beats in the "heart" of this outstanding open cluster! Scratch another one off the list...
Now, if old dogs tire quickly, young "pups" surely do not... and the constellation of Puppis is ready to give us a "run" we'll not soon forget! Heading east of Sirius, the first open cluster we surf across is the M47. It is rather sparse, and quite open, but does contain several nice doubles. Keep moving east and the M46 will come into view. Ahhhh... now this is more like it! This faint "cloud" of stars begs for resolution! (and yes, there's more there... but it constitutes a "challenge"!) Now, drop down to XI Puppis, and move a quarter of a finderscope field to the northwest, and presto! We've just found the M93! Outstanding, isn't it? The more power and averted vision you use, the more the stars reveal themselves! Now WHO let the dogs out???
Are you ready to go in yet? No?! Great!!! Because we are just getting "warmed" up! This is also the time of the year to visit with our neighboring planets... and who knows? They might even invite you to "dance"!
Here now, drink this cup of coffee... because I'm not finished with YOU yet! Ready for a CHALLENGE??? ;-)