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- Binocular Universe
A lifelong amateur astronomer, Phil Harrington was bitten by the "astronomical bug" when he was assigned to watch the total lunar eclipse of April 1968 as a homework assignment. Since then , Phil has spent countless hours touring the universe through telescopes and binoculars.
Phil is probably most familiar to amateur astronomers for his books, including: TOURING THE UNIVERSE THROUGH BINOCULARS, STAR WARE, and STAR WATCH. Phil is also a contributing editor for Astronomy magazine, where he frequently reviews telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomical equipment, as well as authors observing features. Phil also authored the magazine's monthly Binocular Universe column from 2005-2009. In June 2009, his popular column moved to Cloudynights.com.
Each month, Binocular Universe will visit some of the many wonders of the night sky that are visible through a simple pair of binoculars. Some of the sights may be familiar, while others may be brand new. And if you spot something along the way that you would like to see mentioned in a future column, be sure to drop Phil a line here.
Welcome to the Binocular Universe, where two eyes are better than one.
The North America Nebula (NGC 7000) is a large expanse of glowing hydrogen gas mixed with opaque clouds of cosmic dust just 3 degrees east of Deneb (Alpha Cygni) and 1 degree to the west of 4th-magnitude Xi Cygni. Famous as one of the most luminous blue supergiants visible in the night sky, Deneb marks the tail of Cygnus the Swan, or if you prefer, the top of the Northern Cross asterism.
This month’s column is for the birds. Literally, as we visit a nebulous aviary along the gentle stream of the southern Milky Way populated by a swan and an eagle. We paid a call here last summer, when we focused on M24, the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud. This year, we return to explore a few more showstoppers in and around the area.
By studying the Full Moon and letting your imagination play with the maria, you may see some vague reference to a human face. This effect, where the human brain turns indistinct markings into concrete, identifiable entities, is called pareidolia and is the basis for the famous Rorschach inkblot test.
In between the bright stars Spica in Virgo and Antares in Scorpius lies a sort of celestial no-man’s-land of faint suns that often go unnoticed under the veil of light pollution. Many of those dim points belong to the zodiacal constellation of Libra, the balance scales. Under moderately dark skies, we can just make out the diamond pattern of 3rd and 4th magnitude stars that form the main figure of Libra.
Clear skies come few and far between at this time of year, at least in my neck of the woods, so I like to take advantage of just about every one that happens along. The old saying that April showers bring May flowers is alive and well here in the northeastern U.S., as this is traditionally one of the cloudiest and wettest months of the year.
February may be the shortest month of the year, but its sky is long on mid-winter binocular treasures. We all know many favorite objects, like the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades. But rather than rehash these, let's break some unfamiliar ground in the southern sky and enjoy some lesser known gems that lie within the faint constellation of Puppis, the Poopdeck of the fabled ship Argo Navis.
The brilliant stars that make up Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Canis Major, and Auriga dominate the winter sky, but there are many less showy constellations that nevertheless contain some fine binocular targets that often go unnoticed. This month, we are going to pay a visit to two of those constellations, both found south of the mighty Hunter.
Some of my favorite things to hunt for are small patterns among the stars, such as little arcs or other geometric patterns. This month, join me as we search out some of these small asterisms hidden in plain sight among the stars of late autumn and early winter.