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Binocular Universe Archives
One look at the beautiful astrophotos posted here on Cloudynights and it’s quite evident that we live in a vibrant and colorful universe. But when we swing our binoculars (and telescopes) skyward, most of what we see visually are varying shades of gray. What's up with that?
First its claws rise above our southeastern horizon. Then comes its brilliant red heart. Finally the hook-shaped tail makes an appearance. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is one of the most recognizable constellations in the entire sky. Within its borders is a bountiful selection of beautiful deep-sky objects strewn across some of the finest heavenly star fields. One of my favorite ways to spend a warm, clear summer evening is to simply sit back and casually scan the Scorpion's crooked body from head to toe. Along the way are many elegant asterisms, clusters and nebulae which provide hours of fascinating sky watching.
Bridging the constellations Coma Berenices and Virgo stands the Wild West for binocular astronomers, where only the brave trod. You may know it as the Coma-Virgo Realm of Galaxies. The Coma-Virgo galaxy cluster is the core of the Coma-Virgo supercluster, which embraces members far and wide. All of the galaxies within autumn’s Sculptor galaxy cluster, as well as our Milky Way as well as the rest of the Local Group of galaxies, are counted among the multitude.
There's light at the end of the tunnel. The moment we've all been waiting for is almost here. Spring. SPRING! As we begin to say farewell to Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, and the rest of the winter enclave for another year, we welcome the stars of Leo, Ursa Major, and the rest of the spring collection. While not as bright as the winter stars, the spring sky carries with it many exciting targets to which we can raise our binoculars.
As you head south, everyday constellations rise higher above the southern horizon. Because their light is now piercing less of our earthly atmosphere, familiar objects take on an exciting, more spectacular appearance. At the same time, new and exotic star patterns begin to appear below. What wonders of the universe do these unfamiliar regions hold?
Each academic semester, I teach a different undergraduate astronomy course at Suffolk County Community College here on Long Island. Often, when I am teaching the “Astronomy of Stars and Galaxies” course, a student will come up to me before the first class and ask me "so, what's this class all about?" My answer is always the same: "Orion!"
Over the last few months, we have explored planetary nebulae and galaxies hidden in the far southern sky. This month, we head back north to tackle others gracing the December sky that are sure test your mettle. Be forewarned, as the title of this installment says, we are going after some big game.
Created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1756 from stars originally belonging to Eridanus, the faint constellation Fornax, the Furnace, appears to the naked eye as a nearly starless void southeast of the bright star Diphda (Beta Ceti).
The wet quarter of the sky is made up of several constellations that are associated with water in one way of the other. These include Capricornus, the Sea-Goat; Aquarius, the Water-Bearer; Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish; Cetus, the Whale; and Pisces, the Fishes. All ride low in the southern sky from the vantage point of most of us living in the Northern Hemisphere. As a result, you may need to travel to a dark sky that is free of terrestrial obstructions, low-slung light pollution, and any horizon-hugging haze in order to see some of the targets explored below.
Sixty-nine years ago this month, the face of amateur astronomy changed forever. A seed was planted in September 1946 that would blossom into a decades-long infatuation with deep-sky observing among amateurs everywhere. Without any fanfare at the time, a man named Walter Scott Houston took over the reigns of a small column in Sky & Telescope magazine called Deep-Sky Wonders.
Would you like a spot of tea? Of course, I'm speaking of the sky's Teapot, Sagittarius. Known in ancient times as an archer, with his arrow aimed tentatively toward Scorpius immediately to the west, Sagittarius is usually portrayed as a centaur: a mythological half-man, half-horse creature.
To modern eyes, however, the constellation's 8 brightest stars form a perfect teapot, complete with lid, spout, and curved handle. And its tea must be ready, judging by all of the steam billowing out of the spout in the form of the Milky Way!
"Once in a Blue Moon." We have all used that phrase at one time or another when talking about something that only happens on rare occasions. Astronomically speaking, today's definition of a "Blue Moon" refers to the second Full Moon occurring in the same calendar month.
The kite-shaped pattern of stars that we know as Boötes (pronounced Boh-oh-teez) is one of the
oldest constellations in the entire sky. Some say that it dates
back to ancient Babylon, when they were used to depict the god Enlil, patron
god of farmers. Others trace it to Sumeria, where it represented
"The Man Who Drove the Great Cart" (our Big Dipper).
ago, I gave a talk at an astronomy convention in western PA called Astroblast.
Astroblast is hosted each year by the Oil Region Astronomical Society, based in Franklin. One of
the other speakers that year was Eric Fischer from Allison Park, PA, who gave a
fascinating presentation entitled "If Sherlock Holmes Observed Artificial
Earth-orbiting satellites pass overhead every night, but few of us pay them much mind apart from some idle curiosity. In his presentation, Fischer showed how you can deduce what kind of satellite you’re seeing by the power of observation. I found it intriguing.
For the past 6,000 years, the imposing form of Leo the Lion, the king of the beasts, has been stalking the spring sky. Leo is one of the oldest constellations, tracing its origin back to ancient Mesopotamia. Then, as now, stargazers imagined the constellation's hook-shaped "sickle" of stars as the profile of the lion's head, and a triangle of stars to their east as its haunches.
With March comes the promise of winter's end and the return of warmer temperatures. As the northern hemisphere transitions to spring, let's head south one more time to enjoy some little known binocular targets.
As the owner of three dogs, I always look forward to the annual Westminster Dog Show held every February in New York City. Westminster attracts thousands of the finest canines from around the globe to vie for the coveted title of Best in Show. The sky also puts on its own dog show every winter. We have Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, rising in the northeast, Canis Minor, the Small Dog, high in the south, and Canis Major, the Large Dog, in the south-southwest.
Let’s kick off the New Year and the first full month of winter by paying a call on some lesser known targets of the season. The subtle glow of the winter Milky Way, flowing southward from Gemini through Monoceros and into Canis Major, brings many star clusters that beckon our attention. Some of these are striking through binoculars, while others are a challenge just to see.
Where has the time gone? It seems like only yesterday that we were ushering in 2014 and here we are, getting ready to ring it out and welcome in 2015! Let’s close out the year with a bang. Go big or go home, they say. So this month, we are going big!
Over the years, this column has included several off-the-beaten-path objects that go ignored in most observing handbooks. This month, I’d like to continue that tradition by paying a call on the first three entries in a catalog of open star clusters published in 1930 by Swiss-American astronomer Robert J. Trumpler.
Regardless of your observing site, be it under dark rural skies or from a more cosmopolitan setting, hunting down binary stars through binoculars is a great way to confirm the quality of your optics, your eyesight, and your powers of observation. This month, we have a selection of targets that range from easily resolved through pocket binoculars to challenging through the best 10x and 11x pairs.
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.
Last month, the community of amateur astronomers lost one of the “good ones” when news came that Robert “Barlow Bob” Godfrey had passed away.
As the haze and heat of summer slowly gives way this month to drier autumn nights, we find Cygnus, the Swan, flying high in the evening sky. Few constellations offer such a diverse collection of binocular targets as Cygnus. We visited some in this column last October, and return again to continue that journey.