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Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge



If you're like me, you have probably seen Jupiter, Saturn, the Orion Nebula, and all of the sky's showpiece objects more times than you can count. And while they are truly spectacular and well worth revisiting, you may be looking for something new, something challenging to observe.

That's the premise behind this new monthly e-column here on Cloudy Nights. Each month, we will look for objects that, quite honestly, many amateurs don't even know exist!



Cosmic Challenge - NGC 404

Nov 17 2017 08:36 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Did you know that I discovered a comet in the fall of 1973? I was out with my venerable 8-inch Criterion RV-8 Dynascope Newtonian reflector, just hopping around the autumn sky, when I noticed stars weren't focusing sharply. Thinking the telescope's collimation was off, I aimed at a nearby bright star to check whether the silhouette of the secondary mirror was centered correctly in the star's out-of-focus image. After I tweaked things a bit, all appeared well, so I focused on that star to check things before moving on. Lo and behold, I saw a dim blur of light right next to the star! Checking things further, it wasn't an internal reflection or an optical aberration.

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Cosmic Challenge: Stephan's Quintet

Oct 01 2017 10:56 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The canvas on which our picture of the universe is painted relies on the unwavering acceptance of Hubble's Law. Hubble's Law states that a relationship exists between the distance to a galaxy and the speed at which it is receding from us. The farther away a galaxy is, the greater the speed of its recession and farther its spectral lines are shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. For Hubble's Law and the Red Shift Principal to be valid, it must work for not just a few galaxies, but for all. And indeed, it does -- well almost.

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Cosmic Challenge 61 Cygni: Piazzi's Flying Star

Sep 01 2017 09:48 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The star 61 Cygni is not bright, nor is it visually distinctive. To the eye alone, it looks just like any other 5th-magnitude point of light deep in the Milky Way flowing through the Swan. But looks can be deceiving! This unremarkable looking star is indeed quite remarkable for its unusually high rate of proper motion. By watching and plotting it against the backdrop of stars over the course of relatively few years, its position shifts at an extraordinarily fast pace. At present, 61 Cyg has a proper motion of more than 5 arc-seconds per year.

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Cosmic Challenge: Shadow Bands

Aug 03 2017 10:35 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Enthusiasts think nothing of jetting around the world just to witness the few brief moments of a total solar eclipse. And with good reason, for all who behold the majesty of totality will give impassioned testimony to its unbridled glory. A total solar eclipse is the most beautiful and emotionally charged celestial event of all.

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Cosmic Challenge: M13's propeller

Jul 01 2017 09:33 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

In last month's column, we paid a visit to the Moon and the crater pair of Messier and Messier A. This month, we head back out into deep space to examine one of the most spectacular entries in Charles Messier's catalog: M13, the Great Hercules Globular Cluster.

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Cosmic Challenge: Lunar Craters Messier and Messier A

May 31 2017 01:20 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Summer is in the offing here in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year is at hand. While many of us enjoy the warmer weather, the dark of night comes late in the evening and leaves all too early the following morning. So while deep-sky observing is limited, we can still enjoy viewing our Moon even if the sky is still bright. Yes, observing challenges await us on our nearest neighbor in space.

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Cosmic Challenge: The Antennae

May 01 2017 12:45 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Seven decades ago, while scanning a Palomar Sky Survey plate of the area around brilliant Regulus in Leo the Lion, astronomers Robert Harrington (no relation) and A.G. Wilson noticed a faint blur of light just 1/2° north of the star. They may have thought at first that the glow was just an internal lens flare caused by stray starlight, but it soon became apparent that they had discovered something very real.

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Cosmic Challenge: Leo I

Apr 01 2017 11:21 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Seven decades ago, while scanning a Palomar Sky Survey plate of the area around brilliant Regulus in Leo the Lion, astronomers Robert Harrington (no relation) and A.G. Wilson noticed a faint blur of light just 1/2° north of the star. They may have thought at first that the glow was just an internal lens flare caused by stray starlight, but it soon became apparent that they had discovered something very real.

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Cosmic Challenge: Jonckheere 900

Mar 04 2017 08:03 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Few amateur astronomers are familiar with the name Robert Jonckheere. Jonckheere was a French double-star observer who conducted research at a number of observatories over his six-decade career, including the Strasbourg Observatory in France, the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, as well as McDonald Observatory in Texas.

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Cosmic Challenge: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Feb 04 2017 07:53 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

There once was a mystery in Lynx. The story opened in 1790 when William Herschel discovered a small, nebulous glow about 2½° northwest of 27 Lyncis. He later added it as number 830 in his list of "very faint nebulae" (abbreviated H-III-830) and apparently moved on without noticing a second, fainter blur of light just to the northeast. That second object was discovered 66 years later by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, through his 72-inch "Leviathan" reflector. Both were later incorporated into John Dreyer's New General Catalog. NGC 2474 is described as "faint, pretty small, extended?, brighter middle, very small star?, large star north following." NGC 2475 is simply noted as "makes a double nebula with" NGC 2474.

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