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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: Izar [Epsilon (ε) Boötis]

Jun 01 2022 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Finding this month's challenge object is no challenge at all unless you are trying to starhop to it from the inner city. That can be tough, but for everyone else, Izar (Epsilon [ε] Boötis) is visible easily by eye to the northeast of brilliant Arcturus (Alpha [α] Boötis) as one of six stars that make up the constellation's distinctive kite shape. Swing your telescope its way and it still looks like a single star, as it does to the naked eye. So, what's the attraction?

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Cosmic Challenge: Quasar 3C 273

May 01 2022 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Whenever my neighbor (I'll call him "Joe") sees me at one of my telescopes, he'll come over and ask "so, how far can you see with that thing?" Every time! You've also probably met someone like Joe. Well, unless you have a double-digit telescope, your answer should probably be "2.4 billion light years."

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Cosmic Challenge: Polarissima

Apr 01 2022 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

In astronomy, as in real estate, we have the Three Ls: location, location, location. NGC 3172 is a challenge for all seasons -- literally -- as its location keeps it above the horizon throughout the year no matter what time of night you are looking. That's because NGC 3172 lies within 1° of the North Celestial Pole, closer than any other NGC object.

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Cosmic Challenge: Beehive Galaxies

Mar 01 2022 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Hidden among the stars of M44 are no fewer than eight distant galaxies. Until 1987, most of us knew nothing of them. That was the year when the Uranometria 2000.0 star atlas was published. It showed the sky to a depth never before captured in a convenient star atlas format, and immediately shed light on thousands of objects that no amateurs, except possibly for a few extreme deep-sky hunters, even knew existed.

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Cosmic Challenge: Sirius and the Pup

Feb 01 2022 10:36 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Ask an amateur astronomer to name binary stars that are difficult to resolve and one of the most common responses will probably be Sirius, in Canis Major. While there are more difficult targets, Sirius is always a perennial favorite. The challenge comes not from the close separation of the two stars in the system, however. Rather, the challenge here is from the extreme difference in the two stars' magnitude.

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Cosmic Challenge: Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33)

Jan 01 2022 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Let's kick off the new year with what many consider to be one of the most difficult visual challenges in the sky. If you listen carefully, you might even hear the strains of the "Mission: Impossible" theme song playing in the background. Of all the deep-sky objects in the winter sky, none carries the mystique of the dark nebula Barnard 33, better known as the Horsehead Nebula.

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Cosmic Challenge: Abell Galaxy Cluster 373

Dec 01 2021 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Nestled in the southeast corner of the dim late-fall/early-winter constellation Fornax, adjacent to the distinctive triangle formed by 6th-magnitude Chi-1 (χ-1), Chi-2 (χ-2), and Chi-3 (χ-3) Fornacis, is an attractive cluster of galaxies known as Abell Galaxy Cluster - Southern Supplement (AGCS) 373.

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Cosmic Challenge: The Southern Pinwheel

Nov 01 2021 05:03 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Have you ever heard of NGC 300, the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy? Were it positioned high in our autumn sky in a prominent constellation, you certainly would have. In fact, NGC 300, an Sc spiral tilted nearly face-on to our view, would be one of the season's showpieces, especially through large backyard telescopes. Because it lies in the far southern sky, nestled among the faint stars of Sculptor, it remains the purview of diehard deep-sky fanatics only.

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Cosmic Challenge: The Elephants Trunk

Oct 01 2021 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Take a look at just about any star atlas and you will find a huge, irregular cloud of ionized hydrogen suspended to the south of Mu (μ) Cephei, Herschel's Garnet Star. That's IC 1396, one of the largest nebulae in the night sky. Even from a distance of about 2,450 light years, this complex cocktail of bright glowing gas mixed with dark dust clouds spans 3° of our sky. At that distance, 3° translates to a linear diameter of nearly 160 light years, more than three times greater than the Orion Nebula, M42.

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Cosmic Challenge: A Trio of Binaries

Sep 01 2021 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

How close can two stars appear and still be resolvable as two? The single most important factor that influences the result is a telescope's aperture. All other things being equal, the larger the aperture, the finer the level of detail resolved. Of the many observational experiments that have been conducted to determine the resolution limits of telescopes, the two most often cited are the Rayleigh Criterion and the Dawes Limit.

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