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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 2403

Mar 01 2024 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Hovering above the northeastern horizon at this time of year is the obscure constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe. Though the human eye alone reveals little more than a void populated by a scattering of 4th-magnitude and fainter stars, binoculars begin to unleash some of the beast's latent wonders. One of the Giraffe's few hidden treasures that is visible through binoculars is NGC 2403, a spectacular spiral galaxy tilted nearly face-on to our perspective.

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Cosmic Challenge: Abell 12

Feb 01 2024 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Deep-sky objects can be challenging for several reasons. Some are especially faint, while others are especially small, and still others are so large that they can't fit into a single eyepiece field. Or the problem might be that a particular target is so close to another, noticeably brighter object that the light from that intruder all but obliterates the quarry. The latter problem plagues planetary nebula Abell 12. It shines at about 14th magnitude, which is not exactly bright, but is also not exceptionally dim for a telescope 10 inches (25 cm) or more in aperture. The problem, however, is that it is located a scant arcminute away from 4th-magnitude Mu (μ) Orionis. That's why it's known by the nickname the Hidden Planetary.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 1851

Jan 06 2024 12:13 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

I thought I'd welcome in the new year with a target that is not challenging due to its faintness, but rather due to its southern location far from any bright stars. NGC 1851 is a 7th-magnitude globular cluster in the constellation Columba, the Dove.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 51 Galaxy Group

Dec 01 2023 07:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Of the dozens of galaxy groups scattered around the autumn sky, the 136-million-light-year-distant NGC 51 group is one of the more difficult bunches to spot. Although they are not listed among Paul Hickson's compact galaxy groups, the six galaxies here are ideally placed near the zenith in early December evenings for observers at mid-northern latitudes. Its high altitude carries the group far enough above any horizon-hugging interferences that might spoil some of our other challenges.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 7354

Nov 01 2023 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Of the constellations that line the autumn Milky Way, King Cepheus, the king of Aethiopia in Greek mythology, is trod upon by relatively few amateur astronomers. While this is most likely because the constellation's brightest stars are faint compared to his wife, Queen Cassiopeia, the King has many royal deep-sky subjects is his own right that merit a look, including this month's challenge.

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Cosmic Challenge: The Great Square

Oct 01 2023 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Pegasus is one of the best-known autumn constellations. Depicting the winged horse that Perseus used to rescue Princess Andromeda from the clutches of Cetus the Sea Monster, Pegasus flies high in our southern sky during October and November evenings.

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Cosmic Challenge: Abell 70

Sep 01 2023 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Of the more than 80 planetaries listed by George Abell in his 1966 paper "Properties of Some Old Planetary Nebulae," Abell 70 (also known as PK38.1-25.4) is one of the most unique. Actually, the planetary itself is a stereotypical example of a ring nebula, like M57, with a round shell of gas expanding away from the dim progenitor star. But look carefully and there is clearly more here than just that.

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Cosmic Challenge: Barnard's Star

Aug 01 2023 05:03 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The curtain opened on this challenge in September 1916, when a pair of articles written by Edward Emerson Barnard appeared in the journals Nature and The Astronomical Journal. Both recounted Barnard's discovery of a faint star in the constellation Ophiuchus that appeared completely unremarkable except for the fact that its proper motion was faster than any other star ever found.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 6369

Jul 01 2023 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

One of the more interesting, and at the same time, challenging of Herschel's planetaries to view through 3- to 5-inch (7.6- to 12.7-cm) instruments is NGC 6369 in southern Ophiuchus. Nicknamed the "Little Ghost Nebula," NGC 6369 is an example of a ring-type planetary nebula, a faint version of M57. That is, if you can find it.

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Cosmic Challenge: Plato's craterlets

Jun 01 2023 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

One of the great challenges facing even the most devoted lunar observers is trying to see the many small craters that dot the lava-covered floor of the walled plain Plato. Plato itself is a prominent impact scar measuring 62 miles across. It takes no more than 10x binoculars to see Plato once the Sun is up in its sky. In general, the best times to view Plato and its environs are about 1.5 days past First Quarter and again near Last Quarter.

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