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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 2363 and NGC 2366

Feb 28 2019 04:59 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Will the real NGC 2363 please stand up? For years, there has been an ongoing debate over the true identity of the 2,363rd entry in the New General Catalog.

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Cosmic Challenge: Sharpless 2-301

Feb 01 2019 02:39 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

While a few of Sharpless's entries, such as Sh2-25 (better known as M8, the Lagoon Nebula) and Sh2-49 (M16, the Eagle Nebula), are well known to visual observers, most are among of the most challenging objects to see visually. If you have never made a concerted effort to see some of the lesser known Sharpless objects, then this challenge, Sh2-301 in Canis Major, is a good introduction to the sport.

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Cosmic Challenge: Jonckheere 320

Jan 01 2019 06:04 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

On January 22, 1916, while revisiting some of the stars in his Catalog and Measures of Double Stars discovered visually from 1905 to 1916 within 105° of the North Pole and under 5" Separation, French astronomer Robert Jonckheere returned to a vague double in Orion, which he had previously designated as entry number 320. Jonckheere was later to write of this encounter through the 28-inch refractor at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, "I noticed that the object I have catalogued as J 320 is not a double star, but, like J 475, it appears with the larger instrument to be an extremely small bright elongated nebula. As is the case with J 900, this object also appears to be new as a nebula."

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Cosmic Challenge: Globular clusters in M31

Dec 01 2018 06:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, was probably one of the first galaxies you ever saw first-hand. It was mine. That was all way back in 1969. Since then, I have grown to appreciate it as far more than just the ill-defined oval blur I drew in my logbook. But in 1969, the thought of looking for individual objects within M31 never crossed my mind.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 147 and NGC 185

Nov 04 2018 08:46 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

M32 and M110 are nice challenges for handheld binoculars. Most amateurs are familiar with them, since they lie in the same field of view of the parent Andromeda Galaxy. But two others, designated as NGC 147 and NGC 185, are not as nearly well known. Both are several degrees to M31's north, across the border in Cassiopeia and feature smaller, fainter disks that are much more challenging to see.

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Cosmic Challenge: Einstein's Cross

Oct 01 2018 08:53 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

From an aesthetic perspective, the most perfect gravitational lens is Einstein's Cross, formed by the galaxy PGC 69457 (cross- cataloged as CGCG 378-15) and the quasar QSO 2237+0305 in Pegasus. PGC 69457 is also known informally as Huchra's Lens after its discoverer, John Huchra, professor of cosmology Harvard University. Current estimates place this small, otherwise unspectacular spiral galaxy at 400 million light years away. The quasar lurks far behind at an incredible distance of 8 billion light-years. Were it not for gravitational lensing, the quasar would remain hidden by the galaxy, as the two are nearly in-line as seen from Earth. But as it is, Huchra's lens fractures the ancient light from the quasar into four separate paths that slide around the galaxy just as water flows around a rock in a stream. The end result is not one, but four ghostly images of QSO 2237+0305 surrounding the nucleus of PGC 69457 in a practically perfect diamond pattern.

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Cosmic Challenge: North America Nebula (NGC 7000)

Sep 01 2018 05:07 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The North America Nebula (NGC 7000) is a large expanse of glowing hydrogen gas mixed with opaque clouds of cosmic dust just 3° east of Deneb [Alpha (α) Cygni] and 1° to the west of 4th-magnitude Xi (ξ) 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.

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Cosmic Challenge: Campbell's Hydrogen Star

Jul 31 2018 06:56 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

American astronomer William Wallace Campbell spotted this unusual star-like object through a visual spectroscope at Lick Observatory in 1893. He could tell immediately from its spectrum that, despite its stellar appearance, he was not seeing an ordinary star at all. Instead, he had spotted an uncharted planetary nebula.

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Cosmic Challenge: Dissecting M101

Jul 01 2018 05:22 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Just spotting the gigantic Pinwheel Galaxy, M101, can sometimes be challenging enough. Its low surface brightness can drive suburban observers crazy, especially when we see photographs that show it so big and bright, or that it is listed as 8th magnitude. It all comes down to surface brightness, or more accurately, lack of surface brightness. Seeing the dim glow of the galaxy's small core, or the even dimmer glimmer of the surrounding spiral arms, can take a concerted effort. But with time and patience, M101 is visible, with difficulty, through 50-mm binoculars even given a suburban sky with a naked-eye limiting magnitude of perhaps 4.5.

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Cosmic Challenge: Glimpsing Vesta

Jun 01 2018 06:34 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Vesta turns out to be more like a mini-planet than like the chunks of rock most think of as asteroids. Dawn's measurements of the gravity field provided good evidence that Vesta's interior is separated into layers, much like Earth did as the planet was forming. Vesta's dense core - apparently once molten, but now solidified - is composed principally of iron and nickel, just like Earth's. Estimates place it at 125 to 150 miles (200 to 250 kilometers) across. Surrounding that is the mantle, which in turn is covered by the veneer of the crust, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) thick. It is now believed that early on Vesta was likely still accumulating material to become a full-fledged planet when Jupiter's immense gravity intervened, putting a stop to that. As a result, when we look at Vesta, many believe that we are seeing a protoplanet frozen in time.

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