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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: Markarian's Chain

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

Aim your telescope anywhere in the large, seemingly empty gap between the stars Denebola [Beta (β) Leonis] and Vindemiatrix [Epsilon (ε) Virginis] and, given sharp eyes and a dark sky, you are bound to see one or more faint splotches of light somewhere in the eyepiece's field of view. You've entered the Coma-Virgo Realm of Galaxies, a collection of upwards

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Cosmic Challenge: Abell Galaxy Cluster (AGC) 1060

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

Finding AGC 1060 is a simple task as long as you can spot 4.5-magnitude SAO 179041. This red giant sun overlaps the center of the cluster and lies 4¼° north of Alpha (α) Antliae. Of course, finding Alpha Antliae presents its own challenge, since it shines at only magnitude 4.2 and lies far from any handy reference stars.

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Cosmic Challenge: Zeta (ζ) Cancri

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

Although it is one of the faintest constellations along the zodiac, Cancer the Crab hosts a variety of targets to test our mettle during the early spring. Spotting M44, the Beehive Cluster, by eye alone may prove very challenging for suburban observers, while the Crab's underappreciated second open cluster, M67, may also reach naked-eye visibility from more rural environs. While the constellation boasts a variety of challenging galaxies, in the test here, we will try our luck with one of the constellation's prettiest binary stars, Zeta (ζ) Cancri.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 2438

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

M46 in Puppis is one of my favorite open clusters and a striking sight through just about any telescope. More than 500 stars are crammed into an area just a Moon's diameter across, creating one of the most jam-packed throngs in the winter sky.

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Cosmic Challenge: Simeis 147

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

The year 1054 must have been an active one for stargazers. That was the year that the famous Crab Nebula supernova blasted forth, shining brightly enough for Chinese and Native American skywatchers to note a "new star" blazing near what we now call the tip of one of Taurus the Bull's two horns. The 1054 supernova was so bright that it was visible in broad daylight during the summer of that year and remained visible to the naked eye for nearly a year. Today, we know the fading gaseous remnant of that all-consuming event as the Crab Nebula, M1.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 1360

Dec 01 2020 01:01 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

Many stargazers consider Fornax, the Furnace, to be a constellation of the deep south, and therefore, invisible from mid-northern latitudes. While it is true that Fornax scrapes the southern horizon on early winter evenings, it does so at much the same altitude as Scorpius does during the summer. If you can see Scorpius from your observing site in July, you can see Fornax tonight. Assuming it's clear, of course!

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Cosmic Challenge: The Eye of Mars

Nov 01 2020 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

With Mars just having passed opposition on October 13, I thought it might be fun to challenge you to see a specific surface feature on the Red Planet before it slips too far away.

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Cosmic Challenge: Spotting Uranus

Oct 01 2020 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

On March 12, 1781, the solar system was a simple, very well-behaved place that was best summed up with the phrase "what you see is what you get." There were the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Apart from a handful of moons orbiting some of the planets and the occasional faint comet that required a telescope to be seen, the entire contents of the solar system was naked-eye territory.

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Cosmic Challenge: Ring Nebula Central Star and Galaxy IC 1296

Sep 01 2020 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

As we say goodbye to summer and get ready to welcome in autumn, I thought I would offer not one, but two challenges this month to bridge the seasonal change. Both appear right next to each other in our sky but are millions of light years apart. And both require all the aperture you can throw at them to be seen.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 6445, The Box Nebula

Aug 01 2020 05:00 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge

The sky is full of weird sights. And among planetary nebulae, NGC 6445 is one of the strangest. Discovered by William Herschel on May 28, 1786, NGC 6445 shines at 11th magnitude. That's bright enough to be seen even through giant binoculars. Although visible in smaller apertures, it takes a 6-inch telescope for NGC 6445's true, if bizarre, nature to shine through. The nebula's brighter central shell looks like a dented rectangle. Nature rarely creates an amorphous form with sharp edges, and indeed, the peculiar appearance of NGC 6445 is due largely to our perspective as well as its age. But the look is very odd nonetheless. No wonder NGC 6445 has been nicknamed the Box Nebula.

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