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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: IC 1613

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

The Local Group of galaxies includes three large spiral galaxies – the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Triangulum Spiral – and dozens of smaller systems. Two of the toughest to see are found in the constellation Cetus and make up this two-month challenge. We begin with IC 1613, discovered in 1906 by German astronomer Max Wolf on photographs taken with the Bruce 16-inch (41-cm) refractor at the Astrophysical Observatory in Heidelberg.

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Cosmic Challenge: NGC 7537 and NGC 7541

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

NGC 7537 and NGC 7541 are two of the more visually interesting galaxies that hide among the faint stars of Pisces, the Fishes. Only 3 arcminutes separate these nearly edge-on spirals, creating an attractive pair of faint fuzzies that float in a field of dim stars.

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Cosmic Challenge: IC 5217, the Little Saturn Nebula

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

As we transition from summer to autumn, let's try our luck with a taxing planetary nebula in an equally taxing constellation. IC 5217 lies among the faint stars of Lacerta the Lizard. Locating the nebula is a big part of the challenge because of its dim surroundings.

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Cosmic Challenge: Great Dark Horse Nebula

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

Last month's challenge, to visually spot Abell Galaxy Cluster 2065, could have been subtitled "Go Big or Go Home." That challenge was tough in even that largest amateur telescopes. The good news is that this month's challenge turns the tables. All you need are your eyes. And decent skies.

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Cosmic Challenge: Abell Galaxy Cluster 2065

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

This month, our telescopes will transport us across an incredible 1.2 billion light years (some sources quote 1.5 billion) to Abell Galaxy Cluster (AGC) 2065. More than 400 galaxies are huddled within AGC 2065, but because of that incomprehensible distance, the light from these massive collections of stars has dwindled to nothing more than the faintest whisper. Seeing even the slightest hint of AGC 2065 takes more than just aperture; it also takes supremely dark skies, a trained eye, and an accurate chart of the region.

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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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