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Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge Archives

Cosmic Challenge: WLM and WLM-1

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

If you thought last month's challenge, IC 1613, was just too easy, try your luck with another member of the Local Group that is also within Cetus.

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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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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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Cosmic Challenge: Planetary Nebula GJJC-1

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

What is your favorite globular cluster? Apart from those two southern hemisphere beauties, Omega (ω) Centauri and 47 Tucanae, my answer has to be M22 in Sagittarius. Admittedly, the star chains and "propeller" formation within M13 in Hercules (profiled in the July 2017 Cosmic Challenge) are visually intriguing. But there is just something about the remarkable richness of M22 and its surrounding star field that calls to me.

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Cosmic Challenge: Mons Hadley and Rima Hadley

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

Fifty years ago this month, on July 30, 1971, Commander David Scott and Pilot James Irwin navigated their Apollo 15 lunar module, nicknamed Falcon, to land among the lunar Apennine mountains, while Alfred Worden remained in orbit aboard the command module, Endeavor. Scott and Irwin guided Falcon to a soft landing between the edge of a deep precipice and the base of a tall mountain to establish Hadley Base, as the landing site became known.

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Cosmic Challenge: Alcor and Mizar

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

Is there any constellation in the sky more universally known than Ursa Major, the Great Bear? Most of us learned of it as a child, perhaps from a relative or friend, or possibly as a Scout working our way toward a merit badge in astronomy. The seven brightest stars in the group, known in North America as the Big Dipper or in England as the Plough, always draw our attention, especially in the spring when they ride highest in our sky.

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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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