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Apr 30 2019 07:52 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Of the thousands of spiral galaxies visible through backyard telescopes, one stands above the rest in terms of visual interest: M51, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. Everything adds up in M51's favor. We are seeing it very nearly face-on, its spiral arm halo is bright and peppered with star clouds and vast regions of nebulosity, and it brings with it a friend in the form of a smaller companion galaxy that can even be seen through giant binoculars.
Mar 30 2019 09:54 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
A springtime rite of passage started here two years ago. It started in the April 2017 edition of this e-column, when I challenged readers to find the dwarf galaxy Leo I. Leo I is one of many dim dwarf galaxies gravitationally bound to the Milky Way. The fact that its surface brightness rates only 15th magnitude, coupled with its position just 20' north of Regulus makes Leo I a tough challenge to land.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 01 2018 05:20 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Messier did not live to see a second edition of his catalog, but objects 104 through 110 have been added posthumously by others. M109 joined the ranks in 1953, when astronomy historian Owen Gingerich noted Messier's observations of six additional "Méchain objects," now known as M104 through M109.
Mar 31 2018 09:54 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Last April, this column profile the dwarf spheroidal galaxy Leo I, discovered by chance in 1950 by astronomers Robert Harrington (still no relation!) and A.G. Wilson as they were scanning the Palomar Sky Survey. I ended that column saying that "Using the right eyepiece and knowing the field will help you add this dwarf spheroidal to your list of conquered challenges with comparative ease. But don't get too cocky. Spotting its sibling, Leo II is an even greater challenge. But we will leave that for a future column." Well, that future is now.
Mar 04 2018 08:21 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Probably known better by its nickname the "Intergalactic Tramp" bestowed by Harlow Shapley in 1944, NGC 2419 is unusual among winter's deep-sky objects for many reasons.
Feb 03 2018 10:06 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
You've heard of the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula, but how about the Orion Galaxy? Probably not. But would you believe the New General Catalog lists 21 galaxies in Orion, and the Index Catalog adds another 9? That's a pretty respectable tally. Of those 30 Orion galaxies, I find this month's challenge particularly intriguing because it lies so close to everyone's favorite winter deep-sky object, M42. Yet, I am sure that very few observers have seen it.
Jan 02 2018 08:36 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
The Moon's terminator is a fascinating sight through all telescopes. Here, along the lunar sunset/sunrise line, lighting can strike familiar lunar features in very unusual ways, transforming them in ways that go unsuspected when the Sun rides high overhead.
Dec 07 2017 06:02 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Not long after I got my first "good" telescope, my 8-inch Criterion RV-8 Dynascope Newtonian reflector, as my Christmas gift in 1971, I became fascinated with the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. One reason I am so fond of this collection of more than 500 galaxies is that the cluster grows as the telescope's aperture increases. Small backyard scopes will show the two big kids on the block, NGC 1272 and NGC 1275, but even the largest amateur instruments fail to show all of the "little guys."
Nov 17 2017 08:36 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Did you know that I discovered a comet in the fall of 1973? I was out with my venerable 8-inch Criterion RV-8 Dynascope Newtonian reflector, just hopping around the autumn sky, when I noticed stars weren't focusing sharply. Thinking the telescope's collimation was off, I aimed at a nearby bright star to check whether the silhouette of the secondary mirror was centered correctly in the star's out-of-focus image. After I tweaked things a bit, all appeared well, so I focused on that star to check things before moving on. Lo and behold, I saw a dim blur of light right next to the star! Checking things further, it wasn't an internal reflection or an optical aberration.
Oct 01 2017 10:56 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
The canvas on which our picture of the universe is painted relies on the unwavering acceptance of Hubble's Law. Hubble's Law states that a relationship exists between the distance to a galaxy and the speed at which it is receding from us. The farther away a galaxy is, the greater the speed of its recession and farther its spectral lines are shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. For Hubble's Law and the Red Shift Principal to be valid, it must work for not just a few galaxies, but for all. And indeed, it does -- well almost.
Sep 01 2017 09:48 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
The star 61 Cygni is not bright, nor is it visually distinctive. To the eye alone, it looks just like any other 5th-magnitude point of light deep in the Milky Way flowing through the Swan. But looks can be deceiving! This unremarkable looking star is indeed quite remarkable for its unusually high rate of proper motion. By watching and plotting it against the backdrop of stars over the course of relatively few years, its position shifts at an extraordinarily fast pace. At present, 61 Cyg has a proper motion of more than 5 arc-seconds per year.
Aug 03 2017 10:35 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Enthusiasts think nothing of jetting around the world just to witness the few brief moments of a total solar eclipse. And with good reason, for all who behold the majesty of totality will give impassioned testimony to its unbridled glory. A total solar eclipse is the most beautiful and emotionally charged celestial event of all.
Jul 01 2017 09:33 AM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
In last month's column, we paid a visit to the Moon and the crater pair of Messier and Messier A. This month, we head back out into deep space to examine one of the most spectacular entries in Charles Messier's catalog: M13, the Great Hercules Globular Cluster.
May 31 2017 01:20 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Summer is in the offing here in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year is at hand. While many of us enjoy the warmer weather, the dark of night comes late in the evening and leaves all too early the following morning. So while deep-sky observing is limited, we can still enjoy viewing our Moon even if the sky is still bright. Yes, observing challenges await us on our nearest neighbor in space.
May 01 2017 12:45 PM | PhilH in Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge
Seven decades ago, while scanning a Palomar Sky Survey plate of the area around brilliant Regulus in Leo the Lion, astronomers Robert Harrington (no relation) and A.G. Wilson noticed a faint blur of light just 1/2° north of the star. They may have thought at first that the glow was just an internal lens flare caused by stray starlight, but it soon became apparent that they had discovered something very real.