Monday morning a slender crescent moon will join a nice alignment of planets in the pre-dawn sky. About a half hour before sunrise, a 6% illuminated crescent moon will be visible low over the eastern horizon. To it’s right will be magnitude -2.2 Jupiter. Below and left of the moon will be an even brighter Venus, shining at magnitude -3.9. Between Venus and the moon will be Mars. At magnitude 1.3, binoculars may be needed to see Mars in the pre-dawn glow. Below and to the left of Venus will be magnitude -0.8 Mercury. Although, as is often the case with the innermost planet, it’s proximity to the horizon could make it difficult to see. But it’s still a good chance to get up early and see how many planets you can spot.
The bright star Vega is probably the most famous object in the summer constellation Lyra. The second best known object in Lyra, and a favorite of backyard astronomers, would be the Ring Nebula. But I always like a good globular cluster, and M56 is a third object in Lyra you shouldn’t overlook. At magnitude 8.3, it’s not the brightest cluster around. But under dark skies it still makes for very nice viewing.
There are several options for star-hopping to M56. The one I usually use is to follow a line of three stars, nearly parallel to the “bottom” two stars of Lyra, and to take a turn east at the third star in that line. But with the other stars in the area, there may be another path that works better for you.
When springtime comes to Saturn’s northern hemisphere (something that happens about once every 30 Earth years) it’s storm season. As detailed in this [Space.com article], a giant storm is now showing some of it’s best views since beginning back in December. The good news for backyard astronomers is that Saturn is in a good position for prime time viewing, shining at magnitude 0.9 in the constellation Virgo. And some of the changing cloud features should be visible through a mid-sized or better backyard telescope.
As the seasons change (and it becomes possible to spend more time at the telescope without freezing too badly) our favorite spring constellations are now available for prime time viewing. Among these is the small constellation Canes Venatici, notable for containing several galaxies and M3, a very nice globular cluster. With an apparant magnitude of 6.2, M3 is a little beyond what most can see with the naked eye. But with even a small telescope it comes nicely into view.
The easiest way to find M3 is to start with the very bright star Arcturus, in the neighboring constellation Boötes. From there imagine a line to Cor Caroli, at magnitude 2.9 the brightest star in Canes Venatici. M3 can be found along that line, just a bit to the Arcturus side of center. With no bright stars nearby to guide you, M3 can be a bit tricky to find. You may have to sweep your scope along that line several times before spotting it. But once you find it, this globular cluster is worth the effort.
Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, dominates the view to the south this time of year. It also leads us to the easily found open cluster M41. Containing about 100 stars, M41 (aka NGC2287) is roughly four degrees straight south of Sirius. It’s large dimensions, bright magnitude and easily found location make this cluster a great target for beginning astronomers.
While looking over what I’ve written about the sights enjoyed by amateur astronomers, I noticed a glaring omission. Somehow I haven’t mentioned M42, the Great Orion Nebula, among the most observed objects in the night sky. This diffuse nebula is among the brighest, and is even visible to the naked eye. M42 is estimated to be 24 light years across and is at a distance of about 1350 light years. Besides being a favorite sight for amateur astronomers, scientists are also interested in M42 as a region of stellar formation. An interesting bit of trivia is that in 1880 the Orion nebula became the first target of deep-sky astrophotography.
Finding the Orion Nebula could hardly be easier. Simply look to the “sword” below Orion’s belt. If you have a larger telescope and dark skies, there are plenty of other nebulae and interesting features within this area of Orion. But large telescope or small, the Orion nebula is always an enjoyable target.
The Summer Triangle is the famous asterism formed by the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. And while we enjoy it’s sights high overhead on warm summer nights, this time of year we have a double chance to take a look. Thanks to the long winter nights, the Summer Triangle is visible low in the west just after sunset. It’s also visible low in the east just before sunrise. So you can pick your time and enjoy some summer sights in the middle of winter.
Then, for the time in between, there’s the asterism that really is known as the Winter Triangle. It’s corners are the bright stars Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon. This triangle is visible in the southern sky all through these winter nights.
Among the Messier Objects dotting the night sky, you will find numerous galaxies, planetary and diffuse nebulae, and open and globular star clusters. But M1, the Crab Nebula, is unique in being the only supernova remnant to make Messier’s list. Created by a supernova observed by Chinese and Arab astronomers in 1054, the Crab Nebula itself was first observed in 1731. Located at a distance of roughly 6500 light years, the nebula is expanding at a rate of 1500 km/s. This expansion was discovered in the early 20th century by comparing photographs of the nebula taken several years apart.
To see the Crab Nebula, you’ll need reasonably dark skies. At magnitude 8.4, it can be easily washed out by light pollution. From my home on the edge of a mid-sized city, it’s just barely visible. But with dark enough skies, it makes a nice target for small telescopes. Located in the constellation Taurus, the easiest way to find the Crab Nebula is to start with the Hyades star cluster (the asterism known as the “head of the bull”). Follow the line formed by the “bottom” of the Hyades to find Zeta Taurii. Going up from there, the Crab Nebula can be easily found. Once the upcoming full moon gets out of the way, we’ll be moving into prime time to see this winter crab. (Does that make it a snow crab?)
No, “frozen” doesn’t refer to next week’s Gemenid meteors. It refers to anyone spending the night outside to watch them – at least if you live in the same northern climate as I do. But if you’re willing to brave the cold, the Geminids, with their bright and long-lasting meteors, should put on quite a show. The shower will reach it’s peak December 13th and 14th. The moon could cause problems earlier in the night, but it will be setting just as prime viewing time begins. So make a thermos of your favorite hot beverage, and try to find at least a little time for watching these winter gems.
In just a few days Earth will once again plow through a stream of fragments cast off from comet Tempel-Tuttle. The result: the annual Leonid meteor shower. Unfortunately, this years Leonids are predicted to be quite weak, with only 15-20 per hour. In addition, the moon will interfere with the early stages of the display. Your best bet is to look for the Leonids in the predawn hours of November 17th and 18th, after the moon has set.