Deep sky observing offers a wide range of targets, and a nearly endless variety of views. Some pedestrian, the thousands of faint smudges that reveal little of their true nature. Others are challenges - wisps and mere suggestions - ghostly presences, and still others that astound in beauty, grandeur or their unique nature. This month we'll visit some of the latter. Several will require the darkest skies you can find - locally, the SJAA Messier Marathon March 26 at Henry Coe State Park would be a good choice, although darker skies would be better.
Speaking of good dark skies, consider the Shingletown Star Party (SSP), July 16 through 21st, 2004. This is SSP's third year, and the 12th year we've trekked north together to enjoy the beautiful earthly surroundings and outstanding skies Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park and its environs offer. See http://www.shingletownstarparty.org
Thoughts meander, and so will we - across the universe as we start in the west and move east, from late winter/spring to spring/early summer targets.
NGC 2359 Often overlooked, the emission nebula Thor's Helmet is a great sight. Rich and wispy, under dark skies with good aperture you'll see the shape of a classical warrior's helmet from the middle ages. Try both an OIII and Ultrablock filter to help bring out details. This object has been called the "Duck Nebula" and described as "L" shaped, a teardrop, a tadpole, even a mosquito wriggler with two large feathery antennae...
The strands you see might cause you to think it is similar to the Veil Nebula, which it is not. Its origins are shared with another object in Cygnus - the Crescent Nebula, and Sharpless 2-157 in Cassiopeia.˙ These emission nebulae are˙ powered by intensely hot Wolf-Rayet stars. For some fascinating information on this class of object, see Sky and Telescope Magazine for March 2004, page 23 - Inflating the Crescent Nebula.
NGC 2362 This is a favorite open cluster. Easy to find off the back haunches of Canis Major, this is a nice compact and rich open that benefits visually from its component star Tau, a triple star, sitting at its visual center. At mag 4.4, Tau is easily found. When you view it, realize it is nearly 4,000 light years distant. This is one of the most intrinsically brilliant giant stars known. The brightest member of this system is, itself, a massive binary with a period of just one day.˙ What an amazing universe!
For a bit of fun, center the cluster in your field of view and tap your telescope sufficiently to make Tau "bounce" a bit. Note how the bright star appears to move independently of the cluster. Interesting? Why does it happen?
Abell 1367 I love it when I can count 20+ galaxies in a single view (with my 18" Dob at 100x) and yet, know that I am seeing just the merest hint of what is there - literally thousands of galaxies in the group - it is a visual and intellectual treat. Abell 1367 sits 330 million light years from us. Above the star Denebola at the end of Leo's tail, find mag 4.5 93 Leonis and move just under 1 degree WSW. This will place you in the heart of the cluster to find its brightest member NGC 3842. Albert Highe and Bob Czerwinski, both local observers, have interesting information on the Internet about this group at:
To enjoy Abell 1367, print out a detailed chart from a good planetarium program.
Markarian's Chain There are a few very bright Messier galaxies in this chain of eight galaxies. Get the biggest aperture you can and begin skipping from galaxy to galaxy beginning at M84. This chain is at the core of the Virgo Cluster, about 45 million light years distant, their brightness a good contrast to the views of distant Abell 1367. I especially enjoy the bright triangle of galaxies (and one in the center) comprising M84, M86 and NGC 4388. then sweeping northeast past outliers, through "The Eyes" and then out to the dimmer denizens. Don't stop here, at the chain, Virgo is full of surprises. You can just about point your scope anywhere in this area and find something of interest.
M53 and NGC 5053 These two globular clusters are close together and an extreme contrast in appearance, which is why I include them. M53 is an easy find, just under one degree northeast from the mag 4.3 star GSC 1454:1130 in Coma Berenices, which is the southern star in the "figure" (line) describing the constellation. Hop from the star to M53, then to NGC 5053 just under a degree south-southeast. Can you see the dimmer globular? M53 is one of the further Messier globulars at 58KLY, NGC 5053 is 55KLY distant. It is interesting to see how two globular clusters so near to each other can have such dramatically different appearances.
Hickson 68 Get to a dark sky and find someone with a big scope to really appreciate this - at least a 10" if not a 15" or larger. This is a beautiful sight - visually stunning - the combination of four galaxies like a ring - a setting for the rich gold and white optical double star close to their west. The galaxy group is comprised of, in diminishing magnitude, NGC5353 E5 2.2x1.1' mag 11 sb 11.8, NGC5354 S0 1.4x1.3' mag 12.3 sb 11.9, NGC5355 S0 1.2x0.7' mag 14.0 sb 12.8 and NGC5358 SO-a 1.1x0.3' mag 14.6 sb 12.3.
The universe is certainly an interesting place, full of amazing sites. Lots to explore, even if our thoughts meander through just a tiny part.
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