Messier 35... did someone spill some sugar?
12/29/2013 4:32 PM
Have you ever looked closely at granular sugar? Not the fine powdered kind, but the type one might stir into iced tea or use to bake a cake. Though the grains may appear remarkably similar in size, when viewed more closely it is possible to see some are smaller, and some are larger. And if a pinch of that sugar - enough to barely sweeten a glass of unsweetened iced tea - were slowly rubbed through fingers to land on a black piece of velvety cloth, what would that look like?
Probably a lot like Messier 35.
This cluster is large - nearly as large as the Pleiades, though not quite as bright. And though the nearby cluster M37 in Auriga often gets the "Salt and Pepper Cluster" designation, I think Messier 35 deserves the "Table Sugar Cluster" designation - but that's just me, perhaps.
Unlike M45, which is so obvious that even those in city locations can usually see it naked eye, M35 requires a bit of starhopping to locate (see video below). And once there, it is often more obvious initially in a good finderscope of 9x50 or so because of it's large size and lack of really bright stars.
Think about this for a moment: The Pleiades has 6 stars around magnitude 3 and 4. But our "Table Sugar Cluster" only has one 7-th magnitude star off to one side, and 8-th in the middle to help find it, and the rest are largely 9-th magnitude stars or fainter. Now, because of the large angular diameter - half a degree, the same as the full Moon - it's not like looking for a needle in a haystack. But it is perhaps like looking for a large yellow knitting needle in that haystack instead! A large target, but camouflaged a bit.
So start by using a long focal length eyepiece. Having enough telescopic field of view to frame the cluster is what will help the eye to find it. I find that panning my telescope back and forth a bit can help to distinguish the cluster from the background stars, and allow me to definitively locate it much more easily. And don't forget to employ a number of deep sky object observing strategies, no matter what aperture telescope you are using.
Looking for more great objects to see in the night sky? How about gazing at Pollux and the double star Castor in Gemini, or perhaps Orion's nebulae M42 & M43, the open cluster NGC1981, and the double and multiple stars of Orion's sword? For binocular stargazers, there's always Davis' Dog in Taurus.
Check out the video below for more information about this cluster and some other stars in Gemini.