Click here to go ahead to Winter 2014, or click here to go back to Summer 2013 "Eyes on the Sky" astronomy videos.
The Pleiades and Hyades open star clusters are well-known, and are great beginner targets, not to mention fantastic objects for experienced amateurs to go back to and view over and over again. But besides Messier 1 - a difficult object, for sure! - there are a few other targets in Taurus - though they aren't necessarily ones that have a common gravitational or interstellar gas/dust relationship. Enter the asterisms.
Ally's Braid is a little string of stars that hangs off of Alcyone in the Pleiades. Use a telescope at 75 to 150x magnification on this little curved set of stars. And Davis' Dog is a canine that is perhaps even better shaped than may of the better known constellations named after dogs, such as Canis Minor or Canes Venatici. It isn't hard to find either - check out the video above for where to locate this heavenly hound.
Okay, so Camelopardalis is now referred to as a giraffe, but originally it was a spotted camel. But despite being a rather large and very dim constellation, it's got a few targets worth checking out. Kemble's Cascade is a 2+ degrees long line of unrelated stars that nevertheless form a pretty little "cascade" of stars in the sky. And where the cascade empties is a little splash of of an open cluster, too. That cluster is NGC1502; read more about it here.
On the other side of where the cascade splashes into the sky is another interesting object: UV Camelopardi, or UV Cam. This orange/red variable star fluctuates between 8.8 and 7.3. Submitting variable star estimations to the AAVSO is a real contribution to science that amateurs can do regularly. Why not choose a few under-reported stars to submit regular observations?
You can use this free star chart to help you find Kemble's Cascade (not listed on chart; see video above) and NGC 1502, which includes both the Cassiopeia and Perseus stars to help triangulate their location.
Comet ISON is "rounding the Sun" this week. So with the Moon out of the way also, now is a great time to see a few superb sights overhead - or nearly so. The gold and blue double star Almaak holds some interesting secrets, and at 2nd magnitude is easy to find as well. But a bit more off the beaten path - though just a few steps from Almaak - is 56 Andromedae, a lovely yellow and orange pairing that offers up a few interesting contrasts of its own.
And NGC752 makes itself easy to find right nearby to that as well, a large, loose open cluster that nevertheless is a great sight to see - though darker skies and a wider field eyepiece view are really helpful for seeing the most here. Download the free star chart below for a detailed look at where to find these objects. And for more ideas on what to see in the night sky, click on the "Videos" tab above to see recent and other past "Eyes on the Sky" episodes.
Andromeda / Almaak / 56And / NGC752
Comet ISON is finally here! Is it the "Comet of the Century"? Not exactly. But it is a sight worth getting up for, as it still outshines most comets, and should reach naked eye visibility before being swallowed up by the Sun's glare and twilight. However, 'naked eye' and 'actually visible naked eye' can be two different things: It may be at 3rd or 4th magnitude, but in a pre-dawn sky low to the horizon - and a non-point-like object - can be difficult if not impossible to see.
So remember at least binoculars and perhaps a small telescope with a wide field eyepiece in it. Employ deep sky object observing techniques, and check the finder chart below to see where to look for Comet C/2012 S1 ISON in our morning sky. It may be our last chance to see it, given how close it passes to the Sun. But if it survives, Eyes on the Sky will update you with where to see it afterwards. But look now... just in case.
COMET C/2012 S1 ISON
Cassiopeia is easily found in the northern sky; look for the "M" shape above Polaris. With the Milky Way intersecting this constellation, there are a number of deep sky objects littering the landscape. But a full Moon on the 17th can interfere with observing fainter objects, so what punches through? Double stars! Their point-like light sources cut through glare that can render nebula, galaxies and fainter star clusters invisible. And some of these double stars may actually benefit from the additional moonlight - sporting some real temperature differences, these stars therefore display a bit more than the usual 'subtle' color observed in stars.
Use this finder chart to look for Eta Cassiopeiae, Struve 3053 and WZ Cassiopeiae - along with several other colorful double stars in Cassiopeia. Most any small telescope will show you these stars, too. Just align your finderscope to the main scope, and hop to them! Adjust magnification if they are very close doubles, or leave the power low for wider ones. What colors do you see? Comment on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.
Young Moons are difficult to spot, but if you know when and where to look, they can be a fun challenge too. Find a low, flat horizon if possible, and estimate where Venus should be from the Sun (about 47 degrees away - see the "How to Measure Distance in the Sky" video here). Then, using binoculars, sweep back about 30 degrees towards the Sun (AFTER, and ONLY after it has already set!!!).
From 40 degrees north latitude, the Moon will only be about 5 degrees off the horizon at 25 minutes past sunset. That is low, but possible from areas with a flat horizon. At 30 degrees north, the altitude above the horizon should be somewhat higher, though from 50 degrees north and more, it may be too low to spot. Give it a shot on Monday evening.
Even if you don't spot it, look for the craters highlighted in this week's video. Cleomedes, Colombo, Thephilus, Cyrillus and Catharina are all easy to spot with even very small telescopes. For more information on observing the Moon at First Quarter, see this link.
But the real action is all of the comets to be seen in the morning sky! Observing comets is much like viewing galaxies and nebulae, so employ some of those same deep sky observing techniques. Below are finder charts for each of these comets so you can try to spot them over the next couple of weeks>
COMET C/2013 R1 LOVEJOY
Though the Milky Way skims the lower portion of Cepheus the King's body there aren't a lot of deep sky objects within its borders, unlike Cassiopeia which is littered with open clusters. But that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to see there. A number of stars have some fascinating aspects to them. Finding the brightest star in Cepheus, Alderamin, gets the observer within a few degrees of many of these - and it has some fascinating traits as well. Nearby is Mu Cephei, one of the brightest stars that displays intense color in the sky - and that color is best seen through very small 50mm binoculars or 60 to 70mm telescopes.
And there's important history here too. Henrietta Leavitt, a low-paid human "calculator" of variable stars in the early 1900's, discovered the logarithmic correlation between the brightness and period of Cepheid variable stars (why don't we have an orbiting observatory named after Henrietta Leavitt yet?). Cepheid variables are named after Delta Cephei, regularly pulsating stars that Edwin Hubble then used to prove that many "nebulae" in the sky were actually galaxies, island universes of stars. But it was Leavitt's work that made his possible.
And finally, there is Xi Cephei, a lovely telescopic double easily split by most instruments, with a slightly unequal pair of stars. If you have very dark skies and a large enough telescope, see if you can spy the 13th magnitude companion to the brighter two.
NGC7009 is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Aquarius. At the eyepiece, it appears to show "lobes" and in very large amateur instruments, "antennae" off the sides, giving it a "Saturn-like" appearance. So many amateurs refer to it at the "Saturn Nebula" even though it has nothing to do with our solar system's sixth planet.
What we see today are the outer layers of that star, blown off into space, glowing in our eyepiece thanks to those outer layers being ionized from ultraviolet radiation of the central white dwarf star. In the case of this nebula, there is some uncertainty surrounding it. Though it is quite bright and visible even in very small telescopes, it's distance from Earth is only a best-guess estimate for now, likely somewhere between 3,900 and 5,200 light years away.
The central star glows at magnitude 11.9, which, though faint, can be visually seen with larger amateur instruments under ideal conditions. The nebula itself is quite bright as well, in wide field / low power views appearing like an out of focus star. Though not everyone sees color at the eyepiece or even in every telescope, the Saturn Nebula may show a blue or blue-green tint to it. Many observers find that the nebula shows more color when viewed directly, but gains some brightness (though loses color) when viewed with averted vision. (Learn about that and other deep sky observing techniques here). And with Halloween arriving shortly, note the fun I had a little fun with making an astronomy parody of the "Sixth Sense."
There's a lot happening in the sky this week, much of which is naked-eye phenomena. To star, Mars and Regulus are in conjunction early in the week, and a couple says later, Venus and Antares are. By the weekend, the Moon reaches full phase, and also is close enough to the Earth's shadow to cause a somewhat minor lunar eclipse. This penumbral-shadow event can be observed by careful observation of the slight darkening of the Moon. And the following night into the next morning (depending on location), two of Jupiter's moons transit the disk of the planet from the Sun's direction, which allows us to see two shadow transits simultaneously.
Perseus the Hero is where the Milky Way - the wide band of our own galaxy, seen edge on - runs from the northeast up through Cassiopeia and towards the Summer Triangle at this time of year. Unfortunately, most of us cannot see that collective light of billions of stars, but what we can see are some of the brighter stars in the constellation, to guide us to some open clusters.
The Alpha Persei Cluster (Melotte 20), a large open cluster centered right around the brightest star in Perseus, Mirfak, is a perfect binoculars-visible target for autumn observers. With it's large size, and somewhat bright stars ranging in magnitude from 5 to 7, these very young blue-white stars are a fantastic sight to see.
North of there is the Double Cluster (NGC869/NGC884), between Mirfak and Delta and Gamma in Cassiopeia. These two clusters can be spied with binoculars - and they may be helpful in tracking down the cluster in a telescope, which is the better instrument to use for observing them. Two open clusters, nestled close to each other in the sky, and perfectly framed in a 1 degree or wider telescopic field of view.
Learn where to find the Double Cluster and Alpha Persei Cluster in the video above, and use Star Chart #2 here at Eyes on the Sky to help you track them down.
Juno is one of the larger minor planets within the solar system, containing about 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt. With an eccentric orbit but reflective surface, we can see it this week as it is near two brighter stars in the constellation of Capricornus. However, at only 200 miles across, that higher albedo still leave Juno at a challenging magnitude of 9.5 or so. Use this Juno star hop chart to watch how quickly Juno zips along in the sky, and use a 114mm telescope or larger to observe it this week.
Uranus, the third gas giant among those in our solar system, is quite a bit brighter. At magnitude 5.8, binoculars can pick off this planet, but it is gracing a rather star-poor region of the sky in Pisces. Watch this week's video above to learn how to drop down from the star Algenib in Pegasus to find Delta Piscium, which, with two other nearby stars, literally points the way to Uranus. See this Uranus star hop chart for more detail. There's an actual photo of the Uranus / Delta Psc region of the sky here, which shows an approximate binoculars field of view.
Stars were thought to be constant, unchanging points of light in the sky by our ancestors. Every so often, they would see a "new" star - nova (or as we know today, a supernova) - but these "new" stars always faded from view, never to return. But in 1596, a German astronomer discovered a "new" star that not only faded, but then came back again! This star is Mira, a long period variable star in the constellation of Cetus. It is also the variable star we, as humans, have known about the longest. Since that time we have discovered thousands more of them, and a way that you can participate in their study is by submitting variable star estimations to the American Association of Variable Star Observers, or AAVSO. This is important scientific work, often done by dedicated amateur astronomers, who help in the development of "light curves," the plotting of magnitude estimates data.
You can find a light curve for Mira here. And by joining the AAVSO, you can submit data to them to share in the light curve data compiled on this historically significant star.
Though the stars of summer are moving west, they actually hang around until the beginning of winter! See how and why that happens, along with learning the locations of the major stars and constellations rising in the east and crossing the meridian in the south over the next three months or so. Plus, what the planets are up to this week in both the evening and morning skies.