The Sky This Month - March 2017


The star Capella is the most northern of the thirteen bright stars that help make up the winter sky. Referred as the alpha star of the constellation Auriga, Capella brightly shines at magnitude zero and is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Auriga is Latin meaning “charioteer” and consists of 657 square degrees of sky ranking it 21st in size. Capella is a yellow-white sun located 43 light years away and possesses an extremely close companion which has been separated by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Almaaz (epsilon Aurigae) is a third magnitude star with a spectral class of F0 and is a supergiant measuring 135 times the diameter of the Sun. This star is an eclipsing binary system that ranges between magnitude 2.9 and 3.9. Well that is the good news, the bad news is it eclipses for a duration of 20 months every 27 years with the last minimum occurred from 2009 to 2011. Almaaz is located 2,000 light years from us.

Three lovely open clusters gather in the lower section of Auriga. The Milky Way also runs through this section and lends a perfect back drop for photography. M37, M36 and M38 are lined up nicely and are a treat in any optical instrument. Of the three, M37 is the richest open cluster glowing at magnitude 6.2 and is nick named “the salt and pepper cluster”. It has an even distribution of suns and located 4,400 light years away. M36 and M38 are about the same distance and but has less stars. M38 is a magnitude fainter. Including the Flaming Star Nebula when photographing there three clusters.

So far six exoplanets have been discovered within the boundaries of Auriga. They orbit the stars catalogued: HD 43691, WASP-12, HAT-P-9, HD 49674 and HD 45350.  However the brightest star of the group that can be seen with binoculars is HD 40979. Located near the star Menkalinan, this magnitude 6.7 star is the parent sun to a planet 3.3 times the mass of Jupiter. It was discovered in 2002 and has an orbital period of 263 days. HD 40979 is located 108 light years from us.

As we approach the spring equinox on March 20 at 6:29 a.m. eastern, we have the last opportunity to witness and image the zodiacal light in the west an hour after sunset. March 14 starts the two week window when moonlight will not interfere with seeing this narrow band of light. The zodiacal light is simply left over interplanetary dust from the creation of the solar system. Spring and fall equinox allow us to see this dust reflecting sunlight the western show forming a slanted wedge of light angled to the ten o’clock position that ends below the Pleiades. Dark skies are a must.

Venus is really putting on a great show in the western sky. As it moves between the Earth and Sun, it is now sporting a fantastic crescent. On March 1st the illuminated phase is down to 18% and shrinks to a mere 8% by the 10th. Use caution after this date as Venus is getting closer to the Sun’s glare and dangerous to locate. Jupiter is well up in the east by 10 p.m. and dominates all night long. Be sure to follow the Galilean moons by referring to the RASC Observer’s Handbook 2017 page 232. Saturn is now up by 4 a.m.

The Messier Marathon is the challenge of seeing all 110 Messier objects in a single night. This is scheduled for the latter part of the March when dusk and dawn will not interfere when searching M74 and M30. With the new moon slated for the 27, the two weekends at your disposal are March 25/26 and April 1/2 with the first choice being best. The secret is to follow the list of Messier objects to maximize your search time. This month’s full Maple Syrup Moon occurs on the 12th.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Wednesday, March 1, 2017Category: Northern SkiesFile:  2017 - 03 chart 1.png 2017 - 03 chart 2.jpgTweet::  Pages

The Sky this Month - February 2017

Hunting The Hare

Nestled below Orion is a lazy cross of stars. This is Lepus the Hare. A some what small constellation that measures only 290 square degrees of sky, making it 51st in over all size. The Hare seems to be chased by Orion’s two hunting dogs, named Sirius and Procyon. Lepus does have the distinction of being the first constellation catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century BC. The bright star at the centre of the asterism is named Arneb, from the Arabic meaning “the Hare”. The alpha star is about 1,300 light years away and shines at magnitude 2.5. It is a spectral class F0 supergiant that is 13,000 times brighter than the Sun and 75 times its diameter. If placed in our solar system Arneb would reach the orbit of Mercury.

A few choice objects inhabit Lepus such as the large galaxy NGC 1744. Measuring 7.5 by 3.5 arc minutes, this barred spiral galaxy is located 34 million light years away. Although it has a magnitude value of 11.1, its face-on orientation makes this galaxy a bit difficult to spot. It can be found at the bottom right side of the constellation and about four degrees south of Epsilon Leporis.

Moving east we come across the only Messier object associated with Lepus. M79 is a highly resolved globular cluster that lies 42,000 light years from us and 118 light years wide. By galactic standards, this object is far from home as most globular clusters tend to reside close to the centre of the Milky Way and not 60,000 light years away. M79 measures 9.3 arc minutes wide or about a third the size of the full moon. At magnitude 7.7, it is an easy binocular object.

Located at the top of Lepus is IC418. Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula because of its similar design from the mid 1960’s drawing toy, its intricate structure is still a puzzle to scientists. This planetary nebula is located some 2,000 light years away and measures about a third of a light year across.

For a two week period commencing Feb 13, head out to dark skies to view and photograph the zodiacal lights in the west. This glow is left over interplanetary dust from the early creation of the solar system. Best times to see this band is close to the spring and fall equinox. The zodiacal lights are angled along the ecliptic (zodiac) from the horizon to a bit south of the Pleiades. If weather is not in your favour, you will also have a two week window in March.

The two western planets are now separating with Venus is starting pull away from Mars and sinking down to the west. At the beginning of the month Venus is only 39% lit as seen through a telescope and by month’s end, its large but thin crescent will be a mere 15% lit. It will be at its brightest on the 17th at magnitude -4.34.

Jupiter now rises around midnight local time with the star Spica a few degrees south of the planet. By comparison, Jupiter is 42 light minutes away while the star is 250 light years from us. Saturn has now crossed into the morning sky and is seen rising from the south east by 5 a.m. local time to the left of Scorpius.

There will be a penumbral lunar eclipse on February 10 from 22:32 UT to 2:55 UT on the morning of the 11th. The full Snow Moon will slide into the outer portion of the Earth’s shadow. Unlike the dramatic colour change of a total lunar eclipse when the Moon turns orange, the penumbral event is hardly noticeable. Two weeks later on the 26, there will be an annular solar eclipse seen from the lower portion of South America, the Atlantic Ocean and the western part of Africa.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Wednesday, February 1, 2017Category: Northern SkiesFile:  Lepus.pngTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - January 2017

The Winter Milky Way

Over the course of the year, we have the opportunity to enjoy our Milky Way Galaxy in varying degrees of elevation and richness. Lazy days of summer reward us with splendid views of the central portion of the galaxy to the south in Sagittarius and Scorpius. Fast forward to the present and we can still enjoy Cygnus the Swan sinking in the western sky. In fact the “summer triangle” comprised of Altair, Vega and Deneb are still visible at 7 p.m. local time. From a dark location, follow the glow of millions of distant stars through Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga and down the left side of Orion through Monoceros. By the time you get down to this point, the band thins out but never the less, is still visible.

Along the way, many binocular targets as well as photographic challenges await. Take for instance is the Double Cluster in Perseus. Catalogued as NGC 869 and NGC 884, they are roughly 7,000 light years away and glimpsed with the unaided eye. Binoculars and a telescope with a wide angle eyepiece show the brilliance of these side by side open star clusters that appear like diamonds on black velvet. To the astrophotographers, these twin objects are a piece of cake. However a few degrees away are two large emission nebulas known as the Heart and Soul Nebulas catalogued as IC 1805 and IC 1848 respectively and are some 6,500 light years away. A group photo is stunning.

Moving along the starry band, we stop at the constellation Auriga where we find a great trio of open clusters. They are M36, M37 and M38. Binoculars are required to find all three. Continuing we find ourselves face to face with Orion the Hunter. This iconic constellation is Orion Nebula is 1,500 light years away and a birth place of star creation where shells of gas and dust as slowly condensing and collapsing to one day form suns. The Orion Nebula aka M42 is an extremely easy target to spot even seen from suburbs. Just look for the sword that hangs down from the three stars forming the belt.

A bit of a challenge might be the Flame Nebula. NGC 2024 is another stellar nursery and is located very close to the left most star of the belt called Alnitak located 817 light years away. The Flame is much farther back in space. Moving a little south from the Flame is the very illusive Horsehead Nebula. I had the chance to IC 434 (with great difficulty) through a 25 inch telescope. Needless to say, this is a photographic object. The Horsehead is located the same distance as M42 and is also part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.

Rounding out the tour is the Rosette Nebula located in Monoceros. Here is another emission nebula producing hundreds of stars. Estimated distance of 5,000 light years away, the Rosette is huge. With binoculars you can spot the young open cluster at the centre made up of three pairs of stars. From here you will need a wide angle telescope to try to see the fainter portions of the Rosette. The entire complex measures close to four full moons by three moons in the sky. The red colour is only revealed by photographic means.

Venus is moving higher in the western sky and inching towards Mars. In dark sky conditions Venus can cast a shadow on a sheet of white paper. As the planet moves closer to its greatest elongation from the Sun (47 degrees) on the 12th, it sports a beautiful half lit phase much like the moon. Mars is getting fainter compared to the great show we had at the end of May. On Jan 1, Mars will be more than 250 million kilometres from Earth verses its 75 million kilometre close approach a few months ago. The planet Jupiter is a bit dimmer than Venus but never the less a brilliant object rising in the east around 1:30 a.m. local time.

The Quadrantids meteor shower will peak on the morning of 4th. This is a very short lived shower that lasts a few days, so its peak of seeing 50 to 100 meteors per hour does not last very long. The radiant can be found half way between the end star of the Big Dipper and the constellation Bootes. The full Wolf Moon occurs on January 12 at 6:34 a.m. eastern. New moon occurs on the 27th.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Sunday, January 1, 2017Category: Northern SkiesFile:  2017 - 01 chart 1.png 2017 - 01 chart 2.png 2017 - 01 chart 3.png 2017 - 01 chart 4.pngTweet::  Pages