The Sky This Month - March 2018

Moving into Spring,

One of the fainter constellations located in the sky this time of year is Cancer the Crab. Consisting of six moderately bright stars, one would have a difficult time searching for it in highly lit suburban skies. A great aid is first locating the main stars of Gemini the Twins namely Castor and Pollux off to the Crab’s right. Under country skies on a moonless night, the Cancer is easier to find along with its premiere object – M44, the Beehive Cluster.

At an estimated 570 light years away, the Beehive (sometimes called the Praesepe) is one of the closest open clusters to us. Astronomers estimate its age to be 600 million years. Back in the day, Galileo reported seeing about 40 stars but with today’s telescopes, the number seen is now in the hundreds. With Cancer situated on the ecliptic, the Moon and planets from time to time come close to the cluster. Such a digital moment comes a few months from now during the evening of June 16 when the 15 percent crescent Moon and Venus will be close to the cluster, creating a stunning view.

Stars are ranked from bright to faint values or magnitudes by following the Greek alphabet in descending order such as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta etc. Such is not the case with magnitude 4.3 Acubens – deemed the alpha star. In fact is does not even rank second. Somehow Acubens stands behind magnitudes 3.8 Beta, 4.2 Iota and 4.2 Delta. But this spectral class A star has strange absorption readings indicating a "metallic line". Acubens is also a double star system with its companion is mere 0.1 arc second from the primary star – comparable to the distance of the Sun and Jupiter.

Located two degrees to the west of Acubens is the open cluster M67. As large as the full moon and hovering around naked limitation, this magnitude 6.1 swarm of about 500 stars is estimated to be around four billions years old. It is believed that about one hundred stars are like our Sun in its physical properties as well as a couple of hundred white dwarfs.

The Beehive and M67 are the only two open clusters residing within the borders of Cancer. But there are a few great looking galaxies to locate, such as NGC 2775 situated to the lower left section of the constellation. Located some 60 million light years from us, NGC 2775 has delicate arm structure that shows a few areas of star formation.  This galaxy has produced only one Type 1a supernova back in 1993. This type of supernova is triggered by a white dwarf stealing material from a dying giant star of its binary system. If the white dwarf grows larger than 1.44 solar masses pressure and heat will reignite the dwarf causing the supernova.

Planets Venus and fainter Mercury are climbing in the western skies. Mercury is located to the lower right and quickly surpasses Venus on the 3rd of the month. The planet Uranus will be located to the upper right of Venus on the evening of the 29th. This also the best time of year to find and image the faint zodiacal light in the west. For a two week period from March 5 look for the faint, slanted pillar of light that does not quite reach the Pleiades Cluster, so include the horizon on the right and M45 on the left in your one to two minute image with a wide angle camera lens. Dark moonless nights are a must to see the reflection of interstellar dust in our solar system. The zodiacal light is seen in the west in March and in the east in September.

The other naked eye planets are seen in early morning skies starting with brilliant Jupiter. The “King” of the planets is seen low in the south east by midnight local time. A telescope is required to follow the night shift of its four Galilean moons. Refer to page 232 of the RASC Observer’s Handbook 2018 for shadow and transit times. The red planet Mars will then rise about three hours after Jupiter and the ringed planet Saturn a couple hours after that. By 5 a.m. all three planets are nicely placed in the sky with the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius.

In January we had two full moons with the second referred as the Blue Moon. This will also occur in March as the Snow Blinding Moon occurs March 1 with the Maple Syrup Moon (Blue Moon) on the 31st. The absence of the full moon in February was known as the Metonic cycle which occurs in 19 year intervals. Last time this occurred was in 1999 with the next in February 2037 along with January and March being Blue Moon months.  

The clocks change in most locations on Sunday March 11 at 2 a.m. local time to welcome Daylight Saving Time by springing ahead one hour. Spring Equinox officially begins on March 20 at 12:16 p.m. eastern.

Till next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Thursday, March 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

Open Letter to the Honourable Marc Garneau regarding the use of Green Laser Pointers

This letter was sent to the Honourable Marc Garneau, Minster Transport regarding the safe use of Green Laser Pointers.

Randy Attwood

Executive Director

Author: Randy AttwoodeNews date: Thursday, February 22, 2018Category: AnnouncementsFile:  Garneau GLP.pdfeNews Tag: green laserGLPGarneauTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - February 2018

Lepus the Hare

Located directly below the constellation Orion is Lepus the Hare. Its brighter stars shine between magnitudes 2.5 and 3.7. Lepus takes up only 290 square degrees of sky ranking it 51st in overall area. The brightest star of the asterism is named Arneb, an F class supergiant star located 2,200 light years away. The massive star measures 75 solar masses and 36,000 times brighter than our Sun. If it took the place of our Sun, Arneb would extend to about the orbit of Mercury.

The only Messier object to reside within the constellation’s boundaries is M79. Other than the fact, this cluster lies some 40,000 light years from us; it resides opposite from the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Globular clusters tend to live around a the galaxy’s nucleus like flies around a street light. By measuring its distance, astronomers calculate M79 is about 120 light years wide. This magnitude 7.7 target can be located with simple binoculars by drawing an imaginary line from the star Arneb and through Nihal.

Halfway between Arneb and Rigel and bit east we see the Spirograph Nebula. Catalogued as IC 418 it is estimated to be about 2,000 light years away. Only through the perfect eyes of the Hubble does the inner structure of this planetary nebula reveal itself. The finely woven nebula measures 0.2 light years across and is the result of the red giant’s layers being ejected into space. This is the same fate awaiting our Sun five billion years from now.

If you are up to a bit of a challenge, I suggest the pair of NGC 1738 and 1739. These two seem to be overlapping together but lie 170 million light years and 180 million light years respectively.  NGC 1738 is the brighter of the two at 13.7 magnitude while NGC 1739 is a magnitude fainter.

One of the brightest galaxies residing in Lepus is NGC 1964. This magnitude 10.8 spiral measures about one fifth of the full moon’s width. It has a delicate spiral arm structure and is a great target for astrophotography. To find NGC 1964, relocate the star Nihal and move almost one and a half degrees southeast.

For the first two week of February look for the ghostly zodiacal light in western skies after twilight. It is a slanted wedge of light found along the ecliptic and is caused by the reflection of sunlight off dust particles along the plane of the solar system. To witness and image this display, head to the dark countryside far from any light source. The zodiacal light actually point to the Pleiades but does not reach. This should be a great guide.

Jupiter is the brightest of the morning planets with fainter Mars to the lower left. Follow the red planet as it moves away from Jupiter but do not confuse with the reddish star Antares. Mars moves to the north of the star. Saturn is now emerging out of the solar glare and forms a wonderful equal distance line-up with Mars and Jupiter on the 20th.

There will be a partial solar eclipse on February 15 over most of Antarctica and the southern tip of Africa. This come two week after the total lunar eclipse seen in its full extend on the west coast. The next total lunar eclipse over Canada occurs January 21, 2019.

New moon (lunation 1177) occurs on 15. There is no full moon for February but the Snow Blinding Moon will occur on March 1.


Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Thursday, February 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesTweet::  Pages

RASC Sesquicentennial Celebration Kickoff

RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


2018 is a banner year for The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), as it marks the 150th year since the Society's inception. That is reason enough for Canada's leading association of amateur and professional astronomers to celebrate the past and future course of astronomy in this country.

A number of celebratory activities and events are planned to span 2018, the first of which is set for Saturday January 27, 2018.  The public is invited to join the kick-off celebration for the birthday year with a cross-country Star Party, via the internet. 

The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uN7IKkRwBK0 and will be live from 2 PM until 8 PM EST.

RASC Centres from across the country will be engaging in solar and lunar observing, mall exhibits and special presentations, delivering samplings of their activities with everyone via the internet link starting at 3 PM local time.  Interviews, birthday wishes and discussions of the upcoming activities for the year will be interspersed with the Centre offerings.  This is an excellent opportunity to see at a glance many of the RASC Centres and what the Society has done in the past and will do in the future.  A special welcome from the National President, Colin Haig, will happen shortly after 6 PM EST with the festivities concluding (online) around 8 PM EST.

For more information, please feel free to contact Randy Attwood, RASC Executive Director (execdir@rasc.ca or 416-924-7973)

For more information on the RASC see https://rasc.ca/

For more information on the RASC’s 150th anniversary see https://rasc.ca/2018


The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is Canada’s national astronomy organization.  With a history dating back to 1868, the Society has nearly 5100 members in 29 centres or branches across the country. Members are active in observing the night sky, performing astronomical research and running educational public outreach sessions where members share their love of the night sky with fellow Canadians.

Author: Randy AttwoodeNews date: Monday, January 22, 2018Category: AnnouncementseNews Tag: SesquicentennialkickoffTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - January 2018

Canis Major

Most of the constellations we see can be located from moderate light polluted skies. If you are new to astronomy, this is a good way to study the constellations which are highlighted for the most part by bright stars. Once you move to the dark countryside on a moonless night, standing under two thousand stars can be overwhelming.

However when it comes to Canis Major, the brightest star in the entire sky called Sirius will easily guide you to this constellation. Mythology states Canis Major is one of the two hunting dogs of Orion the Hunter. Commonly referred as the “Dog Star”, Sirius is spectral type “A” star the second closest star to our Sun. Located 8.6 light years away, Sirius is a magnitude -1.46 with a surface temperature a little less than 10,000 K.

Sirius has a tiny white dwarf companion named Sirius B also know as “the pup” and is extremely close. In Its 50 year orbit, magnitude 8.4 Sirius B swings as close as 8 astronomical units (au) and as far as 30 au. Being 10,000 times fainter than Sirius, seeing the companion will be a challenge.  I first saw this pair in 1982.

One of the best open star clusters in the area is M41. Located four degrees south of Sirius, M41 is a lovely splash of distant suns. It resides 2,300 ly away and measures some 25 ly across. At magnitude 4.5 it is a wonderful object in binoculars as well as low powered telescopes. Some 25 bright stars with many fainter ones exist in an area a little larger than the size of the full Moon (half a degree) or the width of your pinkie nail stretched out at arm’s length.

Located between Sirius and M41 is a 13th magnitude galaxy NGC 2283. This challenging face-on spiral target measures 3.7 x 2.8 arc minutes in size. Located 32 million light years away, the galaxy is nicely placed amongst the foreground star field on the Milky Way. We will next look northeast where we find a lovely cluster in the constellation Puppis. M46 is a large, bright and rich group of about 500 stars. This 5,000 light year cluster seems to be harbouring a planetary nebula. This is NGC 2438, the death of a red giant star that is not part of the cluster. It is a foreground object some 2,000 light years closer. Even though not related, this makes a striking object to image. Move your scope six degrees to the west till you come across Thor’s Helmet. Catalogued as NGC 2359 we are looking at a 30 light year wide bubble comprised of a reflection and emission nebula. Thor is located almost 12,000 light years away and has an apparent magnitude of 11.0.

The first meteor shower of 2018 will be the Quadrantids. This shower is a product of asteroid 2003 EH. The Quadrantids can produce as many as 120 meteors per hour like the Geminids last month but with a short 6 hour window, this is not a reliable shower. This year’s display is predicted to peak at 21 hours UT on the night of January 3/4 but the moon will be an issue this year. The so-called “super moon” two nights prior will greatly interfere with this year’s meteor shower. On the 3rd the Earth will reach its closest point to the Sun (perihelion) at 147.1 million km.

As for planets, Jupiter is still the beacon in the east before sunrise. On January 1 there will be a nice line up of Jupiter, the star Zubenelgenubi, Mars and the star Spica. Over the next week follow Mars as it moves closer to Jupiter and overtakes the giant planet on the 7th with a separation of 0.2 degrees.

Two full moons occur this month. The first will be the full Wolf Moon on the night of January 1. A full moon on New Years happened about once every 30 years. This is the closest full moon of the 2018 and will produce high tides. At the end of the month we have the full Snow Moon on the 31st. This second full moon of the same month is the Blue Moon. This night also has a special treat as most of North America will witness a total lunar eclipse to some extent. This eclipse favours the west coast. All times are local.

                                                       EST                  CST                  MST                 PST

Partial eclipse begins at:             6:48 a.m.          5:48 a.m.          4:48 a.m.          3:48 a.m.

Total eclipse begins at:               Already set        6:52 a.m.          5:52 a.m.          4:52 a.m.         

Greatest eclipse at:                    Already set        Already set        6:30 a.m.          5:30 a.m.

Total eclipse ends at:                 Already set        Already set        7:08 a.m.          6:08 a.m.

Partial eclipse ends at:               Already set        Already set        Already set       7:11 a.m.      

January’s new moon occurs on the 16th.  

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle


Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Monday, January 1, 2018Category: Northern SkiesFile:  2018 - 01 - chart 1.png 2018 - 01 - chart 2.pngTweet::  Pages

The Sky This Month - December 2017

Taurus the Bull

Open star clusters for the most part require some sort of optical aid such as a spotting scope, a pair of binoculars or a telescope. There are 27 open clusters seen in Canadian skies that are brighter than fifth magnitude. Such objects are a fantastic sight when seen with the unaided eye. Thoughout the year we can observe M7 in Scorpius, the Beehive Cluster in Cancer and the Double Cluster in Perseus to name a few. Taurus the Bull has the unique distinction of having both the first and third closest open clusters to us.

The Bull can be seen above the eastern horizon an hour after sunset. The bright “V” shape group of stars called the Hyades Cluster outlines the head and horns. At 150 light years away, it is the closest star cluster to us. The brightest star in the head is named Aldebaran aka the “angry eye” of the Bull and is an orange K5 giant star. It is a foreground sun located only 67 light years away with a luminosity of 370 times that of the Sun.

We now turn our attention to the Pleiades or M45. Commonly known as the “Seven Sisters” it presents the bull’s heart according to mythology. At three times the distance of the Hyades, M45 is still wide enough for two full moons fit across it. The young Pleiades are estimated to be about 125 million years old compared to the Hyades age of 625 million years. Over the past 100,000 years, the Pleiades has been passing through a cloud of gas and dust. The young stars are lighting up the area in this reflection nebula much like a flashlight does on a foggy night. Long exposures will show the lovely bluish glow around the stars. The magnetic field near Merope is causing the “streaks” in the gas cloud.

The long horns is an extension of the Hyades and end up above its combattent - Orion the Hunter. In fact the right horn named Alnath is also anchors with the constellation Auriga. Locate the tip of the left horn (Zeta) and not too far is the famous Crab Nebula. This is the best example of the ultimate destruction of a star, a supernova. It occurred on July 4, 1054 AD and was visible in the daytime for 23 days and faded from nightly view after two years. Astronomers detect the resulting pulsar in 1968 which measure only 20 kilometres across and spinning at 33 times a second. The Crab is listed at magnitude 8.4.

The Geminids peaks on the night of December 13/14. Considered the best meteor shower of the year the very thin waning crescent moon will allow you to see up to 120 meteors per hour or one every 30 seconds on average. The parent of the shower is 3200 Phaethon. Tiny particles will be hitting the atmosphere at 35 km/hr producing long, sometimes bright, slow moving streaks.

Jupiter and Mars are the only planets visible in the morning sky. Venus might be glimpsed low on the horizon at the beginning of the month but will too close and dangerous to search for it. Venus reaches superior conjunction on January 9 and will begin to emerge in the western sky in March. Winter solstice will occur at 16:28 UT on December 21.

When buying a Christmas gift for that budding astronomer or yourself, I suggest first starting with a good pair of wide angle binoculars such as 7X35 or a small mirrored telescope. Reach out to your local telescope store or online dealer to discuss the best option for you and try to stay away from the “big box” stores.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

Author: Gary BoyleeNews date: Friday, December 1, 2017Category: Northern SkiesFile:  2017 - 12 chart 3.jpg 2017 - 12 chart 1.jpg 2017 - 12 chart 2.jpgTweet::  Pages