Mission Objectives: Bright Stars, Constellation, Open Cluster, Nebula
Equipment: Free star map, Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope
Required Time: 10 minutes
Related Missions: Cassiopeia and the Double Cluster
Introduction: I’m in Oklahoma for the holidays. My best observation here so far didn’t require any optical aid at all. Remember last month when I was skunked in my quest to view the young crescent moon within 40 hours of new? On Thursday, December 17, the night after I got into town, I saw the 38-hour-old crescent moon in the western twilight over Oklahoma City, thus fulfilling the last requirement I had left for the Astronomical League‘s Lunar Club. I e-mailed in my completed log sheets on Saturday.
Instead of bringing a little scope with me, I borrowed back the one I had loaned to my brother. It’s a Synta MC90, another 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain, but unlike my other little Mak it’s a short focal length, widefield scope. I got it out last night to show my nieces the waxing crescent moon, Jupiter, and the Pleiades.
Instructions: Speaking of the Pleiades (M45), they’re one of the best astronomical treats for a clear winter evening. Finding them is easy: look to the east after dark, and find a little knot of stars that looks a bit like a cooking pan. This is not the Little Dipper, although you’d be surprised at how many people think so on first spotting it. If you have a hard time finding the Pleiades, look for the 3/M/W of Cassiopeia, head past the Double Cluster to Perseus, and follow the lower of the two sweeping lines of stars that make up that constellation; the cluster is just off the end of the line. The Pleiades are pretty to the naked eye and probably best in binoculars. All but the widest-field scopes will have a hard time putting the whole cluster in the eyepiece, and even if you manage it, it’s prettier if you can see the cluster as a cluster, with a little open space around it. So this is one of those times that–in my opinion–binoculars trump a telescope.
If you have found the Pleiades, drop straight down (east) to find a V-shaped association of stars. These are the Hyades, another open cluster, in the constellation Taurus. One leg of the V is anchored by a big red giant star, Aldebaran, whose color is obvious even to the naked eye. You can pan around the Hyades with a scope if you like, but the cluster is so big that it really demands binoculars; binos fall right into the sweet spot of putting a lot more stars in your eyes without overly narrowing the view or getting you lost.
From the Pleiades, on to the Hyades, and farther on east you come to Orion, the most magnificent constellation in the sky. Find the three bright stars in a line that form his belt, and then three dimmer stars in another line that form the sword hanging from the belt. The middle of the three stars in the sword is not a single star at all. Rather it is M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, a vast cloud of gas and dust, dozens of light years across, which is illuminated by the bright young stars burning within.
M42 is what I call a total object: like the moon, it looks good no matter what you use to look at it, and the more you look, the better it gets. With the naked eye, the nebula it is a faintly fuzzy star at the heart of a striking and majestic constellation. With binoculars, you’ll see a bit of nebulosity set amidst the rich starfields of Orion’s sword. In a small telescope, the full glory of the nebula starts to unfold, with glowing streamers of gas and dust spread out like an eagle’s wings. The central star will split apart into a group of four, called the Trapezium. Pour on more aperture and magnification and the view just keeps getting better. If the skies are clear and steady you may pick up a couple more stars in the Trapezium, and the surrounding clouds of gas and dust will start to look like clouds, with delicate knots and swirls.
And on it goes. You are not going to exhaust M42, not in a lifetime of observing. People with telescopes that require large trailers for transport, who have seen M42 literally thousands of times in their observing careers, still gaze into the heart of the nebula for minutes and even hours at a time. The bigger the scope, the darker the skies, the longer you look, the more there is to see.
But, hey, don’t think that if you don’t have a monster scope it’s not worth looking. Remember, M42 is a total object; it looks good at any scale. If the thought of setting up a scope in the cold and dark does not appeal, at least pop outside for a five minute session with binoculars. Make it a present to yourself.