Archive for the ‘Globular cluster’ Category

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Observing report: Saturday night stargazing on Mount Baldy

April 2, 2017

Waxing crescent moon, afocal shot by Eric Scott with Samsung Galaxy S6, shooting through Orion XT10 reflecting telescope.

London and I went up Mount Baldy last night with our friends Thierra Nalley and Eric Scott. Marco Irigoyen and Leandra Estrada joined us up on the mountain. We went up to look for comet 41P, but that didn’t pan out.

Since we went ostensibly to look for the comet, I brought the XT10 for firepower, and lots of binoculars. We got set up at Cow Canyon Saddle at about 8:30. Our first target was Orion, before it could sink into the light dome over LA. Second targets were the Pleiades and the Double Cluster. The Double Cluster in particular looked magnificent. I’ve been on a small-scope kick for a while so the XT10 hasn’t been out much, and I tend to forget what a potent instrument it is, especially under dark or semi-dark skies.

The skies on Mount Baldy last night were definitely semi-dark. Even three days shy of first quarter, the waxing crescent moon was bright enough to throw shadows and rather seriously degrade the darkness of the sky.

I tried for the comet but just couldn’t see it. I had the chart, knew where to look, and swept the area repeatedly with binoculars of all sizes and with the XT10, and I got bupkiss. This was after catching the comet easily in 7×50 binos every time I looked for it in Texas last weekend – but I wasn’t fighting any moon then. I think the comet is so big and diffuse that the surface brightness is low, and therefore it is easily swamped by moonlight. It certainly was not evident last night.

While we were in the neighborhood of the Big Dipper, we had a look at Mizar and Alcor, the famous double star in the dipper’s handle. Then for comparison we checked on Sigma Orionis, and then Marco wanted a look at Jupiter. After Jupiter we went on an extended tour of the deep sky, in which we observed:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair)
  • M97, M108 (planetary nebula and galaxy in same field)
  • M3 (globular star cluster)
  • M37 (open star cluster)
  • M35 (open star cluster)
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy)

In addition, we also saw three more open star clusters with our naked eyes and/or binoculars: the Hyades, M44, and the Coma Berenices star cluster.

We finished up on the moon, and then Jupiter again. We spent quite a bit of time getting pictures of both with Thierra’s and Eric’s phones. By coincidence, they both have the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has a very full-featured slate of camera options. Leandra is a pretty talented photographer and she was able to coach us on what settings to use. I think the results are pretty astounding, for handheld shots using phones. Here are the two best images of Jupiter, captured by me using Thierra’s phone and Leandra’s advice:

Here’s a composite of Jupiter and the Galilean moons – the planet was overexposed in the original to get the moons to show up, so I replaced it with the better of the two shots above.

And here’s a comparison screenshot from Sky Safari Pro 5 identifying the moons – from left to right in the above image they are Callisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede.

As usual, the view at the eyepiece was about an order of magnitude more detailed than what the photos captured. One thing that I had never seen before with one of my own scopes was a band of ruffled white clouds within the north and south equatorial belts (the prominent orange-brown stripes on either side of the equator). The barest hint of this survives in the photos. It was a pretty mesmerizing view. For eyepieces we used a 32mm Plossl (37.5x), 28mm RKE (43x), 24mm ES68 (50x), 14mm ES82 (86x), 8.8mm ES82 (136x), and 5mm Meade MWA (240x). The most used were the 28mm RKE, 14mm ES82, and 5mm MWA. If you’re wondering why we used both a 32mm Plossl and a 24mm ES68 – since they give the same true field of view – we used the Plossl during the afocal photography because it gives a wider exit pupil, which is easier to keep the camera’s aperture centered inside.

Even though we missed the comet, I was pretty happy with what we did see – at least one of every major class of deep-sky object, including all of the stages of the life cycle of stars. In the disk of the Milky Way, new stars are born from vast nebulae of gas and dust, like Orion. In time, heat and light from the newborn stars push away the remnants of their birth clouds, leaving behind only the stars themselves, as open star clusters (‘open’ as opposed to globular). Over time, the stars in open clusters drift apart to become ‘field stars’ like the Sun, no longer gravitationally bound to their siblings. When the run out of fuel, stars blow themselves apart in supernovae if they are 8 times the mass of the Sun or larger, whereas smaller stars blow off their outer layers of gas to form planetary nebulae like M97. Whether stars die suddenly in supernovae or slowly as planetary nebulae, the matter blown out by dying stars enriches the galactic gas and dust clouds, and in time it will be incorporated into new generations of stars and planets. We are products of this process – all of the elements in our bodies other than hydrogen were born by fusion in the hearts of stars, and seeded into the galaxy’s spiral arms when those stars died.

Farther out, globular clusters like M3 orbit the core of the galaxy on long elliptical orbits that are not flat, but come looping in from all directions. The stars in globular clusters are typically very old, 12 billion years or more. We know very little about how and why globular clusters formed, and how they came to have such weird orbits. Probably they are some kind of developmental leftover from the formation of the earliest galaxies in the first billion years after the Big Bang – astrophysical fossils, if only we knew how to interpret them.

All of these processes are going on in other galaxies as well, especially spiral galaxies like M81, M104, and M108.

To put all of that into context, here are all of the objects we observed again, this time ranked from closest to farthest:

In our solar system:

  • moon – 240,000 miles or 1.3 light seconds
  • Jupiter – 370 million miles or 33 light minutes (currently – Jupiter is about 5 AU out from the sun, but right now we’re on the same side of the sun so it’s only 4 AU from us)

In our spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy (the Orion spur):

  • Mizar and Alcor (double star) – 83 light years
  • Hyades (open star cluster) – 151 light years
  • Coma Berenices cluster (open star cluster) – 280 light years
  • M45 (Pleiades; open star cluster) – 440 light years
  • M44 (Beehive; open star cluster) – 577 light years
  • Sigma Orionis (multiple star) – 1255 light years
  • M42, M43 (Orion nebula; star-forming region) – 1344 light years
  • M97 (planetary nebula in same field as M108) – 2030 light years
  • M35 (open star cluster) – 2800 light years

In the next spiral arm out from the galactic center (Perseus arm):

  • M37 (open star cluster) – 4500 light years
  • NGC 869/884 (Double Cluster; open star clusters) – 7500 light years

In the galactic halo of the Milky Way:

  • M3 (globular star cluster) – 34,000 light years

External galaxies:

  • M81, M82 (interacting galaxy pair) – 11 million light years
  • M104 (Sombrero galaxy) – 31 million light years
  • M108 (galaxy in same field as M97) – 46 million light years

That is very satisfying to me, to take in such a menagerie of celestial objects, at so many scales and distances, in the space of a couple of hours armed only with a comparatively inexpensive telescope and an idea of what’s out there to be seen. I can’t wait for next time.

Saturday night astro crew. Left to right: Marco Irigoyen, Leandra Estrada, London Wedel, Matt Wedel, Thierra Nalley, Eric Scott. Photo courtesy of Eric Scott.

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Small, medium, large – observing near and far in the last two weeks

June 4, 2016

Matt at Delicate Arch IMG_2984

Preface – Running with the Red Queen

I’ve just finished maybe the busiest spring of my life. January and February were largely sunk into day-job work – time-consuming, but necessary, interesting, and in fact rewarding. Then the last three months have been taken up with travel and public lectures.

  • In March I went to Oklahoma for 10 days of paleontological research in field and lab, and I gave a talk at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History titled, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?”
  • In April I did a two-day trip to Mesa, Arizona, for more paleo work. No talk on that trip, but I did participate in the “Beer and Bones” outreach at the Arizona Museum of Natural History.
  • In early May I was in Utah for another 10 days of paleo research, and I gave a talk at the Prehistoric Museum in Price on, “Why elephants are so small”. My colleague Mike Taylor and I took one day off from dashing through museums to tour Arches National Park, which is where Mike took the photo at the top of the post.
  • Last weekend I was up at RTMC, where I gave a Beginner’s Corner talk on, “The scale of the cosmos”.

I’m not complaining – far from it. It’s been exhilarating, and the collaborative work I have rolling in Oklahoma and Utah will hopefully be paying off for years. And planning and executing all of the work has been satisfying. Particularly the RTMC talk, which deserves a whole post of its own. And ultimately this is all stuff that I chose to do, and if I could do it all over again, I would.

BUT there have been consequences. Most frustratingly, I haven’t had enough uninterrupted time to get anything written up for publication – not the sizable backlog of old projects I need to get finished up, and not the immense pile of new things I’ve learned this year. I haven’t gotten out to observe as much as I’d like, and I’ve barely blogged at all.

And it’s not over. In two weeks I leave for a week of paleo fieldwork in Oklahoma, then I’m back for a week, then I’m off to Utah for about 10 more days of digging up dinosaurs. In between I’ll teaching in the summer human anatomy course at WesternU.

But I’ve had a nice little pulse of observing in the last couple of weeks – two weekends ago up at Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, last weekend at RTMC above Big Bear, and this week at Santa Cruz Island off the coast. No time for separate observing reports, so I’m combining them all into one.

Observing Report 1 (Medium): The Planets and Moon from Arroyo Grande

I was fortunate to be part of a great, tightly-knit cohort of grad students at Berkeley. Of the people I was closest to, some are still in and around the Bay Area and some of us have been sucked into the gravity well of the LA metro area. Occasionally we get together somewhere halfway in between, either up in the Sierras or near the coast. I usually take a telescope, because almost everywhere is darker than where I live, and when I’m traveling by car there’s simply no reason not to.

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This year we met up for a couple of days and nights in Arroyo Grande. We hiked in the hills, went down to Morro Bay to watch ocean wildlife and buy seafood, played poker, and generally got caught up on work, family, hobbies, and life. Our first night was wonderfully clear. I had along the trusty C80ED, which has become my most-used scope. It’s mechanically rugged, optically damn near perfect, and compact enough to not require much time or thought when it comes to transportation and setup. On Saturday, May 21, we spent some time with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter and Saturn were as they always are: beautiful and surprising in their immanence. I cannot look through the telescope at either of them without being forcefully reminded that they are as real as I am, that as I go about my days full of busyness and drama, they are always out there, hundreds of millions of miles away, go about their own business whether I or anyone else pay them any attention or not. One of my friends had never seen the rings of Saturn with his own eyes, so that was an added bonus.

Mars was the real treat. Using the Meade 5mm 100-degree EP and a Barlow I was able to crank up the magnification to 240x. The dark dagger of Syrtis Major and the white gleam of the north polar cap were both obvious. It is always arresting to see details on this world that has loomed so large in the human imagination, from ancient mythology to science fiction to current and future exploration.

The next night we sat out on the patio, eating oysters and watching the sun set. I didn’t have any of my own binoculars along, but a friend had brought a couple, and after it got dark we watched the still-mostly-full moon rise through the trees on the ridgeline to the east.

It was all shallow sky stuff (solar system, that is), but it was all spectacular, and I’m glad we did it.

Observing Report 2 (Large): Going Deep at RTMC

Last weekend I was up at RTMC, finally. I’ve been wanting to go since I got to SoCal, but in the past it’s fallen on the same week as our university graduation and I’ve been too wiped out. I didn’t make it up for the whole weekend. We went up as a family to stay Saturday and Sunday nights. I went up to RTMC early Sunday morning to look around, give my talk, and hang out. Ron Hoekwater, Laura Jaoui, Jim Bridgewater, Ludd Trozpek, and Alex McConahay of the PVAA were all there and we spent some time catching talks and jawing about skies and scopes. I also chatted with some folks from farther afield, including Arizona and NorCal.

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I took off in the afternoon to spend time with London and Vicki, then went back up after dinner. All I had along were my Celestron 10x50s (yes, those), but Ron had his 25-inch Obsession dob, and he was content to use it as the centerpiece of a group observing session. We looked at the planets, or at least Jim Bridgewater and I did – Ron had checked them out the previous night and didn’t want to blow out his dark adaptation. That was a smart call, as the Obsession gathers a LOT of light and the planets were almost blown out. We could have put in a filter, but ehh, we had other things to be getting on with.

We started with globular clusters. M3, M5, M53, NGC 3053, and one or two other distant NGC globs. The close ones were explosions of stars that filled the eyepiece. The distant ones shimmered out of the black like the lights of distant cities. Then we moved on to galaxies. M81 and M82 were bigger, brighter, and more detailed than I had ever seen them. M51 was just stunning – the spiral arms were so well-defined that it looked like Lord Rosse’s sketch.

M51 sketch by Lord Rosse

As nice as those were, the Virgo galaxy cluster was better. There were so many galaxies that identifying them was a pain – there were so many little NGCs in between the familiar Messier galaxies that my usual identification strategies kept getting derailed. It was kind of embarrassing, actually – I did just write an article about this stuff. But also incredible. NGC 4435 and 4438 – the pair of galaxies known as “The Eyes” – were so big, bright, and widely separated that I didn’t realize I was looking at them until the third or fourth pass.

We finished up on planetary nebulae. The seeing was good but not perfect – the central star in the Ring Nebula was visible about a quarter of the time. The Cat’s Eye, NGC 6543, was a fat green S with a prominent central star – it looked like it had been carved out of jade.

An evening under dark skies with a giant scope is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you get to see so many unfamiliar objects, and so many details in familiar objects, that are beyond the reach of smaller scopes. A curse because by the end of the session you may find yourself thinking, “Sheesh, why do I even bother with my little 3-, 5-, and 10-inch scopes?”

Fortunately another observing experience, one that would remind me of the joys of small-aperture observing, was right around the corner.

Observing Report 3 (Small): A Binocular Tour of the Spring Sky

My son, London, is finishing up fifth grade at Oakmont Outdoor School, one of the half-dozen or so different elementary schools in the Claremont Unified School District. We were fortunate when we moved to Claremont to land just a couple of blocks from Oakmont – we would have been happy to land within walking distance of any of the schools, but if we’d had our choice we would have picked Oakmont anyway, since we wanted to raise London with as much exposure to the outdoors as we could.

Oakmont’s slogan is, “Learning in the world’s biomes”. The major activities of each grade are organized around a particular biome, and so is the end-of-year field trip. In third grade, the kids went to Sea World. Last year it was the desert by Palm Springs for a 2-day, 1-night trip. This year it was Santa Cruz Island, in Channel Islands National Park, for a 3-day, 2-night trip. Parent chaperones are needed and I’ve been fortunate to get to go every year.

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The island was amazing. We saw dolphins, sea lions, and petrels on the boat ride out – I took the photo above from the prow of the ship – more sea lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and red pelagic crabs at the shore, and dwarf island foxes, ravens, and the occasional hawk inland. On the final evening, June 2, we hiked up to the top of the cliffs to watch the sun set over the Pacific, which was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d see something even more beautiful just a few hours later.

I had binoculars along – Bushnell 10×40 roofs that I got specifically for daytime use, and which I had used a lot on the trip already to watch wildlife. When we got back to camp, a few of the teachers and hung back and started talking about the planets, bright stars, and constellations. I started pointing out a few of the brighter targets and passing around the binoculars, and we ended up having an impromptu binocular star party. (The kids and a fair number of the adults were all exhausted from a full day of hiking, and sensibly went to bed.)

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What followed was one of the best and most memorable observing sessions of my life. The only permanent residents of Santa Cruz Island are a couple of National Park employees, and they turn their lights off after dark. We got a little light pollution on the eastern horizon from Ventura and Oxnard, some 20 miles distant, but for the most part the sky was darkAfton Canyon dark, Hovatter Road dark – what I typically refer to as stupid dark.

We roamed all over the sky, looking at targets large and small, near and far, bright and dim. I didn’t keep track as we were going, but I wrote down a list yesterday morning on the boat ride back to the mainland (we went through a fog bank and only saw a handful of dolphins, so I had plenty of time).

In the northern sky:

  • Polaris and the Engagement Ring asterism
  • Mizar and Alcor
  • M51 – yes, it was visible in the 10×40 bins
  • The 3 Leaps of the Gazelle

In the western sky:

  • M44, the Beehive – easily visible to the naked eye, and just stunning in the binos
  • Leo
  • Coma Berenices star cluster
  • Virgo/Coma galaxies – identifications were tough, but a few were visible

In the eastern sky, Lyra had just cleared the trees when we started observing (at 9:15 or so), and all of Cygnus was above the trees when we finally shut down at 12:45 AM. In addition to tracing out the constellations, along the way we looked at:

  • Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double star
  • Albireo
  • Alpha Vulpeculae (the subject of my Binocular Highlight column in the ### issue of Sky & Telescope)
  • Brocchi’s Coathanger (Collinder 399)
  • Sagitta (just traced the constellation)
  • M27, the Dumbbell Nebula
  • Sadr and its surrounding ring of stars in the heart of Cygnus
  • NGC 7000, the North American Nebula – this and the Northern Coalsack were easily visible to the naked eye once Cygnus has risen out of the near-horizon LP

…and we just cruised the Milky Way from Cygnus to Cepheus, not singling out individual objects but just taking in the rich star fields.

But the southern sky was the best. Looking south from Santa Cruz Island, there’s only open ocean, broken here and there by other, distant islands and ultimately by Antarctica. It reminded me of looking south from Punta del Este in Uruguay, only I was in a valley instead of on a beach. The ridgeline to the south did cut off a bit of the sky, but we were still able to see all of Scorpio, including the False Comet, made up of NGC 6231 and Trumpler 24, which was one of the highlights.

It was trippy watching the Milky Way rise. I usually look at the summer Milky Way when it is higher overhead. I usually have to do that, because the objects aren’t visible in the near-horizon haze. But from Santa Cruz Island, things were not only bright but obvious as soon as they cleared the ridgeline to the south. It’s almost pointless to list them – we saw every Messier object in the “steam from the teapot”, from M7 and M6 in the south to M11 in the north, plus a lot of NGCs, plus star clouds and dark nebulae almost beyond counting. They were all great through the binoculars – M7 was a special treat, like a globular cluster on a diet – but honestly the best views of the night were naked-eye.

I realized that I am just never out observing the Milky Way at this time of year. My regular desert observing spots are all too hot in the summer, and when I do go there is often at least some light pollution to the south (El Centro from the Salton Sea, Barstow from Owl Canyon, etc.). I do most of my deep and dark observing in October and November, when the southern Milky Way is setting, not rising.

So I was completely unprepared for how much detail would be visible to the naked eye. When the Milky Way rose, it didn’t look like a band of light, it looked like a galaxy. I searched through a lot of photographs of the rising Milky Way to find one that approximated the naked-eye view, and this is the closest I got:

I am not exaggerating – the bright and dark areas were that defined. The Great Rift was visible from Cygnus to the horizon, and its southern border was notched by distinct deep sky objects from Aquila onward. The Scutum Star Cloud, M16, M17, M24, M23, M8, M6, M7, NGC 6281, and the False Comet were all easily visible to the naked eye as a chain of luminous patches against the dark dust lane of our own galaxy. In fact, I noted NGC 6281 with my naked eyes first, thought, “What the heck is that?”, and had to look it up. We also caught M4, M22, M23, and M25 in the bins, plus a bundle of dark nebulae that I’d never noted before and didn’t bother keeping track of.

Longtime S&T contributor Tony Flanders (now retired but still writing occasionally) is active on Cloudy Nights, and his sig file reads:

First and foremost observing love: naked eye.
Second, binoculars.
Last but not least, telescopes.
And I sometimes dabble with cameras.

Until fairly recently I would have listed my own preferences in reverse order, from telescopes to binos to naked eye. That may sound odd for a “bino guy”, which I guess I am since all of my ‘professional’ astro-writing has been binocular-based. But it’s true – as much as I love binoculars, I would have picked a telescope first. But I am – gradually, belatedly – waking up. In some ways, it would have been great to have a scope, any scope, along on the island trip. I’m sure that even the C80ED would have taken us crazy deep, considering what we could see with a pair of low-end 40mm roof-prism bins. But it would also have come between us and the sky, and I would have spent more time futzing with eyepieces and less time just looking up.

This was a surprising and welcome realization, coming so shortly on the heels of a frankly astonishing session with Ron’s 25-inch dob at RTMC. I was worried that big-telescope observing might spoil me, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. All I need to be happy is a dark sky. If I have some people to share it with, even better. Anything more is just cake at the end of an already long buffet.

Let’s eat.

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A birthday observing run at the Webb Schools Hefner Observatory

June 16, 2014
Spiral galaxy M81

Spiral galaxy M81

My birthday was June 3. That evening, fellow PVAA member Steve Sittig invited me up to the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools in north Claremont. Steve teaches science at the Webb Schools, and he has a particular interest in physics and astronomy. The dome at the Hefner Observatory houses an orange-tube C14 Schmidt-Cassegrain. Observing with us were two other Webb faculty members, Andy Farke (paleontologist, blogger) and science teacher Andrew Hamilton. Andrew Hamilton had brought along his DLSR, a Sony Alpha33—this would turn out to be important.

Starburst galaxy M82

Starburst galaxy M82

We got started a little after 9:00 PM with a look at Jupiter, which was low in the west. We noticed right away that the seeing was pretty darned good. We went on to the waxing crescent moon and then Mars and Saturn. After that we turned to the deep sky. M81 and M82 looked great, so we hooked up Andrew’s DSLR and attempted some photography. We didn’t have a remote shutter or computer control, so we were using only the camera’s native controls, and assessing the results on the LCD screen.

Planetary nebula M57, the Ring Nebula

Planetary nebula M57, the Ring Nebula

After the galaxies, we went on to the Ring Nebula, M57, and then the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, M13. Even with the 30-second exposures that the camera was natively limited to, we were getting very respectable images. I am including a few here.

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

Our results were pretty primitive compared to what people can do with dedicated astro cameras and post-processing, but we still had a grand time, and the process was sufficiently rewarding that we stayed out until almost two in the morning. All in all, a pretty darned good birthday present. Hopefully we’ll be able to reconvene and shoot some more this summer. I’ll keep you posted.

Many thanks to Andrew Hamilton for permission to post these photos.

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Mission 10: The Great Glob

November 19, 2009

Mission Objectives: Constellation, Globular cluster

Equipment: Sky map, Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope

Required Time: 5 minutes

Related Missions: Summer Triangle

Introduction: This is a weird time of year. The classic “summer” constellations are still visible right after sunset, and by bedtime the winter constellations–especially Orion–are already coming over the eastern horizon. Of course the globe of the sky is (relatively) unchanging and you can see an angular span of the same width on any night of the year. Nothing is actually accelerated right now. It only feels odd because of the associations these stars have for me. Say “Hercules” and I think warm summer evenings and junebugs. The Pleiades, on the other hand, conjure up memories of gloves, stocking hats, and the crystaline quality of the air on a cold winter’s night. And yet you can see these things on opposite sides of the sky at the same time!

Owing to my long hiatus this fall, I let a few of the great summer objects almost get away from me. Meanwhile, a host of excellent autumn targets are high overhead even at dusk. So we’ve got no time to waste.

Instructions: Find Vega in the western sky right after sunset, and then look below it to find the back-to-back trapezoids that make up the body of Hercules. I strongly recommend taking a planisphere or sky map, such as one of the free seasonal ones here or here. If you’re like me, you can look at the map indoors, fix the points and relationships in your mind’s eye, go outside and instantly get lost. Hercules doesn’t have any first magnitude stars to help you orient, and there are far too many medium-brightness stars, so the number of possible trapezoids you can construct is large. This is where the directions I can give break down; there is just no substitute for having the map in your hand, especially since the free ones are so good these days. See how many of the stars west of Vega you can see with the naked eye, and then draw a trail that will guide you from Vega down to where you need to go. The path you find will be the one that makes the most sense to you.

You’ll know for sure when you’ve got the right trapezoids, because 2/3 of the way along the western edge of the northern trapezoid is a fuzzy ball. This is M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. If you are under super dark skies you might just make it out with the naked eye as a dim and blurry star. Under all but the worst city lights, you can sweep between the two boundary stars and pick it up in binoculars. In 10x50s it is an attractive ball of fuzz, and in 15x70s it is a slightly larger, brighter, and more appealing ball of fuzz. In a small telescope some of M13’s 100,000 stars start to resolve, like a spill of very fine sugar on black velvet. In a big telescope, like my friend’s 16-incher, it is almost overwhelming; the eyepiece is so full of stars that it gets to be too much for the eye–and the mind–to take in. I found myself repeatedly looking away to give myself a break. That’s good stargazing.

Like M22 in Sagittarius and all other known globular clusters, M13 is old, and I mean old even for astronomy, where a five-billion-year-old star like the sun is something of a youngster. Even if all you have to see it with is binoculars, there is something special about tickling your retinas with the light of 100,000 twelve-billion-year-old suns.

Photo from APOD.

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Mission 7: Star clouds of Sagittarius

September 9, 2009

Mission Objectives: Globular Cluster, Open Cluster, Nebula

Equipment: Binoculars

Required Time: 5 minutes

Related Missions: Not Everyone’s Pot of Tea

Instructions: See how many deep space  objects you can see in Sagittarius with binoculars (or, if you must, a telescope). Here’s a guide:

Sagittarius again

Your job will be a lot easier if you’ve got dark skies. Here at the edge of LA County, M7, the Butterfly Cluster (M6), the Lagoon Nebula (M8), M21, M22, M24, and M25 are all fairly easy to spot with binoculars, and everything else is difficult to impossible. If don’t have dark skies and can’t get to any, at least get as much local darkness as possible. We have a little swath of lawn about 10 feet wide between the house and garage, and if I go back in there the buildings block out about half the sky, but the half they don’t obscure looks a lot darker because I can get all the local light sources (like the neighbors’ annoying security light) out of my eyes. Also, remember that pupil dilation just takes a few minutes, but full physiological dark adaptation takes an hour or so.

For my money the best thing in Sagittarius is the M24 star cloud. Go up from the lid of the ‘teapot’ to the first bright star (as indicated by one of the constellation lines in the image above). That star has a little curlique of followers trailing up and to the left. Follow to the curlique to the explosion of stars; that’s M24. It’s not really a cluster in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a hole in the giant clouds of gas and dust that usually obscure the inner parts of the Milky Way from our view here in the galactic ‘burbs. According to Wikipedia, under optimum sky conditions (which I ain’t got) up to 1000 stars are visible through binoculars in M24. I can only see a few dozen, but it’s still pretty awesome.

Cheap bino mount

Finally, as always, the view through the binoculars will be a heck of a lot better if you can hold them steady. The best solution here is not to hold them at all, but rather to let a device hold the binos perfectly still while you just look through them. Most binoculars have a 1/4-20 socket at the front in between the objective lenses (this is usually covered by a small plastic cap and a lot of casual bino users don’t even know it’s there). You can use this socket to attach the binoculars to a monopod or tripod. Dedicated binocular tripod adapters are available online for a little as ten bucks, or you can build your own for about two. Get a small angle bracket or corner brace, a 1/4-20 wingnut to attach the bracket to the 1/4-20 bolt of the tripod (this is what you would normally screw the camera onto), and a 1/4-20 thumbscrew to attach the binos to the bracket, with maybe an extra wingnut to tighten things down.  BAM! Now you can aim and focus the binoculars, take your hands off and let the shaking settle down, and observe in shake-free comfort. It’s a qualitatively different experience from handheld binocular observing, and you will  see more.

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Mission 6: Not Everyone’s Pot of Tea

September 2, 2009

Mission Objectives: Constellation, Globular Cluster, Open Cluster, Nebula

Equipment: Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope

Required Time: 5 minutes

Related Missions: Eye of the Scorpion

Instructions: Go outside shortly after dark, face south, find Antares, and to the left/east of Scorpio, look for a teapot.

Sagittarius with lines

Yes, really. The heart of Sagittarius, allegedly the Archer, looks strikingly like a teapot. Which, I think we can all agree, is a considerably less aggressive incarnation. Once you’ve spotted it, it will be hard to avoid seeing it any time you look toward that part of the sky. It’s especially easy if you can trace Scorpio–it looks like the teapot is about to pour on the scorpion’s tail. Here’s the plain version so you can practice:

Sagittarius sans lines

Sagittarius is the thick of the summer Milky Way and contains the core of the galaxy. As a result, it is just loaded with deep sky objects (DSOs)–it hosts 15 of the 110 Messier objects, more than any other constellation. It has star clusters in its hair and hanging out of its pockets. Some are open clusters, the result of relatively recent bouts of star formation (“relatively recent” here means “within the last half-billion years or so”), but many are globular clusters or “globs”, spherical micro-galaxies of up to a million stars apiece that orbit the core of the Milky Way in an extended halo.

Sagittarius also has a stunning emission nebula, M8 or the Lagoon Nebula, which is second only to the awesome Orion Nebula (M42) for Northern Hemisphere observers. Like the Orion Nebula, the Lagoon is a site of active star formation; it is lit by the young stars it contains, and more are forming even as you read this (the Lagoon Nebula is only 4100 light years away, and it is highly unlikely that the multi-million-year process of star formation has suddenly stopped since the pyramids went up).

Sagittarius DSOs

With a clear southern sky and a pair of binoculars–which have hopefully by now been warmed ever so slightly by the brilliant light of Jupiter–you can see three beautiful DSOs that illustrate three stages in the life cycle of stars and of the galaxy itself.

Globular cluster M22 is a fuzzy ball above and to the left of the teapot–I imagine it forming a right angle with the northeastern stars of the teapot lid, as shown above. Through a telescope of less than about 6 inches aperture it will likely remain a fairly fuzzy ball, but pouring on more aperture and magnification will resolve it into something approaching this (image from Wikipedia):

M22HunterWilsonM22 is full of very old main sequence stars, and astronomers estimate its age at about 12 billion years, meaning that it has been around for more than 90% of the history of the universe. Its stars are Population II, which means that they formed shortly after the universe itself, when there had been little time for successive waves of novae and supernovae to seed the universe with heavy elements. No one knows if the Population II stars have planets; if they do, they are probably gas giants and any solid bodies are probably icy and metal-poor. If life arose in this or any globular cluster, it is hard to imagine how any of it could have become starfaring or even radio-using with few or no metals. Nobody knew this back in 1974, when Arecibo sent a “Hey, how are ya?” radio message to the globular cluster M13. M13 was chosen because it is nearby and has tons of stars; somewhat ironically, those stars are the least likely to have civilizations capable of receiving the message or responding (which may be a good thing, if you take a pessimistic view of the likely intentions of technologically superior species).

Closer to us in time of origin is the open cluster M7. It seems to me to form the right wing of an extended kite shape that is otherwise made up of the three stars that form the teapot spout. This bright ball of about 80 stars is about a thousand light years away and its oldest members are about 220 million years old–about 2% the age of those in M22. It is sobering to realize that these cosmic youngsters formed about the time that the first mammals and the first dinosaurs were getting up and running in the Late Triassic Period.

Youngest of all is M8, the aforementioned Lagoon Nebula, which sits right above the spout of the teapot like a tiny puff of steam. In cosmic terms, we’re catching M8 in the act of giving birth. A few tens of millions of years ago it was just another cloud of cosmic flotsam and probably neither bright nor particular pretty. Now it is lit from within, like a paper lantern, by its stellar offspring. In another 200 million years, M8 may look like M7 does today, with all of its ethereal clouds of gas and dust either consumed or blown away by the brash young stars that are even now forming at its heart.

So grab those binos and go see the universe–a stellar nursery (M8), primary school (M7), and retirement community (M22) await. If Jupiter blew your socks off, have a look at M22 and remember that you are looking at stars that are almost three times as old as our solar system. How often do  you get to see something 12 billion years old? Not often, I’ll wager!

…or rather, see these things if you can. There’s a reason that Sagittarius is not everyone’s pot of tea. Like Scorpio, it’s a fairly southerly constellation, which means it never gets very far above the horizon, especially for folks who live up north. Here’s what it looks like from southern England:

Sagittarius from EnglandSo if you’re farther north than about the 40th parallel, you’re probably hosed. You’ll need a clear southern horizon, sans trees, mountains, and especially the light domes of our myriad cities to get a good look. Still, give it a shot–letting the light of 70,000 12-billion-year old stars–photons that have been in transit since the end of the last ice age–fall on your retinas is worth a little effort.