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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Libra

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

As first appeared in the May 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

It is only fitting that, as we approach Summer and the unbelievable wealth of binocular and telescope objects that reside within the central region of the Milky Way, we spend at least one article on an otherwise mundane (to the amateur astronomer, anyway) Constellation. We endeavor this act of balance in the presentation of night sky viewing (and in the interest of accounting for all of the sky by the time these articles are done) by featuring Libra, The Scales.

The history of Libra in Western culture is one of science, religion, theft, imminent domain, here-say, and whatever existed as copyright in the Roman days (it is tough to make a Constellation associated with the Law interesting enough for prime time TV, as the only thing there is to murder is the presentation of any historical interpretation attributed to it). The reference to this collection of stars as a balance is reported to go as far back as the Sumerians (approximately 2000 B.C.), where this collection was known as “ZIBBA AN-NA”, or the “balance of heaven.” It is of particularly humorous irony this month that the Greeks were responsible for the disappearance of “the balance” from the night sky in favor of over-inflating the magnitude of the already important constellation Scorpius (for historical perspective, this article is being written as Greek economic infrastructure is falling apart faster than the Parthenon during the Siege of Athens in 1687 by Francesco Morosini, the Doge of Venice [as a good Greek, I shake my fist at the Gods in anger]).

The Romans saw fit to either return to the Sumerian tradition or simply declaw Scorpius, as Libra once again became a set of Scales. It is fate that the pinchers of an arthropod would be returned to the type of covering for reptiles. With the first publications of Libra-friendly star groupings and names upon the demotion of the now more diminutive Scorpius, one might even argue that the pen is mightier than the claws.

When not being visually accosted by rock n’ roll advertisements for lawyers behind cheap bookcase backdrops offering beaucoup bucks for your injury settlements, the legal profession often seems quite dull and arcane in its own right (sorry, Ray). Libra is equally subdued in its presentation, offering no Messier Objects within its official borders and no other really “interesting” things observable through binoculars or small telescopes. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the constellation itself is its identification as the only inanimate object of the Zodiac, the ring of Constellations that encompass the ecliptic, or the apparent path of the Sun throughout the year.

That is not, however, to say that there isn’t anything worth its weight in hydrogen residing within the Libra boundaries. If we perform a considerable zooming in just above Zubeneschamali (phew! That translates to the “northern claw,” just as its counterpart Zubenelgenubi translates to the “southern claw.” These names would indicate that Arab astronomers opted to use both Greek and Roman sources despite the obvious conflict in the star groupings), we can see (with very good scopes) the star Gliese 581 (shown below), home of one of the most populated planetary systems yet discovered (although it is important to remember that this number is only of those planets we can detect, which means those with significant gravitational influence on their stellar anchor). This is marked “1” in the opening image. To date, there are four detected stars around Gliese 581 (note that the star name is always first, followed by a letter designation), including Gliese 581 b, a Neptune-sized object with a 5.4 day orbit, c, a rocky Earth-like planet within the Gliese 581 Habitable Zone 1.5 times wider and 5 times more dense than our own, d, a planet 1/2 as massive as Uranus and still within in the Habitable Zone, and e, a planet 1.6 times as massive as Earth and the smallest yet identified. the star Gliese 581 not only represents a feat of mathematical prowess on the part of Terran researchers, but is also of specific interest because of the number of planets within its Habitable Zone, the region within which conditions are believed to be similar to our own (specifically, liquid water on the surface). Some even refer to this as the “Goldilocks Zone,” where it’s not too cold and not too hot. One might say that this region is where a proper balance of hot and cold is reached…

Gliese 581

Of all of the asterisms (groups of stars that are not designated as Constellations but that still have specific meaning. For instance, the Big Dipper is an asterism within the Constellation Ursa Major) that have jumped out at me during my binocular viewing adventures, the one marked by the “2″ is perhaps the one that most stood out to my eyes. It is one of the most perfect isosceles triangles in the nighttime sky and is reasonably clear around it such that only this shape stands out in low-power optics. When it’s out, I always look for this small golden nugget residing within the Zubeneschamali-side of the scales, tipping the balance towards the arrival of the Summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, the pair that mark the inside of our own galaxy and where a disproportionate number of Messier riches abound.

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Canes Venatici

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

As first appeared in the March 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.
Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, 1888

If the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image has taught us nothing else, it is that every piece of the sky, regardless of how diminutive it may be in the two-dimensional view of the universe through our eyes, holds a wealth of astronomical treasures.  We begin the 2010 Constellation presentations with one such small, but by no means insignificant, piece of the sky.  Canes Venatici (“Now that’s Italian(-sounding)!”) is a young constellation, one of the many additions formalized by Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century and the result of some rather troublesome bookkeeping over the course of written history.  As the story goes, several of the stars within the modern borders of Canes Venatici were originally part of Boötes‘ staff (or club.  Some herdsmen take the protection aspect of their job very seriously).  A poor translation of Ptolemy‘s Almagest from Greek to Arabic to Latin resulted in the “hook” of the staff being turned into “dogs” (accordingly to the translation history provided at wikipedia, the translation went from “the spearshaft having a hook” in Arabic to “spearshaft having dogs” in Latin.  Perhaps the Arabic-to-Latin translation occurred on a late Friday afternoon before a much-anticipated Public Viewing session?). Befitting a new constellation of hunting dogs now accompanying Boötes in his nighttime watch, Hevelius, er, ran with it and gave the mythological canines Chara and Asterion a small but astronomically busy place next to their master.

The two dogs Chara (represented by the star “Chara”) and Asterion (represented by “Cor Caroli”) are identified by only their two brightest stars, which are themselves joined by a short leash in the modern line representation.  The many dimmer stars in this constellation that jump out even with low-power binoculars add multiple “spots” to the imagined bodies of these two dogs.  As they rush ahead of their master Boötes, they point straight towards the hindmost of Ursa Major (or appear to be running past the Big Dipper).  If celestial real estate is any measure of actual size in the ancient illustrations, the giant Ursa Major is right in aligning his gaze away from the two diminutive playful pups.  I’m sure there’s some imagined connection between Canes Venatici and its final bordering constellation Coma Berenices, but I was once told that the explanation can get a little hairy (if you did not recognize that as a poor pun, do read the wikipedia entry for Coma Berenices, which may find its way to a feature in upcoming newsletters).

If we let lying dogs rest for a moment, we find Chara and Asterion in possession of five Messier Objects, including a phenomenal telescope sight that is otherwise most often found by chasing Ursa Major’s tail.  The distance between M3 and M106 marks the total width of this constellation.  M3 (below) is an 8 billion-year-old globular cluster composed of 500,000 stars that rests roughly 1/3 the width of our galaxy from us (33,900 light years).


M3, from Robert J. Vanderbei.

M106 (below, from NASA/CXC/University of Maryland) is one of those distant (well, 25 million light years) galaxies that NASA astronomers have a field day with as they overlay various wavelengths to make visually stunning images.  The strong X-ray lines in its spectrum indicate that a supermassive black hole resides in this galaxy that is in the process of devouring large swaths of stellar and gaseous matter.


M106, from NASA/CXC/University of Maryland.

M94 (below), also known as the Cat’s Eye Galaxy, is a remarkable structure, as it contains two distinct spiral regions in one galaxy (providing the bright central pupil and the darker edges of the eye).  Speaking of two significant features in one, its discovery is attributed to Pierre Mechain and its cataloging by Charles Messier, occurring just two days later (pairs come in three’s?).  M94 is itself the most prominent member of the so-called M94 Group of Galaxies, a closely associated group of (up-to 24) galaxies within the much larger Virgo Supercluster.  Fourteen of these galaxies lie between 9.0 (M94) and 14.2 magnitude, making the search possible with available gear but only under most ideal viewing conditions.


M94, from Spitzer, GALEX and R. Jay GaBany.

The Sunflower Galaxy (M63, below) was one of the first galaxies to have a distinctive spiral quality associated with it (this by Lord Rosse in the mid-19th century).  The short and tightly spiraled arms pack considerable spectral density into a seemingly small space, providing the stem-free sunflower view that, as it contains tens of thousands of suns, might better be called The Galaxyflower.  M63 is a member of the M51 Group, another cluster of galaxies within the Virgo Supercluster that feature, as their crown jewel…


M63, from NASA and WikiSky.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51, below) is, perhaps, the third best view of any galaxy to be found at Darling Hill (the second-best being the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the first being, you guessed it, our own Milky Way).  We view the Pinwheel Galaxy looking straight down the rotation axis of the pinwheel, providing us with what can be a very clear view of the spiral structure of the galaxy through our scopes (and providing those with big scopes a very clear view of this structure).  I suspect not a single member with a non-GOTO scope has ever said “It’s over in Canes Venatici.”  Instead, I suspect the standard manner of location involves some instruction stating “Look at the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper and go at a right angle about half the distance of the last two stars in the handle.”  If you can see the famous pair Alcor and Mizar in the Big Dipper, you’re almost at M51 in a pair of binoculars.  The bright bulge at the end of one spiral arm is a true companion galaxy.  Computer models indicate that the distortions of the M51 arm at this companion position are a result of the companion galaxy passing through the plane of the M51 some 550 million years ago, as if M51 were in the process of throwing its companion out into the void to be retrieved by our two dogs.


M51, from NASA and ESA.

Lord Rosse, who also identified the spiral structure in M63, observed and sketched the clear spiral structure of M51 in 1845 (shown below).  The sketch he made reminds me of the center swirl within Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (shown below).  And speaking of fine art, the Hubble image of M51 (provided as a massive download here) is one of those views that might well make the final cut in the first intergalactic exhibition.

The proverbial “Cat’s Meow” of nighttime viewing from a small pair of stars that mark a small pair of dogs that were spared from the celestial kennel thanks to a mistranslated description of a cudgel.

Clear skies, Damian

www.syracuse-astro.org
www.starrynight.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Ultra_Deep_Field
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universe
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canes_Venatici
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Hevelius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bo%C3%B6tes
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almagest
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canes_Venatici#History
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursa_Major
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coma_Berenices
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Messier
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_3
www.princeton.edu/~rvdb/images/NJP/m3.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_106
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-ray
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supermassive_black_hole
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_106
gallery.spitzer.caltech.edu/Imagegallery/image.php?image_name=ssc2007-06a
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M94
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Mechain
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M94_Group
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgo_Supercluster
ssc.spitzer.caltech.edu/legacy
galexgi.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/galex/surveys/NGS.html
www.cosmotography.com/index.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_63
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Rosse
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M51_Group
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_63
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiSky
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whirlpool_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mizar_%28star%29
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whirlpool_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Space_Agency
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starry_Night

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Sagittarius

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

As first appeared in the July 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

The Constellations, for all of their mythological, mystical, and ceremonial significance throughout human history, are also the bases for much of the scientific discovery (the Zodiac was a calendar long before it was ever used to identify the other kind of dates, and the backdrop of the unchanging Heavens served as the guide against which the motions of the planets were first tracked) that fueled our understanding of the universe before Edwin Hubble first exposed its true vastness by identifying the “Andromeda Nebula” as, in fact, a galaxy far outside of the Milky Way. The constellations have also served in a far more pragmatic capacity throughout human history as seasonal sign posts, simply marking times and locations for those on land and sea. Perhaps the most famous example of this in American History is the use of the Big Dipper as the marker by freed slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad. The song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” is not simply a series of verses, but is instead a set of instructions, with the “Drinkin’ Gourd” being the Big Dipper, the most easily recognizable asterism in the Northern Hemisphere (amateur astronomer or not) and pointer (by drawing an arrow from Merak to Dubhe) to the North Star Polaris, itself the most famous star of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor), an otherwise somewhat unimpressive constellation (certainly not as prominent in the North as the Big Dipper or the Cassiopeia “W” and, therefore, not as useful a sign post).

The Little Dipper is not the most prominent constellation in the Night Sky, but it serves as an important terrestrial marker because it includes Polaris among its member stars. Just as the Big Dipper is a prominent asterism that directs you to the Little Dipper, the Summer constellation Scorpius (which has been recognized specifically as a scorpion by many cultures for several millennia) can draw you to a slightly less prominent constellation to its West that is a sign post to a far more impressive marker than Polaris.

Sagittarius is an astronomy instructor’s dream constellation, as it wraps up a number of interesting topics of discussion in one easy-to-find location. To begin, the Centaur, a half-human/half-horse hybrid, is the perfect bridge between the fantastical world of mythology in all of its seeming ridiculousness and, well, the shining example of what might even be ridiculously possible as scientists learn more about DNA and biological engineering (as of this past May, we now can make monkeys that glow in the dark. That’s right, in the dark).

Second, Sagittarius provides its viewer another shining example of the difference between a constellation and an asterism. A constellation is, simply, a specific grouping of stars that everyone has agreed are, in fact, assigned to that particular constellation. This circular definition was finally laid flat by the International Astronomical Union in its defining of Constellation Boundaries, solidifying star groupings that go as far back as antiquity and as far forward as 1763 (the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere was not limited to the land and the sea). An asterism is, simply, a convenient grouping of stars that are NOT one of the 88 Official Constellations, with some asterisms being only fragments of a full Constellation (such as the Big Dipper, the most famous asterism in the Constellation Ursa Major) and some asterisms composed of parts of multiple Constellations (such as the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). At our latitude (Syracuse and Tully), we cannot even see the entire Constellation of Sagittarius, but have an excellent view during the Summer of one of the most modern of conveniences in the form of a Tea Pot (see below). We may seem a little ridiculous pointing out the tea pot, short and stout, with its handle (on the left or to the West) and its spout (on the right or to the East) at Darling Hill on a dark night, but you will not forget this asterism after it jumps out at you the first time. An important thing to remember is that any grouping of stars in the sky that helps YOU find what you are looking for is as significant an asterism as one you might find in any book. If an otherwise unlabeled grouping jumps out at you that helps you find your place in the Night Sky, put those informal naming rights to good use.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

Third, the billowing steam from the spout of this tea pot marks a most important location to all 100 billion or more stars in our galaxy. The small darkened oval in the picture above marks the exact location of the center of the Milky Way galaxy (the tiny, fuzzy spec at its middle), meaning we are looking into the most dense region of the galaxy when we set our gazes at this region. Unfortunately, the city lights from Cortland wash the density of the Milky Way band at our South when we observe in Tully, although the full band of the Milky Way is prominent above us during the Summer.

Images from ircamera.as.arizona.edu.

Fourth, because we are looking into the heart of the Milky Way when we see the spout of the tea pot (as the image at right tries to show), we are looking into the densest region of stars we can see from Earth. As a result, this tea pot marks the location of a variety of Messier Objects and fainter nebulae far more numerous than even the largest variety pack the other Celestial Seasonings (pardon the tea pun) has to offer. The Trifid Nebula (M20), Lagoon Nebula (M8), Sagittarius Cluster (M22), Omega Nebula (M17), Black Swan Nebula (M18), M25, M23, M55, M54, M70, M28, M21, and M75 all reside within the Sagittarius boundary, while M6, M7, M16, and a host of other deep sky objects surround its borders in neighboring Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Serpens Cauda.

When we observe during the Summer, I often recommend to new visitors with binoculars to simply point to the South, aim for the tea pot, and slowly scan. If your binoculars or telescope are anywhere near focused, you are guaranteed to find something within your field of view.

Mildly thirsty just thinking about it,
Damian

www.syracuse-astro.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac
www.match.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planets
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Hubble
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_History
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Follow_the_Drinkin%27_Gourd
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Ursae_Majoris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubhe
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassiopeia_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centaur
www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/27/glowing-baby-monkeys-marm_n_208296.html
www.engr.wisc.edu/wiscengr/feb02/monkey.shtml
www.examiner.com/x-9343-Denver-Health-Examiner~y2009m5d29-Monkeys-that-glow-in-the-dark
www.iau.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_constellations
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asterism_(astronomy)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Triangle
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deneb
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vega
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_20
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_8
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_22
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_17
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_18
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_25
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_23
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_55
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_54
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_70
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_28
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_21
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_75
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_6
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_7
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_16
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiuchus
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpens_Cauda

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message For March, 2009 – The Messier Marathon Edition

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website with a brief overview of our upcoming (weather-permitting) Messier Marathon.

Greetings Fellow Astrophiles!

This newsletter comes to you after a short run within the last ten days of almost perfect viewing conditions (ignoring the cold, of course, with the Vesper air reaching the high teens for long durations on a few occasions). We are now officially entering the SAS viewing season, with scheduled New Moon Public Viewing sessions until November (we will see how that plays out) and, we hope, many dark, clear nights in between.

The First Few “Unofficial” 2009 Sessions

The beginning of the viewing year at Darling Hill began this past March 13th, with Observatory Directory Ray Dague and I braving the Vesper elevation and residual ice at the driveway base to check the location and attempt some viewing on what turned out to be a crystal clear night. Despite all efforts (including an outside climb and feet-on-walls pulling. We undertook quite the comical effort just to put eyepieces in), the frozen Observatory roof decided it was too early to “officially” open. We settled for trusty binoculars, plenty of power for Messier warm-up searches and, high above in Gemini, Comet Lulin (which we had to double-check was not NGC 2420).

Board members frozen as stiff as boards.
From left: J. McMahon, J. Funk, D. Allis, G. Sigworth. Photo by Raymond Dague.

Additional viewing sessions/board meetings (such as the one captured above on March 20th) were just as clear and just as busy (but included an open Observatory roof!), due in no small part to just how infrequently we in CNY are able to make it outside during the winter for any viewing sessions because of both the cold above and, in the case of Darling Hill, driveway accessibility. For those who wanted to keep track, last year had nine scheduled public viewing sessions and only THREE that were clear enough to be productive. We are already well on our way to a record year and only hope that the gas prices remain low to keep the continual driving to Tully as inexpensive as possible. And, speaking of records…

Messier Marathon

Our early April 2008 Messier Marathon at Darling Hill was a complete overcast wash, with two hours of patience revealing three stars (we used the time to talk about gear, which itself is never a bad thing). It would be difficult to imagine a worse situation that didn’t include precipitation. With cautious optimism for the weekend, we now print out check lists and list object pages in our favorite star charts for MM-2009.

A Brief Overview

We are often visited at the Hill by people who may have heard of the “Mn” designation for an object in the Night Sky but do not know specifically what it refers to. If you’re learning about Messier objects in the context of a website post about the Marathon, then you may think the Marathon to be some kind of celestial relay race between fuzzy patches. Briefly, here are the 5 W-H’s about Messier and the Marathon.

Courtesy Thierry Lombry, www.astrosurf.com/lombry.

Who: The marathon owes its existence to Charles Messier who, by all accounts (and to the best of my google efforts), never engaged in what he would have simply referred to as “The Me Marathon.” Messier was a famed French comet hunter (the search for comets in the 17th and 18th centuries was THE original “Space Race,” as such discoveries were sure to bring fame and prestige) who, with his assistant Pierre Méchain, catalogued what we know today as the Messier Objects specifically because he wanted to avoid these confusing objects in his cometary searches. Yes, the man who dedicated his life to finding comets is now best known for the catalogue of non-comets he generated. C’est la vie.

What: The Messier Objects are simply a collection of clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that are visible through binoculars and low-power telescopes (and some are naked-eye objects). In effect, they are a collection of the “closest of the bright objects” that one might confuse with a comet, with the “closest/brightest” set including clusters and nebulae within the Milky Way and many galaxies far beyond our spiral arms. As massive, distant, and bright objects, they are stationary in the sky, making them easy for Messier to catalogue in his comet hunting efforts and, for us, making them useful guide posts both for their identification from Constellation markers and for the identification of far fainter objects based on proximity. There are 110 counted Messier Objects but, according to Pierre Méchain himself, only 109 actual objects, as M101 and M102 (the Pinwheel Galaxy) are the result of double-counting (on the bright side, when you’ve found it once, you’ve found it twice!). While the majority of the list goes back to Messier’s time, the last object added, M110, was included in 1960.

Charles Messier (1730 – 1817). Click HERE for more info.

Covering the second important “what,” the Messier Marathon is simply a fun way to see how well you know the “photons in your neighborhood… the ones you don’t know you see each night.”

Where: Up! Well, more specifically, up in the Northern Hemisphere. As a French astronomer, Messier’s catalogue contains only objects observable from his Observatory. Accordingly, all 110 objects are visible from Northern Latitudes. That means that (1) a multitude of objects in the Southern Hemisphere that WOULD have made the Messier list are not included because he simply could not point his scope into the ground to look at them and (2) those in the Southern Hemisphere do not engage in Messier Marathons as much as they engage in Messier Sprints, as they have fewer objects to identify (and, the further South they are, the shorter their list is).

The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101 – 102)

When: Members of the Messier list grace our skies all year, with nearly every Constellation visible in the Northern Hemisphere hosting at least one object. Only two things in the Night Sky can obscure Messier objects. The first of these is “whatever else you want to see” that keeps you from looking for the Messiers. The second is the Moon, which can, in fact, obscure the Messier objects considerably (those that are naked-eye Messiers then require binoculars to see, those that are binocular Messiers then require either patience or higher power).

There is one reasonably broad “sweet spot” in the calendar year during which it is POSSIBLE to see every Messier object, with the rotation of the Earth responsible for bringing the entire list to your tripod. This is, of course, only possible because clouds, the irregularity of the horizon (such as our trees to the South and Syracuse to our North), and your ability to remain awake all factor considerably in your success. This time of year is mid-March through early April.

Why: For the reason for the catalogue, see the “What.” For the reason for the Marathon, well, why not? Despite some criticism of the Marathon you can find online, the Marathon provides a way for amateur astronomers to test their memorization of positions in the Night Sky and, important to those of us in CNY, pull out our optics and dust off our notebooks after two or three winter months of missed practice. Again, the Messiers are not simply a set of goals for an observing session, they are invaluable tools as guide posts for the identification of other objects. If the Constellations are “feet” in an astronomical ruler, their associated stars and the nearby Messier Objects serve as the “inches.”

How: An experienced Messier hunter can find the complete set of objects in a pair of 10×50 binoculars. As the goal to some Marathoners is “quantity, not quality,” a low-power pair of binoculars are best for both speed and movement (although your neck will begin to object to objects at your zenith). If I may sneak in a “tortoise and hare” comparison, there’s nothing wrong with finding 20 objects and enjoying the view. You have ALL YEAR to complete your Marathon. They’re not going anywhere!

For the CNY SAS Members: If your goal is to spend from 8:00 pm to midnight outside, your best luck with Messier hunting by binoculars (that is, listing objects that will result in the least amount of neck fatigue) will find you pointing to the south to Orion (M42, M43, M78), Taurus (home of the naked-eye Pleiades, M45, and the Crab Nebula, M1), Canis Major (home of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and M41), Puppis (just to the left of Canis Major and home to M46, M47, M93), and Leo (far to your Southeast, home of M65, M66, and M96).

The North provides a plethora of objects as well, but the glow from Syracuse makes observing a bit more problematic. The Andromeda Galaxy and its Messier companions (M31, M32, M110) in Cassiopeia and the Dumbell Nebula (M76) and Triangulum Galaxy (M33) in Triangulum disappear quite quickly from view after 8:00 pm behind our high northwest tree line, so come early if you want to see them! Waiting out the tree line to our northeast (after about 9:30 pm), Ursa Major and Canes Venatici mark the locations of (from west to east) M82, M81, M108, M97, M109, M40, M106, M101, M51, M63, M94, and M3. As you can see, with limited fatigue on your neck in a pair of handheld binoculars, you can do a considerable amount of checking-off of the Messier objects in very short order and still go to sleep on schedule. I will have my trusty 6″ Newtonian “Stu-Special” in tow, and I’m sure several others will have scopes to complement the Observatory Cave if the weather holds out. Online lists and sky charts abound, but I assume any astronomy book you have will contain sky charts and Messier locations. Don’t forget a red flashlight.

For those who missed them the first time, you might have a chance to see the Andromeda galaxy and her companions again before 6:30 am. For the hardcore observers, you might even be able to cross them off your list twice, although the tree line to our northeast will likely make it quite difficult. We may have to move the party to higher ground!

For more info on the Marathon and Viewing Tips, see www.avastronomyclub.org/observing/messier/marathon_tips.htm and www.robhawley.net/mm/, or simply google “Messier Marathon.”

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.
sas@somewhereville.com

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Moon
www.daguelaw.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemini_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C/2007_N3
seds.org/~spider/ngc/ngc.cgi?2420
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tully_(town),_New_York
seds.lpl.arizona.edu/messier/Xtra/marathon/marathon.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_marathon
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Messier
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Mechain
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_object
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binoculars
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telescopes
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_110
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_marathon#Criticism_of_Messier_Marathons
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenith
www.syracuse.ny.us
www.skymaps.com/downloads.html
www.avastronomyclub.org/observing/messier/marathon_tips.htm
www.robhawley.net/mm

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for June, 2008

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

We find ourselves approaching the first Society Meeting/Public Viewing of the Summer with (finally!) an excellent Spring viewing session behind us. And it has been a very busy 20+ days for our tax dollars since our last meeting, some of which I’ve tried to summarize (with pictures, of course) below. We find ourselves on the verge of another Summer Seminar that we’re in the process of planning out for late August. In even better news, the SAS regulars for the Public Viewing sessions have found themselves in the company of some new members and new scopes.

While timing and our usual Spring weather conditions have not been ideal for some member-specific “on call” outings (I’ve explained to new members that “on call” refers to being ready at a moment’s notice to drop evening plans to take in a good observing night, which happen so infrequently that you risk missing a rare golden opportunity if you don’t scoot up to Darling Hill when the email or bulletin board post shows up), we remain optimistic that a few reasonable nights lie ahead when we can splurge on the petrol to get us all to Darling Hill for some much needed observing.

Looking at this month’s top story…

Let Us Get The Mars News Out Of The Way…

May 25th (the day after our Saturday public viewing on the 24th, which was quite well attended and included plenty of talk about the events of the next day) saw the successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander at 125.74922W 68.21883N (or that’s where it looked like through my 25×100 binoculars), in the Mars North Polar Region. This is significant for a number of reasons.

1. This is the first of the Mars Scout Missions, which mark a shift at NASA towards low-cost/high-gain exploratory projects (an important selling point in the current economy, where science is definitely feeling the same budget pinches as everyone else).
2. This is only the 6th successful Mars landing out of a total of 12 missions (with the U.S. responsible for 7 of those total 12). Well, 12 acknowledged by various space administrations. Well, 12 from Earth anyway…
3. This has been just about the most exhaustively documented mission to Mars by spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet, using cutting edge technology to follow the progress of cutting edge technology. The results have been remarkable.

The spectacular photos from this mission began right from the capsule descent into the Martian atmosphere…

Decent of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov. Click for a larger view.

…continued with a photo taken of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From www.nasa.gov…lander-topviewcolor2-427.jpg. Click for a larger view.

…and culminated this past week with the first official confirmation of water (a before-and-after of disappearing ice, but we’ll take it) just below the surface.

Water ice on Mars! From www.sciencedaily.com. Click for a larger view.

And, of course, where there is/was water, there is/was the most important component of conditions necessary for biological processes AS WE KNOW THEM to occur. The lab-in-a-ship facilities on Phoenix will also test some of the other conditions (basic organic molecules).

But wait! There’s more!

I was quite pleased to stumble upon a “Big Picture” post at boston.com highlighting some of the best images and animations from Mars both on the ground and high in orbit. All are available from various NASA pages, but not so perfectly grouped and cropped.

A little perspective. Earth and Moon from Mars. Series at www.boston.com. Click for a larger view.

First Twice The Size, Now Half As Many Arms

While our Milky Way has remained exactly the same, our understanding of it has undergone quite a makeover this year. In the March/April message, I made mention of researchers at the University of Sydney discovering that the Milky Way is twice as wide as previous determined. Now, researchers analyzing Spitzer Space Telescope data have determined that our previously four-armed Milky Way galaxy is down to a very familiar two. Just like that, the common model changes, waiting for new data to confirm or alter what we think we know about our own galaxy. It makes a scientist feel good to know that there’s plenty, plenty we still don’t even know about our own backyard.

A new view of the Milky Way. From apod.nasa.gov. Click for a larger view.

The most interesting image to come from this work made the Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 6th and is shown below. You’ll note our location out towards the outer third of the galaxy in the Sagittarius Arm. Those that have been to a Public Viewing have seen any one of the green laser pointers lase out towards the constellation Sagittarius and remark on how that constellation is between ourselves and the center of the Milky Way (which places it in the vicinity of 0o Galactic Longitude). It is nice to have one’s bearings in the Night Sky! There are probably 100 billion such images on 100 billion worlds around the approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy that all have themselves at the center of the radial plot.

I Didn’t Even Know It Was Sick

Dead Sun.” What a depressing thought. Beyond some potential global warming implications and our own discomfort at not being able to understand the one star we can’t do without, reports about the absence of Sun Spots and our lack of understanding about the situation hit me particularly hard because I finally decided that I wanted to take the Bader solar filters I made for my 25×100 binoculars at last year’s Summer Seminar and get some blue sky daytime viewing in. All that work and I’ll have to wait another few years for something to see?!

A boring day on the Sun. From www.spaceweather.com. Click for a larger view.

Admittedly, the headline’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but that is certainly not to say that the situation isn’t something to make astronomers and climatologists think.

And, if the Sun went nova right now, we wouldn’t know it for 7.5 minutes, the time it takes the light to reach the Earth (then there’s be the longer wait for all the debris, but let’s not think about it for another 2 or 3 billion years).

The “Barlow Bob” NEAF Special

I was happy to find a number of emails waiting in my inbox last week with content worth sharing from Robert Godfrey, the Rockland Astronomy Club’s own Barlow Bob (why don’t we have one of those? How about a Bino Brady? Recollimation Ray? Spotting Scope Stu?). A few reading this might know that Rockland is the host of NEAF, the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, where good amateur astronomers everywhere can exercise some purchasing power (or fiscal irresponsibility, depending on how far overboard they go) and listen to lectures from the gamut of stellar speakers, from astrophotographers to astronauts. Last year Ray came back with several photographs I posted in the May message. This year I received a link to a number of photos straight from the Rockland source.

In keeping with the solar observing thread from above, I direct you to Barlow Bob’s slideshow of daytime observing festivities at the Rockland Community College during NEAF. I originally had no idea what the security guard was doing in uniform patrolling the observers, but then it hit me. Here’s a group that spends its nights outside and its days recovering. Given how little Sun they get with their scopes, someone must have guessed the whole lot of’em would be overcome with Vitamin D and go crazy from the heat.

Any members that made it to NEAF’08 with stories to tell do send them off for a posting in the July message!

NEAF at Rockland Community College. From www.google.com. Click for a larger view.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.
sas@somewhereville.com

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer
www.syracuse-astro.org/observatory.html
phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/index.php
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Scout_Program
www.nasa.gov
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth
mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mro
apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080621.html
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622001541.htm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_compound
www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/06/martian_skies.html
www.boston.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
www.syracuse-astro.org/index_marchapril2008.html
www.usyd.edu.au
www.usyd.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=2163
www.spitzer.caltech.edu
apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080606.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_Arm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_%28constellation%29
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactic_longitude
www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2008/06/the-sunspot-mys.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_spots
www.astro-physics.com/index.htm?products/accessories/solar_acc/astrosolar
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernova
www.spaceweather.com
rocklandastronomy.com
www.rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.htm
www.syracuse-astro.org/index_june2007.html
mysite.verizon.net/resqx7hr/NEAFSSP/index2.htm
www.sunyrockland.edu
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_D
www.google.com

Obligatory

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  • Salt City Miners

  • Ubuntu 4 Nano

  • NMT Review

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  • Aerial Photos

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    Syracuse Scenes

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