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    Sky Calendar

    Venus and Jupiter Reach Conjunction June 30th!

    Venus and Jupiter are headed for a cozy conjunction on Tuesday. During the event, the two brilliant planets will appear only 1/3 of a degree apart from each other on the night sky’s inky canvas. Although optical aids are not necessary to enjoy the planetary pairing, they will be near enough to occupy the same field of view in a telescope at low power. This will be the closest conjunction of the two until Aug. 27, 2016.

    What's Up in the Sky

    At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

    What to observe:

    June 13 –Venus and Beehive Cluster Pairing

    Get your binoculars ready because the ever-bright Venus and the popular Beehive Cluster will form a striking pair in the night sky shortly after sunset on June 13th. As the third brightest object in the sky, Venus is always a sight to behold. The opportunity to enjoy its brilliance in the same field of view as the beautiful Beehive Cluster is one that shouldn’t be missed. Also known as M44, the cluster lies about 560 light years away and can be observed with the naked eye in dark sky conditions. Located in the Cancer constellation, the cluster appears as a cloudy, intriguing mass upon first glance. But when you turn a pair of large aperture binoculars (10x50) or a small rich field telescope on it, its stellar inhabitants blaze to life. Covering more than 1.5 degrees of sky, the Beehive Cluster is home to at least 1,000 stars, with a large portion of those being red dwarfs and about 30 percent of a type similar to our Sun. It also includes some impressive blue-white beauties and a sprinkling of orange giants. Identified as a nebulous mass by the 2nd Century astronomer Ptolemy, M44 has a rich history that includes being one of the first objects studied through a telescope by famed astronomer Galileo, who realized it was actually a star cluster. It also has a strong foundation in the lore of ancient cultures. Also known as Praesepe, which means “manger” in Latin, the Greeks and Romans characterized the cluster as a manger that feeds two nearby stars, Asellus Australis and Asellus Borealis, which were seen to represent two famous donkeys that were key in a battle with the Titans.

     

    Summer Triangle

    Northern Hemisphere observers would be remiss if they did not check out the Summer Triangle currently reigning in the night sky. The popular asterism is, as its name suggests, a simple triangle formed by three brilliant stars – Vega, Altair and Deneb. A resident of the Lyra Constellation and easy to find in the eastern sky, Vega is a blue-white beauty that is the brightest in the trio and the fifth brightest star in the sky. A member of the Cygnus Constellation, Deneb lies to the lower left of Vega. Although the blue-white supergiant is the least bright member of the asterism, it is actually the most luminous. Its distance is what gives it its third place ranking. To the lower right of Vega, you can find the fast-rotating Altair, an oblate spheroid that is the brightest star in the Aquila Constellation. Although they are worthy sights, these three stars are not the only reasons to check out the Summer Triangle. Another notable stellar offering is the amazing double star Albireo that awaits in the middle of the triangle. When viewed through a telescope, this point of light becomes a wonderful contrasting pair made up of a blazing golden yellow star and a subtle blue star. Deep sky favorites lurking in the neighborhood include the appropriately named Ring Nebula (M57), which blooms around a bluish dwarf, and the hourglass-shaped Dumbbell Nebula (M27), which was the first planetary nebula ever discovered. In addition to all of these treats, a grander sight will be revealed under a dark sky when you see the dusty, glowing Milky Way cutting a stunning swath through the midst of the Summer Triangle.

    What's Up in the Sky - May 2015

    At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

    What to observe:

    May 23 – Saturn at Opposition

    Saturn and its dazzling rings will be in a prime viewing position as the planet reaches opposition at 0200 UT on May 23rd (9 p.m. CDT on May 22nd in the U.S.). During this event, Saturn will be positioned directly opposite of the Sun when viewed from Earth. It will rise as the Sun sets and stay up all night, which provides for ample viewing time. In addition to delving into Saturn’s fascinating ring system, small telescope users might want to look for Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, and the dark groove in the rings that is identified as the Cassini Division. Although Saturn just moved into the Libra Constellation, the quickest way to locate it is to look for it in the east above the red-hued beauty known as Antares in the Scorpius Constellation. To the naked eye, it will appear as a steady, gold point of light. Following opposition, Saturn will remain a brilliant showpiece of the night sky for several months. 

    Virgo Constellation

    Offering up a feast of intriguing galaxies, the Virgo constellation is an ideal May target for stargazers in either hemisphere. As the second largest constellation, Virgo covers 1,294 square degrees of celestial real estate and is visible from 80° North to 80° South.

    Before dipping into all of Virgo’s galactic offerings, a new observer can get their bearings by locating the constellation’s standout star - Spica. Also known as alpha Virginis, this multi-star system dominated by a blue giant has an apparent visual magnitude of 1.04. To easily locate Spica, find the Big Dipper asterism and follow the arc of its handle as it points to Arcturus, an orange giant star in the Bootes constellation. Once your eye finds Arcturus, continue to follow the same gentle curve to the blue-white beauty Spica. Some of Virgo’s other stellar treats include Porrima, a binary star system that can only be resolved with large aperture telescopes; Auva, a red giant with variations in brightness; Vindemiatrix, a yellow giant with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.826; Heze, a white dwarf; and Zavijava, an often-occulted pale star that stays cozy with the ecliptic plane and gained a bit of notoriety when it was used by Einstein in 1922 to determine the speed of light in space.

    Virgo really starts to shine when it comes to deep sky observing targets. One of Virgo’s most dynamic deep sky treasures is the Sombrero Galaxy (Messier 104), which is located about 11.5° west of Spica. Featuring between 1,200 to 2,000 globular clusters, this unbarred spiral galaxy has a bright bulging center ringed by a pronounced dark dust lane. The huge constellation also is home to the massive Virgo Cluster, which teems with a versatile mix of well over a thousand galaxies. Among its offerings are Messier 49, an elliptical galaxy with a 9.4 visual magnitude that makes it the cluster’s brightest member; Messier 87, a giant elliptical galaxy with a 9.59 visual magnitude that lies near Virgo’s border with the Coma Berenices constellation; Messier 58, a barred spiral galaxy; and the lenticular galaxies Messier 84 and Messier 86. The cluster also includes the Siamese Twins (NGC 4567 AND NGC 4568), which are colliding spiral galaxies; the Eyes Galaxies, which includes the barred lenticular NGC 4435 and the hard-to-categorize NGC 4438; the bright Messier 88 and Messier 90 spiral galaxies and the challenging Messier 91 barred spiral galaxy.  

    What's Up in the Sky - April

    At any moment of the day, countless awe-inspiring celestial events are unfolding in the sky. With a universe of options, it can be hard to pin down what to observe, what to look into or what to remember. This column takes a peek at what’s happening in the sky and in the world of astronomy in general to provide a quick list of highlights that can jumpstart your own explorations.

    What to observe:

    April 22/23 – Lyrid Meteor Shower

    Right now one of the oldest meteor showers on record is taking its annual turn in the skies. The Lyrids, which are caused by the Earth’s passage through debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, are set to peak in the wee hours of April 22nd/23rd with an average hourly meteor count between 10 and 20. Especially favorable for the northern hemisphere, the Lyrids appear to radiate from a point near the bright star Vega in the Lyra constellation. However, observers should actually look at a dark patch of sky about 90 degrees away from the radiant point to see the most meteors. To view the Lyrid meteors, which have been known to briefly leave behind glowing dust trails, all you need is your naked eye and a good place to lie down under an open sky.

    Hydra Constellation

    April is an ideal time to view the massive Hydra Constellation, which winds its way across southern skies as a celestial incarnation of the water snake. As the largest and longest of the 88 constellations, Hydra covers a 1,303 square degree area in the sky. Defined by 17 stars, it is visible from 83° South to 54° North. In terms of stars, its brightest is Alphard (Alpha Hydrae), which is a barium-rich giant star with an orange hue and an apparent visual magnitude near 2. The constellation also offers R Hydrae - a pulsating variable star that experiences intense changes in magnitude; Epsilon Hydrae - a multiple star system that includes a spectroscopic binary; Gamma Hydrae - a yellow giant; V Hydrae - a carbon star that is one of the reddest visible stars; and U Hydrae - a carbon star that can be seen with the unaided eye. Even though Hydra is not as packed with observing targets as one might expect, it still has several notable deep sky objects. One of the easiest to spot is Messier 48, an open cluster that can be seen as a hazy patch with the naked eye or resolved into dozens of brilliant stars with a pair of binoculars. Messier 68 is a stunning globular cluster with a round appearance that puts on a great show in a larger telescope. The constellation also contains Messier 83. Known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, this deep sky treat is one of the closest and brightest barred spiral galaxies. Home to six known supernovae, this active galaxy gloriously displays its spiral arm structure when viewed through a moderate to large telescope. Beyond the Messier catalog, Hydra also boasts an intriguing planetary nebula known as the Ghost of Jupiter. This feature has a bluish hue and can be easily examined through a telescope.

    What to look into:

    April 25 - Astronomy Day

    Promoted and organized by the Astronomical League, Astronomy Day is scheduled for April 25th, and events are being planned around the country to celebrate. Boasting roots that go back to 1973, Astronomy Day has been held in the spring and fall each year since 2007. With a theme of “Bringing Astronomy to the People,” organizers describe the day as a grass roots movement with a mission to expose as many people as possible to the wonders of astronomy. Astronomy clubs, observatories, planetariums, schools and more will mark the day by holding a variety of events. For more information or to view a list of scheduled events, visit www.astroleague.org/al/astroday/astroday.html or check with your local astronomy club.

    Global Astronomy Month

    Astronomers Without Borders’ Global Astronomy Month is in full swing and a bounty of activities are available to enjoy. An online highlight for this week is the rescheduled Messier Marathon, which begins at 18:30 UT on April 22nd. During a traditional Messier Marathon, observers haul equipment into the field in an attempt to find as many of the 110 astronomical objects detailed in the famed Messier Catalogue as possible in one night. In this online event, The Virtual Telescope Project will do the heavy lifting for you. To access the marathon, visit www.virtualtelescope.eu/webtv/. Astronomers Without Borders organizes Global Astronomy Month each April to emphasize its motto - “One People, One Sky.” For a complete list of GAM 2015 programs, visit http://astronomerswithoutborders.org/gam2015-programs/program-schedule-2015.html.