Below the bowl of the Dipper, about 2o southwest of the star Merak, you’ll find the young planetary nebula, M97, a speeding cloud of glowing gas ejected by a small dying star. In a small scope under dark sky, the nebula resembles the eyes of wise old barn owl gazing out of the interstellar darkness. This object is visible to observers north of the equator.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been putting the finishing touches on “The Art of Stargazing”, the richly-detailed annual stargazing course for those who have a keen desire to look up and see the universe for themselves. It’s finally ready to go for 2014.
And this year, it’s for stargazers in the northern AND southern hemispheres.
The five brightest planets of our solar system remain visible in the night sky this month. Jupiter is nearly overhead at northern latitudes in the early evening hours and low over the northern horizon from the southern hemisphere. Mars brightens and grows in apparent size in March and by month’s end almost outshines every star in the sky. Saturn follows Mars over the southeast horizon later in the night, and Mercury and Venus emerge later in the month in the eastern sky before dawn.
As for the sights beyond our solar system, in the southern hemisphere the excellent star fields of the Milky Way from Canis Major through Puppis, Vela, Carina, and into Crux hold dozens of open star clusters and nebulae. Aim binoculars in this direction and you are bound to see something good. For northern observers, the bright stars of this long, hard winter remain above the southwestern horizon, while relatively star-poor constellations wheel into view overhead. Here you look out of the plane of the Milky Way and into intergalactic space. But there are a few attractive foreground objects here. One of my favorites is the famous Beehive Cluster, M44, in the constellation Cancer, an excellent open star cluster for binoculars. More about the Beehive Cluster here.
Here’s what’s going on in the night sky this month…
This week I’ve got a video by Tony Darnell of “Deep Astronomy” and the Space Telescope Sciences Institute. I’ve admired Tony’s work for a long while. He’s recently put together a short video about the Kepler space telescope and its search for planets orbiting other stars. It’s timely too as Kepler scientists this week announced the discovery of another 715 extra-solar planets, bringing the total to more than 1700. And many of these planets, it seems, are smaller Earth-sized planets rather than Jupiter-sized behemoths.
It seems safe to conclude there are far more planets in the galaxy than there are stars. And to think just 20 years ago, it was unclear if there were any such planets at all. Put this video on HD, sit back, and enjoy…
Many urban stargazers enjoy chance meetings with curious passersby who take an interest in looking through a telescope. But no one will likely receive the caliber of visitor who twice knocked on the observatory door of a lone astronomer in Washington, D.C. on a warm August night in 1863.