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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Look north in September 2014 – the king’s on the rise!

Yes, that’s Cepheus, the King – remember that Cassiopeia (the “W” ) is the Queen. Though Cepheus makes a familiar “home plate” asterism, it’s not nearly so memorable as the “W” of Cassiopeia, primarily because its stars are dimmer than those of the “W.” In fact, you might have difficulty picking it out at first, but here’s a tip: Follow the familiar “Pointers” of the Big Dipper to the North Star – then keep going, but not too far. The first bright star you meet will mark the tip of the Cepheus home plate – It’s about one fist away from Polaris. For comparison, the Pointer stars are nearly three times that far in the other direction.

Also coming up below the “W” is the “Bow” asterism that marks Perseus, who is carrying the head of Medusa, which contains the “Demon Star,” Algol. We’ll take that up next month when they’re higher in the sky and easier for all to see. Here’s a chart.

Click image for a larger version. (Developed from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, download this.

To review the connecting mythology, which helps me remember the related constellations, here’s the story in brief.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia have a daughter Andromeda whose beauty makes the sea nymphs jealous. They enlist Poseidon to send a sea monster to ravage the coastline of Ethiopia, the kingdom of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. To appease the monster, the good king and queen chain Andromeda to a rock along the coast, but Perseus rescues her and together they escape on Pegasus, his flying horse.

You meet Andromeda and Pegasus – the flying horse is much easier to identify as the “Great Square” – in the “Look East” post this month. Also in the “Look East”  post we detail the “Three Guides,” three stars that mark the zero hour in the equatorial coordinate system used to give a permanent address to all stars. The first of those Three Guides is Beta Cassiopeia, visible in our northeastern sky, and so on the chart with this post.

Moving from mythology to science, Cepheus is probably best known today for a special type of star called a Cepheid variable. This is a star that changes in brightness according to a very precise time table. What’s more, it was discovered that the length of a Cepheid’s cycle – that is the amount of time it takes to grow dim and then brighten again – is directly related to its absolute magnitude. The absolute magnitude of a star is a measure of how bright it really is as opposed to how bright it appears to us. (How bright it appears is, of course, related to how far away it is.) That makes Cepheid variables a sort of Rosetta Stone of the skies.

It is relatively easy to time the cycle of a variable, even if the star is quite faint from our viewpoint. These cycles usually cover a few days. If you can identify the length of this cycle, you then can know the absolute magnitude of a star. And if you know its absolute magnitude, it’s a simple matter to compare that to how bright it appears to us and thus determine its approximate distance from us.

This is a huge breakthrough. Without Cepheid variables astronomers were at a loss for determining the distance of anything that was more than a few hundred light years away. The distance to such “close” stars could be determined using a very common method known as parallax – that is, determining how the star appeared to change position slightly from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit. But that change in position is extremely tiny and difficult to measure even with very close stars. With the Hipparcos satellite and computer analysis, it has been possible to use this parallax system for stars as far as 3,000 light years. But that still is close by astronomy standards. (Keep in mind our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across.) But Cepheid variables can even be found in other galaxies. In fact, they played a huge role in proving that “spiral nebulae” were really other “island universes” – that is, other galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope has found Cepheids out to a distance of about 100 million light years – a huge leap from the 3,000 light years we can reach with the parallax method.

There are other ways of making an educated guess at an object’s distance, and they frequently are quite complex and indirect. But the Cepheid variable has been one of the most important tools in the astronomer’s tool kit for the past century. It was in 1908 that Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a $10.50 a week “calculator” at Harvard Observatory noticed a pattern while doing tedious work cataloging stars and saw it’s importance. Though she published a paper about it, she never really received the credit she deserved during her lifetime for this breakthrough discovery.

So when you look at this “home plate” in the sky, see if you can find the fourth magnitude star, Delta Cephei – it’s not hard to spot under good conditions. (See the chart above.) When you find it, pay homage to it for the key role it has played in unlocking the secrets of the universe – for once astronomers know the distance of an object they can make all sorts of deductions about its composition, mass, and movement.

Look north in July 2014 and take the measure of your skies and eyes!

Light pollution is a big issue these days. How does it impact you? Summer is a good time to check by looking north about two hours after sunset and seeing what stars you can see in and near the Little Dipper. Why summer? Because this is when the Little Dipper should be highest in your sky – standing upwards from Polaris, the North Star. Here’s what you should see on a typical July evening when you look north from mid-northern latitudes.

In summer the faint stars of the Little Dipper are high above the North Star. Click image for larger view. (Developed from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

The Big Dipper is diving downward in the northwest but is still very high, and its handy “pointers” should get you quickly to the North Star, Polaris. Roughly opposite the Big Dipper you should see the “W” of Cassiopeia starting to make its way upward in the northeast. And unless you suffer from really terrible light pollution, you should see the two “Guardians of the Pole” – the second and third magnitude stars that mark the end of the Little Dipper. The brighter of these two is just a tad dimmer than Polaris, but since it’s higher in the sky right now and thus shining through less air to get to you, it will probably look just the same as the North Star in brightness.

To do this test you first have to wait until it is genuinely dark, and in summer that’s a bit longer than in winter. Twilight actually is divided into three steps. We have civil twilight which goes from sunset until when the Sun is six degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight is the next period, which continues until the Sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. Then you have Astronomical Twilight until the Sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. At that point it is as dark as it will get and will remain that dark until we run the sequence in reverse as the eastern horizon nears the Sun. As a rough rule of thumb, you can consider each twilight period to last half an hour – but the exact length depends on where you are on Earth and the time of year. If you want to get precise, go to the U.S. Naval Observatory site, fill in the form you’ll find there, and you can get a table that will give you the start and end of these twilight times – or for that matter when the Moon rises, or the Sun sets. It’s very handy. (Note: the preceding link takes you to a page for US cities and towns – but there’s a second page here where you can put in the latitude and longitude for any location in the world, including in the US. )

The second thing you need to do is make sure your eyes are dark adapted. They are casually reasonably well dark adapted after you have been out for 15 minutes and have not looked at any white lights. But it can take from half an hour to an hour of protecting your eyes from any white light for them to become fully dark adapted. That doesn’t mean you have to sit around in the dark doing nothing waiting for this to happen. In the last hour or so before full darkness there are plenty of things to see – just avoid bright lights. That also means moonlight. You’re going to want to do this when the Moon is not in the sky, for it will make it difficult to see faint objects anywhere near it. In July of 2014 the last two weeks should work pretty well for the evening hours – as will the first day or two of the month.  Other evenings, the Moon will dominate the early evening sky.   (A good Moon-phase calendar can be found here, though for this purpose I find the table from the Naval Observatory for local Moon rise is also handy!)

So here’s the test:

How many stars can you see in the Little Dipper?

Remember that in the magnitude system the higher the number, the fainter the star.

The Little Dipper consists of seven stars. Three are easy – Polaris and the two “Guardians” marked “21” and “30” on the chart below. If, once you are dark adapted, you can see only one of the “Guardians,” then your skies are limited to magnitude 2 stars and brighter – very poor. If you see both, but no other stars in the Little Dipper, then your limit is magnitude 3.

On our chart below, the magnitude of each star is listed as a whole number so as not to put decimal points on the chart because they might then be confused with faint stars! So when you see a star listed as “21” that means “magnitude 2.1.”

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

Even in good, dark skies the other four stars in the Little Dipper may not be that easy to see – and the faintest ones may require averted vision – that is, don’t look exactly where the star should be. Instead, look a little to one side or the other, and the star may pop into view. That’s because the center of your eyes are not as sensitive to faint light as the outer regions of your eyes.

Here’s another little trick that may help you locate these faint stars – use binoculars. With typical, hand-held binoculars you may be able to fit all four stars of the Little Dipper’s “cup” into the same field of view. If not, get the “Guardians” in your field of view, then move just a little to where the other two stars of the “cup” should be. This does not count, of course, for the light pollution test. For that test we’re trying to determine the faintest star you can see with the naked eye. But looking first at the stars with binoculars helps assure you that they really are there! You also can trace out the handle this way, though you will have to move your binoculars to do so.

If you can locate all the stars in the Little Dipper with your naked eye, you have very dark skies – congratulations. To see how good they are – and continue to test your eyesight and dark adaption – look for the stars marked “55” and “60” on our chart.

The star marked “60” is traditionally thought of as the faintest you can see with your naked eye. That’s a magnitude 6 star. In really pristine skies, such as those over Mauna Kea in Hawaii, experienced observers with excellent eyes can detect stars down to magnitude 8 with the naked eye. Personally, I’m happy when I can see all the stars in the Little Dipper and especially happy if I can get that “55” star – I’ve never seen the “60” one with my naked eye. But relative to the heavily light-polluted eastern seaboard of the US, I have dark skies.

This is not simply a good guide to light pollution in your area. It also is a handy guide to tell you just how good  – how “transparent” – the skies are on any given night – and to show you how well you have dark adapted at any given moment. So whenever I go out to observe I frequently glance at the Little Dipper to test both my developing night vision and the clarity of the skies. (It never fails to amaze me how much and how quickly my night vision changes. )

To the casual observer all clear nights are equal. But the experienced star gazer knows they are not, and the stars in and about the Little Dipper are a good guide, especially in the summer months when they are so high in the sky.

Look North in April 2014! See Mizar – the best thing since – well, since sliced bread!

In April the Big Dipper is climbing high overhead in the northeast and starting to pour its contents into the Little Dipper – not a very good idea, but fun to contemplate. Meanwhile, the only double star pair where both stars have proper names – Mizar and Alcor – is high in the northeast and ready to challenge your eyesight and boggle your mind.

Mizar is the middle of the three stars that form the handle of the Big Dipper – the same three that we use as an arc to trace a path to Arcturus. (That reference is explained in this month’s “Look East” post.) Wait until an hour or more after sunset, then focus on that center star. Is it one star – or two? For my old eyes, it is one. And since my eyes are not that bad, I question those who say this is an “easy” test of eyesight. But lots of people do indeed see two stars there when they look carefully. Maybe you’re one of them. If you’re not sure, or can see just one, take a look with your binoculars. Now you certainly should see two.

The brighter of the two is Mizar, the fainter one Alcor. More on that in a minute. First, here’s our northern sky for this month.

Arrows indicate directions in the sky where north is always the direction towards the north celestial pole, and west is always the direction the stars appear to move. Click image for larger view. (Developed from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Download a printer-friendly version of this chart here.

And here’s what you should see when you look with binoculars at the Big Dipper’s handle.

Zooming in on the center star in the Big Dipper’s handle using binoculars, you should see it is really two stars – Mizar and Alcor. Click image for larger view. (Developed from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

The words “double star” simply mean that a star that appears as one to our naked eyes, is seen as two when optical aid is used. But they may simply be two stars that are closely aligned, yet in reality very far apart and have no real connection to one another. “Binary star” is the term used for two stars that are gravitationally linked to one another. So here’s the double rub with Mizar:

  • When you are looking at Mizar and Alcor, you probably are looking at six stars, not two!
  • Scientists still dispute whether Mizar and Alcor are a true double, even though they have been observing this system with telescopes since 1650!

My “sliced bread” reference figures into the Mizar/Alcor picture in a roundabout way. I have trouble remembering things. So when I wanted to remember the approximate distance to Mizar – 80 light years – I asked myself what interesting thing was going on 80 years ago that can help me remember the distance to these stars? And the answer – given a little research – was that about 80 years ago America was introduced to sliced bread all packaged neatly. Actually, sliced bread was first introduced in 1928, according to Wikipedia, but it was in 1930 that the first national marketing campaign began for “Wonder Bread.” Wonderful. So about 80 years ago the light you see left Mizar and Alcor to begin its journey to your eye.  Don’t let the different dates bother you because an approximation is close enough.

And Mizar alone is a lot more interesting than sliced bread.

Even a small telescope reveals that Mizar itself is a beautiful double! That’s what was revealed when a telescope was turned on it in 1650. But no telescope can reveal to the eye that these two stars are in fact, each a double! The stars in each pair are so close to one another that only an instrument known as an interferometer can reveal them. So what we see as Mizar is in fact four stars. (Double stars are a special love of mine, and I wrote about observing Mizar  in the double star blog I share with John Nanson here.)

But what about Alcor? The Hipparchos satellite, the best modern source for star distances, found Mizar to be 78.1 light years away and Alcor to be 81.1. Those are great ball park figures and good enough for the sliced bread reference. But they may be wrong. The astronomer James Kaler wrote a few years ago in his book “The Hundred Greatest Stars” that these distances may be wrong – in fact, some evidence suggested then that Mizar was actually farther away than Alcor. Kaler concluded in his book that they are “probably paired.”

But now comes more evidence as reported in the current (2014) Wikipedia reference to Mizar:

. . .In 2009, it was independently reported by two groups of astronomers (Eric Mamajek et al., and Zimmerman et al.) that Alcor actually is itself a binary, consisting of Alcor A and Alcor B (a red dwarf star), and that this binary system is most likely gravitationally bound to Mizar, bringing the full count of stars in this complex system to six.

So what our naked eye reveals as one or two stars, may indeed be a complex system of six stars! Which in my mind says that slicing up Mizar and Alcor this way may be – well, may be the best thing since sliced bread and just the sort of thing that makes observing the stars such a treat for the eye and mind!

Look East: March 2014 Roars in like a sickle and triangle! (Huh?)

Sure, I’d like to tell you March roars in like a lion – but honestly it’s easier to point to the sickle and the triangle and the “Little King” we call Regulus, this last being the new guidepost star for March. But there is a lion there, too. Let’s look at the sickle and triangle first, though, because they’re two very easy asterisms you’ll see in the east about an hour or so after sunset. The Big Dipper off to the northeast gives you an idea of size for comparison – and the same pointer stars you use inthe DIpper to point to the north star – they can be used to point inthe opposite direction where they come very close to Regulus, about 45 degrees away.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click for printer friendly version of the above chart.

OK – so can you make this into a lion? I find it fairly easy if I consider the sickle his head and mane – and I consider the triangle his rear haunches. I leave the rest to my imagination and don’t really attempt to connect the dots.

Leo does look much like the Lion depicted inthe 1603 Bayer catalog.  Click image for larger version.

The stars of Leo do indeed trace out some key parts of the Lion depicted in this plate from the 1603 Bayer atlas. (Click image for larger view.) Note that the bright star that marks the tail is named “Denobola,” which in Arabic really does mean “tail.” We encounter this also in the tail of Cygnus the Swan where the bright star is named “Deneb.” The Arabic star names are frequently descriptive. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Regulus, our new bright guidepost star for this month, means “little king,” or “prince,” in Latin. That fits right in with the lion‘s reputation as King of the Beasts. And what a lovely image to have a prince leading a lion onto the night-time stage this month!

Is Regulus memorable in its own right? Well yes. It’s a star that is spinning so fast that if we could see its disc, it would look like a beach ball that someone sat on. It takes Regulus about 16 hours to make one rotation – in comparison, our Sun, a smaller star, takes about a month to rotate. In fact, if Regulus were spinning just a bit faster, it would spin itself apart!

The rapid spinning gives Regulus an equatorial diameter that is about one-third bigger than its polar diameter. This also results in the polar regions of Regulus being much hotter than its equator.

Regulus is also a multiple star system, but as such rather dull visually. The second star in the system is much fainter, so it can barely be detected by a skilled observer using binoculars – and in a telescope it’s so far away from the primary star that the two stars don’t seem like a pair at all. Both these stars are spectroscopic doubles – meaning the companions are so close we can’t see them with a telescope.

Though a relatively young star – about 250 million years as compared to the five-billion-year age of our Sun – Regulus is apparently nearing the end of its normal life as a “main sequence” star. That is, it’s about to finish burning hydrogen, which means it will soon go into the last stages of its life. But according to Jim Kaler, Regulus is also a curious case. It appears to have a very close white dwarf companion which scientists believe once was much larger and brighter than Regulus. But the gases were drawn from the white dwarf into Regulus, making Regulus both huge and bright and causing it to spin the way it does.

In total, Regulus is another example of how what looks like a common star to us, is quite fascinating when seen in the light of modern science.

Vital stats for Regulus:

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.35, 22nd among the brightest stars in our sky; shines with the luminosity of about 150 Suns.
• Distance: 77 light years
• Spectral Type: B7V
• Position: 10h:08m:22s, +11°:58′:02

The buzz about the Beehive (M44) and Leo’s whiskers – a binocular treat!

In ancient times the constellation Leo extended much farther east and west, and M44 was considered to be its whiskers.

from “The Next Step – Finding and Viewing Messier Object” by Ken Graun

Whiskers indeed! I like that. It’s a great way to remember where to look for M44, for if you can find the Sickle – the huge head and mane of Leo – then all you have to think is “now where would his whiskers be?” Scan 2-3 binocular fields in that direction – westward – and you should soon stumble upon M44, the Beehive. Here is a chart you can use to find it. Do wait  until about two hours after sunset when it is really dark and M44 is well up in the sky.

Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart.

M44 also is known as “the Beehive,” and Praesepe, which is Latin for manger. And if you have dark skies, away from light pollution, you will see this as a small, wispy cloud, perhaps suggestive of Leo’s whiskers. It is, in fact, a beautiful star cluster as binoculars or a small telescope will reveal. Galileo first discovered its true nature, and in this hazy patch counted more than 40 stars. You should see about that many with your binoculars. This is one of the nearest star clusters to us, and although there is still debate over its exact distance, it is around 580 light years. That compares with about 400 light years for the Pleiades. The two clusters are pretty close to the same size, but M44 is considered much older. M45 – the Pleiades – is estimated to be 78 million years old, while M44 is thought to be about 660 million years old. As star ages go, they’re both quite young. But open clusters, such as these, do not last too long – the members stars tend to get drawn off by close encounters with other stars as the whole clusters moves about our Milky Way galaxy.

The Latin name, Praesepe, is worth examining because it explains the names of two relatively bright stars which flank it – Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. Borealis means “northern” and Australis means “southern.” Asellus means “ass” – as in donkey – and Praesepe means “crib” or “manger.” In other words, the Beehive apparently looked to some like a pile of hay in a manger, and these two flanking stars were donkeys eating that hay, one to the north and one to the south. In binoculars the scene should look something like this.

M44 and surroundings as it would appear in binoculars with a 5-degree field of view. Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights software screen shot.)

Click here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

The two donkeys are about as bright as the stars in the handle of the Little Dipper, so under dark skies should be faintly visible to the naked eye with the northern one the dimmest. The third star, Eta Cancri, is dimmer still. Its name, however, indicates that it, the Beehive, and other stars shown here are all part of the rather obscure constellation known as Cancer, the crab.

Look North in February 2014 – Watch the Great Bear Come out of his Cave!

When you look to the northeast early on a February evening do you see this:

or maybe this:

Used by permission from the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

or perhaps this?

It all depends, of course, on your imagination, but for me I see something like the last image. Even that doesn’t quite capture what my imagination wants to do with these stars. What I see is a huge and rather grumpy bear, emerging from his cave a bit early after hibernating through a few rough months, and now he’s stretching – and clawing – his way up my sky, and he is magnificent!

But I admit, for years it wasn’t that way. I saw instead what I suspect many people see – the Big Dipper rising. And I knew, sort of vaguely, that this asterism – one of the most familiar in the world – was a major portion of the constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major.  But really, large as the Dipper is, it’s just the hind quarters of the Big Bear, which is really large, and when I finally took the time to trace out his head and ears and front and rear paws, he quickly became one of my favorite constellations – one of the rare ones like Orion and Scorpius that really look like what you expect from their names.  And funny – I can’t explain why –  but I seldom see it as a bear except at this time of year when it is rising. Then it seems to dominate my northern sky and my imagination.

Oh – did I say it looks like a bear? No – I should have said it looks like a bear no one has seen except in the sky – a bear with a long tail! I don’t know why that is. I assume it is because of the second depiction, which is how Johann Bayer pictured the Great Bear in his “Uranometria,” a breakthrough star atlas published in 1603.  Bayer was a lawyer, not a hunter. Maybe he had never seen a bear?

The first depiction, a Stellarium screenshot, is the best one to use as a guide for finding the correct stars. Besides the Dipper stars, there are a dozen more that trace out his main features, and all of these are either third magnitude, or on the brighter side of fourth magnitude – that is between 3.5 and 4, so they should be visible from most locations – assuming, of course, you are in mid-northern latitudes.  The chart that follows gives a view of the Bear in context with the rest of the northern sky in February.

About one hour after sunset, look north and you should see a sky similar to the one shown in our chart below. The height of Polaris, the North Star, will be the same as your latitude. Polaris stays put.  Everything else appears to rotate about it, so our view of all else changes in the course of the evening – and from night to night. It’s a good idea to check the north sky every time you observe to get a sense of how things are changing and to orient yourself.  Notice that the “W” now looks more like an “M” as it starts to roll on down into the northwest.

Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)
Click here to download a printer-friendly image of the above chart.

Look East: March 2013 Roars in like a sickle and triangle! (Huh?)

Sure, I’d like to tell you March roars in like a lion – but honestly it’s easier to point to the sickle and the triangle and the “Little King” we call Regulus, this last being the new guidepost star for March. But there is a lion there, too. Let’s look at the sickle and triangle first, though, because they’re two very easy asterisms you’ll see in the east about an hour or so after sunset. The Big Dipper off to the northeast gives you an idea of size for comparison.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. The circle represents a typical field of view for low power binoculars. While you should see the brightest stars easily, in twilight - or in typical light pollution - you'll find that binoculars will show some of the fainter stars nearby and help you be sure you have identified the correct bright star.  The Mars position is for the 15th, but it will change a little each night.  Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

This is the eastern sky as it will appear about an hour after sunset from mid-northern latitudes. Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click for printer friendly version of the above chart.

OK – so can you make this into a lion? I find it fairly easy if I consider the sickle his head and mane – and I consider the triangle his rear haunches. I leave the rest to my imagination and don’t really attempt to connect the dots.

Leo does look much like the Lion depicted inthe 1603 Bayer catalog.  Click image for larger version.

The stars of Leo do indeed trace out some key parts of the Lion depicted in this plate from the 1603 Bayer atlas. (Click image for larger view.) Note that the bright star that marks the tail is named “Denobola,” which in Arabic really does mean “tail.” We encounter this also in the tail of Cygnus the Swan where the bright star is named “Deneb.” The Arabic star names are frequently descriptive. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Regulus, our new bright guidepost star for this month, means “little king,” or “prince,” in Latin. That fits right in with the lion‘s reputation as King of the Beasts. And what a lovely image to have a prince leading a lion onto the night-time stage this month!

Is Regulus memorable in its own right? Well yes. It’s a star that is spinning so fast that if we could see its disc, it would look like a beach ball that someone sat on. It takes Regulus about 16 hours to make one rotation – in comparison, our Sun, a smaller star, takes about a month to rotate. In fact, if Regulus were spinning just a bit faster, it would spin itself apart!

The rapid spinning gives Regulus an equatorial diameter that is about one-third bigger than its polar diameter. This also results in the polar regions of Regulus being much hotter than its equator.

Regulus is also a multiple star system, but as such rather dull visually. The second star in the system is much fainter, so it can barely be detected by a skilled observer using binoculars – and in a telescope it’s so far away from the primary star that the two stars don’t seem like a pair at all. Both these stars are spectroscopic doubles – meaning the companions are so close we can’t see them with a telescope.

Though a relatively young star – about 250 million years as compared to the five-billion-year age of our Sun – Regulus is apparently nearing the end of its normal life as a “main sequence” star. That is, it’s about to finish burning hydrogen, which means it will soon go into the last stages of its life. But according to Jim Kaler, Regulus is also a curious case. It appears to have a very close white dwarf companion which scientists believe once was much larger and brighter than Regulus. But the gases were drawn from the white dwarf into Regulus, making Regulus both huge and bright and causing it to spin the way it does.

In total, Regulus is another example of how what looks like a common star to us, is quite fascinating when seen in the light of modern science.

Vital stats for Regulus:

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.35, 22nd among the brightest stars in our sky; shines with the luminosity of about 150 Suns.
• Distance: 77 light years
• Spectral Type: B7V
• Position: 10h:08m:22s, +11°:58′:02

The buzz about the Beehive (M44) and Leo’s whiskers – a binocular treat!

In ancient times the constellation Leo extended much farther east and west, and M44 was considered to be its whiskers.

from “The Next Step – Finding and Viewing Messier Object” by Ken Graun

Whiskers indeed! I like that. It’s a great way to remember where to look for M44, for if you can find the Sickle – the huge head and mane of Leo – then all you have to think is “now where would his whiskers be?” Scan 2-3 binocular fields in that direction – westward – and you should soon stumble upon M44, the Beehive. Here is a chart you can use to find it. Do wait  until about two hours after sunset when it is really dark and M44 is well up in the sky.

Click image for larger view. Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart.

M44 also is known as “the Beehive,” and Praesepe, which is Latin for manger. And if you have dark skies, away from light pollution, you will see this as a small, wispy cloud, perhaps suggestive of Leo’s whiskers. It is, in fact, a beautiful star cluster as binoculars or a small telescope will reveal. Galileo first discovered its true nature, and in this hazy patch counted more than 40 stars. You should see about that many with your binoculars. This is one of the nearest star clusters to us, and although there is still debate over its exact distance, it is around 580 light years. That compares with about 400 light years for the Pleiades. The two clusters are pretty close to the same size, but M44 is considered much older. M45 – the Pleiades – is estimated to be 78 million years old, while M44 is thought to be about 660 million years old. As star ages go, they’re both quite young. But open clusters, such as these, do not last too long – the members stars tend to get drawn off by close encounters with other stars as the whole clusters moves about our Milky Way galaxy.

The Latin name, Praesepe, is worth examining because it explains the names of two relatively bright stars which flank it – Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. Borealis means “northern” and Australis means “southern.” Asellus means “ass” – as in donkey – and Praesepe means “crib” or “manger.” In other words, the Beehive apparently looked to some like a pile of hay in a manger, and these two flanking stars were donkeys eating that hay, one to the north and one to the south. In binoculars the scene should look something like this.

M44 and surroundings as it would appear in binoculars with a 5-degree field of view. Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights software screen shot.)

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The two donkeys are about as bright as the stars in the handle of the Little Dipper, so under dark skies should be faintly visible to the naked eye with the northern one the dimmest. The third star, Eta Cancri, is dimmer still. Its name, however, indicates that it, the Beehive, and other stars shown here are all part of the rather obscure constellation known as Cancer, the crab.

Look North in March 2013 – Oops, there’s a big hole in the sky!

Well, not really – but unless you live in an area with very dark skies, free of light pollution, you’re going to have a hard time seeing the faint stars above Polaris, the North Star, at this time of year. Here’s what our March north sky star chart looks like.

Our northern sky is quite dark above Polaris, but the Big Dipper is prominent in the northeast and serves as our primary guide to finding the North Star. Click image for larger view. (Prepared from a screen shot of Starry Nights software.)

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Notice the emptiness? The area labeled “Dark Hole?” Mind you, this is not a black hole – just an area of our sky that looks quite empty – unless your viewing location is free of light pollution and your eyes are thoroughly dark adapted. If you can see all seven stars of the Little Dipper, then you should see several stars in this area. But even then I doubt if you will be able to trace out the constellation which goes there. It’s known as Camelopardalis. My copy of Urania’s Mirror, published in 1832, says Camelopardalis consists:

. . . of 58 stars, but none larger than the fourth magnitude. . . .The Camelopard is an Abysinian animal, taller than the elephant, but not so thick. He is so named because he has a head and neck like a camel, and is spotted like a leopard; but his spots are white upon a reddish brown ground. The Italians call him giraffa. To Hevelius, who formed the constellation, he owes his celestial honors.

Ah, giraffe! Thank you, Italians. Here’s how he is pictured in full color on one of the constellation cards that came with Urania’s Mirror (The scan is © Ian Ridpath.)

Camelopardalis as depicted on the card from Urania’s Mirror, 1832. Notice the Pointer Stars of the Big Dipper are near the upper left and Polaris is just to the right of the giraffe’s head, so at this time of year the giraffe would appear upside down in our northern skies.

If you put him in the sky at this time of year his head would be down near Polaris. . . . Hmmm… the illustrator seems to have forgotten the spots mentioned in the text, and the animal’s neck got a bit longer than a camel’s. Ah well – while the 1830s had some advantages in terms of simplicity, I don’t think I would like to be trying to learn the night sky with Urania’s Mirror as my only guide.

Oh – but speaking of long necks, one of the things that has always fascinated me is some of the early attempts at astronomical telescopes and particularly the one in the following woodcut. This was an instrument built by Johann Hevelius in the mid-17th century at his observatory in Poland. The tube was about 150 feet long – befitting, in a strange way, for the man who put a giraffe in the northern sky!

Click image for larger view.
There was a logic to this giraffe-like telescope.
At the time a telescope’s lens could not bring the different colors of light to a single focus, so bright objects were always fringed with color and nothing was in really sharp focus. This negative effect, however, could be lessened by making the telescope’s focal length longer – so to get a really good telescope you had to go to these ridiculous extremes – which, of course, made it a nearly impossible telescope to use in any practical way.
Impressive to look at – difficult to aim and look through.
Fortunately the achromatic lens – combining two different types of glass – was invented and this reduced the problem considerably even in a relatively short telescope. We still use such achromatic lenses today ins mall refractor, though if you want to get a really sharp, color-free image you pay considerably more money for an apochromatic lens. Or, you listen to Newton who figured way back int he 1600s that the way around this was to design a telescope that used a mirror to collect the light rather than a lens. Trouble was, it took a long time to learn how to make mirrors that didn’t tarnish quickly when exposed to the night air. Nothings easy!
Now – about or “hole” in the northern sky. Get to a place where light pollution is at a minimum and it will fill with stars – relatively faint, but they are there. Just scan around with binoculars and you’ll find some even through the typical light pollution most people today are forced to endure. 
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