While elegant and symmetrical spiral galaxies are favorites of picture-book stargazers, I prefer ragged, bedraggled-looking galaxies because they betray violent and fascinating physical processes at their cores. Many such galaxies lie within reach of a small telescope, and a favorite among discerning stargazers is the galaxy Messier 106 just southeast of the bowl of the Big Dipper. M106 is a fallen beauty, a former grand-design spiral now enduring a violent mid-life crisis as a central supermassive black hole beats its starry spiral arms into disarray.
The commander of the latest mission of the International Space Station (ISS) returns to Earth today. Chris Hadfield, who’s engaged worldwide audiences with his tweets and videos for the past 5 months has outdone even himself with a splendid and quite touching video cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.
Telescopes are wonderful things. They make celestial objects larger and brighter, and turn the few thousand stars we see with our unaided eyes into many millions. But telescopes have one drawback… they give a narrow field of view, often just 1-2º or less, which makes looking at the night sky like looking through a drinking straw. That means you’re usually going to see just one galaxy, nebula, or star cluster at a time. But with so much stuff up there, you do come across some excellent chance alignments of lovely deep-sky objects which fit in a single field of view of a small telescope. Here are four examples of objects which lie in the same low power field of view, plucked from the pages of What To See In a Small Telescope.
It’s galaxy season! In April and May, the night-side of our Earth looks out of starry plane of our own galaxy and into the vast blackness of intergalactic space. Here, in constellations like Virgo, Ursa Major, and Coma Berenices, there are thousands of galaxies assembled by gravity into clusters and superclusters. Sweep this region with a mid-sized telescope, and you have no problem finding galaxies. The problem is figuring out which is which.
With a small telescope of 3″-4″ aperture, if you’re persistent, you might see a hundred galaxies, maybe half of which present intriguing views. Perhaps fewer in light-polluted skies. In dark skies, with the help of CCD’s and image processing know-how, thousands of galaxies are within reach of skilled observers. Many connoisseurs pick through maps and atlases of faint galaxies looking for the most photogenic targets. One such master observer is Terry Hancock, whose work has been featured here before. Let’s take a peek at his latest work, an image of NGC 4395, a small, dim galaxy with a surprise at its center…
Saturn remains the finest bright object in the heavens this month. The ringed planet lies well above the southeastern horizon in the late evening hours. With a tilt of some 19° from edge on, the rings of Saturn are primed for inspection with a small telescope. You’ll also find a great photo-op as three more planets form a tight triangle in the western sky after sunset later this month. And early May holds the best meteor shower of the year for southern-hemisphere stargazers. Here’s what to see in the night sky this month…
While having lunch with colleagues at Los Alamos Labs one day in 1950, Enrico Fermi, one of the most astute physicists of the 20th century, posed a fascinating question. Fermi pointed out that since the universe contains countless trillions of stars, and if even a tiny fraction of these stars had planets that harbored intelligent civilizations, then there must be thousands or millions of civilizations capable of interstellar communications and perhaps even space travel. ”So where are they?”, wondered Fermi. Since there are no signs of such civilizations, they must not exist. This is known as Fermi’s Paradox, and it’s bedeviled astronomers and amateur philosophers ever since.
Here’s a fine image of one of the most famous galaxies in the sky, the Whirlpool Galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici. This image of the Whirlpool, also known as M51, was taken by amateur astrophotographer Jeff Johnson from Las Cruces, New Mexico with a Takahashi TOA-130F telescope and cooled QSI CDD camera. The integration is long enough, and the post-processing deft enough, that you can see a handful of far more distant galaxies in the background of this image.
Wondering how it all began? Here’s a short video taking you through the basics of the beginning of the universe. Narrated by CERN physicist Tom Whyntie, it takes a particle physicist’s point of view of cosmology. And it reminds you that all the protons and neutrons in your body were present in the minutes and seconds after the Big Bang, and they’ve been around every since…
Northern stargazers are enjoying a welcome bout of spring fever this month. The skies are clearing, the air grows warmer, and countless galaxies wheel into view in the northern constellations. If you’re keen to see something good in the heavens, but you’re not inclined to set up a telescope, here are 5 easy sights to see with a pair of binoculars. Give them a try. Let the rest of the world watch reality TV. You’ll be out seeing some spectacular sights!