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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

In search of fuzzy blobs

Posted on February 22 2014 at 12:48:12 0 comments

Looking north-east

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

Comet Ison, you may remember from a couple of months ago, didn’t live up to expectations. It seems that it actually started to break up before it even reached the Sun. Oh well.

In the 18th century there was a French astronomer by the name of Charles Messier, who was also frustrated in his search for comets.

Before they get close to the Sun, they appear as mere “fuzzy blobs” in a telescope – but there are a lot of fuzzy blobs around that aren’t comets (I know a few myself).

So, to save himself from tears, he compiled a catalogue of these and gave them numbers.

A few of these are just about visible to the naked eye, although seen much better with binoculars, so let’s have a peep. March has two New Moons, on the 1st and the 30th, so this sort of skywatching is best during the first and last weeks of the month.

Looking southwards as soon as it is properly dark, the great constellation of Orion is immediately obvious. High above and to the left is the planet Jupiter, the brightest object in the sky.

Orion itself is made obvious by the bright red star, Betelgeuse, at the top left and the row of three stars across his middle forming his belt.

Hanging down from his belt are three stars forming Orion’s sword or hunting knife. Looking carefully at the middle of these, you can see it is surrounded by a little haze and this is my favourite object.

It is now known as the Great Orion Nebula and it is a cloud of primordial gas from which stars are being produced.

In Messier’s list it is number 42, so it is known as M42. Imagine that: being able to see M42 from the centre of Alvechurch. . . although it is much better seen with binoculars or a small telescope.

Above Orion to the right is the distinctly red star, Aldebaran, in Taurus, and a little further right is the little cluster of stars of Pleiades. These, too, sit in a cloud of star-forming gas and are number 45 in Messier’s list.

Now, you may have heard recently, that a supernova has exploded in M82. This is another of Charles’ objects and is in fact a galaxy, although he didn’t know that at the time.

It is tricky to spot, even with binoculars, and unless you know what it looked like before, you may not be able to tell that it is a supernova.

Its location isn’t difficult to find though, although it is nearly overhead so don’t fall over. First, find the Plough, which is standing on its handle in the north east at the moment.

Then, starting at the bottom right-hand star of the pan, trace a line through the top left star and carry on for the same distance again.

With very steady binoculars or preferably a small telescope, you should be able to see two tiny fuzzy spots. These are M81 and, to its left, M82 and its even tinier bright spot.

Much easier to see are large satellites, so I recommend consulting heavens-above.com on the 16th – that is the scheduled launch date of a SpaceX 3 supply vessel to the ISS – and again on the 25th, when Soyuz 38 is launched with a new crew for the space station.

I wonder what Charles would have made of these bright objects travelling so rapidly across the sky?


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