Catalina’s Coming!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on December 18, 2015 – 2:54 pm -

Comet Catalina will be easier to spot next to naked eye star Tau Virginis on Sunday just before dawn.

Early risers can continue to catch the pre-dawn comet show playing out in the eastern sky this week.  On Sunday, December 20, hunting it down might be a bit easier as the comet passes four degrees due left of the magnitude 4 star Tau Virginis, which is just visible to the naked eye.

The comet is currently traveling through the Virgo constellation, visible to the left of the planets Venus and Mars, and is best seen about an hour before sunrise about 30 degrees above the horizon—equal to a stack of three fists held at arm’s length.

The icy visitor has brightened a bit, to magnitude 6, but is still best viewed through binoculars and telescopes. Will it continue to brighten? No one knows at this point, but stay tuned for updates.


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Moon Shows Crab Nebula

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 29, 2015 – 11:18 am -

Waning moon sits next to beautiful Crab Nebula on Friday, October 30.

Waning moon sits next to beautiful Crab Nebula on Friday, October 30.

Late night on Friday, October 30, the waning gibbous moon will be parked just beneath one of the brightest supernova remnants in the entire sky, an expanding cloud that sits about 7,000 light-years from Earth.

Just above the moon is Zeta Tau, one of the stars that mark the tips of Taurus’s long horns. The star acts as a convenient guidepost to the famed Crab Nebula, the remains of a supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in A.D. 1054.

Look for the faint Crab Nebula, also known as Messier 1, approximately 1 degree above Zeta Tau and 5 degrees above the moon—slightly less than the width of three middle fingers at arm’s length. The nebula shines faintly at magnitude 9.0, making it just visible through binoculars and an easy target for even small backyard telescopes.

For more information about night sky events, visit my National Geographic column, Starstruck.


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Beehive Next to Moon

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 5, 2015 – 2:05 am -

Pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, October 6, in the southwestern sky the moon will buzz very close to the Beehive Cluster. (Image: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, October 6, in the southwestern sky the moon will buzz very close to the Beehive Cluster. (Image: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

 

In the early dawn hours on Tuesday, October 6, skywatchers can use the moon to find the Beehive star cluster (Messier 44) nearby. This open cluster lies in the heart of the zodiacal constellation Cancer in the southeastern sky.

This cluster is one of the closest to our Sun, sitting at 610 light-years distant. Seen with the naked eye in dark skies, the Beehive appears as a nebulous mass. Through binoculars or telescopes, though, the cluster reveals itself as a loose grouping of sparkling stars.


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Sagittarius Nova Re-Awakens

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 7, 2015 – 9:09 pm -

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Backyard astronomers are reporting that an exploding star is quickly coming back to life and brightening again in the southern constellation of Sagittarius the Archer.

First spotted by Australian sky-watcher John Seach on Sunday, March 15, the exploding star shot up in brightness a couple of weeks ago, then faded back down to magnitude 6, just past the limit for viewing by the unaided eye from a dark location. But in the past week and half, new observations show that the star has brightened again to magnitude 4.5—making it just barely visible to the naked eye from city suburbs and an easy target from dark locations.

Read the rest of my National Geographic Viewer’s Guide for this week.


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Glowing Star Factories Captured

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 20, 2014 – 10:21 am -

Two giant star clusters tucked away in one of the neighboring arms of our Milky Way galaxy glow in full display in a dramatic new portrait. They also offer a fun opportunity for backyard astronomers.
Using the giant eye of the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, astronomers captured two dynamic star-forming regions in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. A minor limb of our galaxy, the spiral arm consists mostly of gas and dust. Recent research shows that it is surprisingly devoid of stellar activity, making these two star factories real standouts in our galactic neighborhood.
The star cluster on the left side, named NGC 3603, is located some 20,000 light-years from Earth. Its companion on the right, a colorful gas cloud known as NGC 3576, sits much closer to Earth at only 9,000 light-years distant.
NGC 3603 is real stellar jewel box filled with hundreds of young, massive stars, one of the richest open star clusters in the entire galaxy.
Originally, these stars formed behind a veil of gas and dust. However, as they matured, they cleared away much of this material and left behind the glowing clouds that we see today surrounding the hot, young stars.
Meanwhile, NGC 3576 brandishes the same horn-shaped clouds of gas. They were carved by strong stellar winds billowing out from the young stars cocooned within the colorful nebula.
Above the nebula, the two conspicuous black clouds called “Bok globules” are ripe for future star formation as well.
Star formation in the southern Milky Way

From ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile shows two swirling star formations in the southern Milky Way in a smaller arm of our galaxy. Courtesy of ESO/G. Beccari

In a neighbouring arm of our Milky Way lay two glowing giant star clusters that produced this new dramatic photo. These stunning star factories can be seen from viewers’ own backyards in southern latitudes.

At the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, astronomers captured what appears to be swirling dust and gas in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy. Surprisingly this minor arm showed very little stellar activity making these beauties standout in this mostly dark part of our neighbourhood.

While visiting South Africa in 1834, British astronomer John Herschel first noted these fiery clusters in the Southern Hemisphere. Now backyard sky-watchers can see these same nebula using a small telescope.

Read all the details and get sky charts for these and other events on my National Geographic Viewer’s Guide.


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Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on August 11, 2014 – 10:46 pm -

This image of uranus was captured by Voyager 2 back in 1986. This week sky-watchers get to see the Green Giant through binoculars next to the moon.Credit: NASA

This image of uranus was captured by Voyager 2 back in 1986. This week sky-watchers get to see the Green Giant through binoculars next to the moon.Credit: NASA

The starry skies this week offer up a quite a wide variety of celestial sights, including planetary duos and one of the year’s best flurry of meteors.

While the moon may have just past its full phase and still dominates the evening sky, the planets still are easy to spot even from urban location.  Folks should keep an eye out for a coming close encounter between Mars and Saturn over the course of the coming weeks in the late evenings, while Venus and Jupiter have their own conjunction in the early mornings in the east.

Read all the details and get sky charts for these and other events on my National Geographic Viewer’s Guide.


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Amazing Stargazing Sights This Week

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 10, 2014 – 3:31 pm -

Credit: Spaceweather.com

Credit: Spaceweather.com

On this very special week we celebrate Valentine’s Day the sky is full of romance too with the moon pointing to a giant  lion’s heart and the mythical goddess of love shining at its most brilliant.

Over the course of the next few days there is a whole line-up of stargazing targets for both the unaided eyes to backyard telescopes.

The brightest planets in the sky remain both Jupiter and Venus. Meanwhile you can still catch Mercury as it is fading fast low in the evening twilight in the southwest horizon.  Your best chance to see the innermost planet now is with binoculars.

Mars aficionados will have to wait until near midnight for it to rise in the east and will be at its highest in the south in the pre-dawn hours. If you have good atmospheric conditions a telescope will show off some of its largest surface features. Best views of the Red Planet though will be in April when its apparent diameter will be 50% wider.

Finally Saturn rises around local 1 am  and climbs to its highest point in the southern sky by dawn.  You can get a two-for-one deal since Mars will be its far right.

Get all your observing details for these and other sky events this week at my weekly skywatching column at National Geographic News.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, also on Twitter and Facebook


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Cosmic Butterfly Mystery

Written by The Night Sky Guy on September 16, 2013 – 2:50 pm -

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302. Credit: NASA

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302. Credit: NASA

New deep-sky images of the Milky Way’s central core reveal picturesque butterfly-shaped gas clouds left behind by dying stars called bipolar planetary nebulae.

And all appear to be mysteriously aligned with one another. Dozens upon dozens of these hauntingly beautiful stellar remnants are oriented in the same direction – despite being separated by many thousands of light years, and each exhibiting unique physical properties. Researchers are searching for how nature could come up with such a bizzare phenomena.

Learn more about this spectacular new discovery that has left astronomers scratching their heads in my story at National Geographic News


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Photo: Eskimo Nebula Burns Brightly

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 23, 2013 – 5:19 pm -

Eskimo nebula looks stunning in this new composite image. Credit:N. Ruiz et al, IAA-CSIC/CXC/STScI/NASA

Eskimo nebula looks stunning in this new composite image. Credit:N. Ruiz et al, IAA-CSIC/CXC/STScI/NASA

A glowing cloud of gas and dust has formed one of the most picturesque objects in the universe, around a dying star some 4000 light years away  from Earth.

Called the Eskimo or Clownface planetary nebula, this object is one of the favourite targets for backyard telescope users.  Now this newly released portrait reveals the Eskimo nebula like never before in a composite of two images snapped by NASA’s Chandra X-ray space telescope and it’s famous cousin, Hubble.

Amazing to think that this is a glimpse of the distant future of our own Sun- 5 billion years from now – when it becomes a Red Giant and blows off it’s atmosphere into space, forming a bubble of glowing gas just like the Eskimo nebula.

This nebula picture is just one of the best space photos chosen by editors at Nat Geo News. Check out the rest of the stunning Space Gallery.


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Red Dwarf Stars Host Billions of Habitable Planets?

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 5, 2013 – 6:00 am -

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Red Dwarf stars may be the best place to look for Earth-like planets., according to a new study.

The most common, humble star in the universe could be a mecca when it comes to astronomers hunting for planets hospitable to life. That’s because a new study is suggesting that red dwarfs – stars that are smaller, dimmer and cooler than our Sun – may have twice as many planets that are in the habitable zone than ever thought. In fact the number of these worlds- ones that have just the right temperature to support liquid water – may number as much as 60 billion. And that’s just in our own Milky Way galaxy.

Read more about this amazing new finding and what impact it will have on exoplanet research in my new article for National Geographic News.


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