This week we highlight watching Jupiter and the Moon swings by two pretty star clusters.
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News interview on the discovery of the most distant object in the Universe announced this week. Astronomers have glimpsed the light from a primordial galaxy 12.13 billion light years away. This suggests that this light left on its journey from this galaxy when the Universe was only 600 million years old – just a cosmic baby! You can also read my article at National Geographic News.
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The small comet Hartley 2 makes its closest approach to Earth today and should be visible to the unaided eye for several days under dark skies in the hours before dawn. To view the comet this week, look northwest before dawn, about 75 degrees above the horizon — almost directly overhead. Hartley 2 will be near the bright star Capella, in the constellation Auriga, the charioteer.
The nearly full Moon will set about two hours before the Sun rises, allowing about 90 minutes of prime comet-viewing time. If you have difficulty viewing the comet, which is small and dim, try using binoculars.
Australian astronomer Malcolm Hartley discovered the comet in 1986. Less than a mile wide, it orbits the Sun every 6.5 years. On Wednesday, it will come within 11 million miles (18 million km) of Earth. The comet will make its closest approach to the Sun on October 28. On November 4, Deep Impact will fly by the comet at a distance of about 430 miles (700 km), at a speed of 7.6 miles per second (12.3 km/sec). The probe will use a suite of instruments to study the comet’s composition.
– news announcement of McDonald observatory
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This week get your binoculars and telescopes out of the closest and try your hand at hunting down an elusive comet in the late night sky. Comet Hartley 2, first discovered back in 1986 by an Australian astronomer – its namesake – is now the closest it will get to our little planet. Reaching about 11 million miles from Earth comet Hartley will be about 45 times the distance the Moon is from us. This close encounter occurring this week will offer your best views of comet Hartley.
Now don’t expect a comet McNaught or Hale-Bopp with this one. In fact it has not really lived up to its initial billing when predictions said it would become an easy naked eye object. Technically it will be reaching 4th magnitude mid week – making it about as bright as one of the stars in the Little Dipper handle- but you will need to be in a dark sky location to really get an unaided glimpse. Through binoculars and telescopes the comet appears like a faint fuzzy patch of diffuse light amongst the stars – much like a puff of smoke.
I found it in my 12 inch dobsonian telescope late last night using a low-power 31mm Nagler eyepiece – around 11 pm – high in the northeast sky right in the middle of my suburban, super light polluted backyard. I can tell you though it doesn’t not look like a classical comet with a tail- it is just a very faint smudge superimposed on a background of stars. The best way I recommend to find it is to have a wide angle view of the field.
Long exposure photographs from backyard telescopes are revealing the comet does have a long, crumb-like tail trailing behind a fuzzy patch with a green halo surrounding it. That ghostly green glow is indeed the Jupiter-sized atmosphere surrounding the comet nucleus – formed from gases escaping fissures on the surface of the comet as it heats up nearing the sun.
Hunting down the comet is made easier this week because it will be passing by the bright star Capella in the constellation Auriga. Check out my wide angle chart below and a detailed skychart (from Sky & Tel) you can use the next couple of week
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After nights of cloud and rain I finally got a chance to go outside my backyard and take in Jupiter in all its glory yesterday. BTW – Montreal is notorious for cloudy weather. I would say 60% of the year is clouded over – so it’s not exactly prime stargazing real estate. So when you get that odd clear night – drop everything and head outside if you can.
Since it’s opposition a couple of weeks ago I have had a few good opportunities to view Jupiter through my smaller telescopes – like my ETX-90 and new WO Megrez 72 refractor. But last night I got a chance to turn my 16 inch dobsonian onto the gas giant. Immediately I noticed that the disk was noticeably bigger than I have ever seen it before. The moons of course pop out but my attention quickly turned to details in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Even in small aperture scopes there are details visible now which have been hidden for years before because of the vast distance separating our two worlds.
Through my 16 incher I was able last night to see many festoons, knots and tendrils – which are turbulent spots in the upper cloud deck of the planet – both inside the polar regions and north equatorial belt. While the southern equatorial belt is noticeably absent now – astronomers are at a loss to explain why it has disappeared – I timed my observing well as I was lucky enough to see the Great Red Spot – a giant storm the size of Earth that has been raging at least as long as we have been looking at it the last few centuries. Coloured pink, I found the spot was fairly easy to watch under 200 x high magnification and in a matter of two hours it had moved from the planet’s limb near to it center. Simply a breathtaking sight!
I remember in the early eighties gazing at the Red Spot in my 8 inch SCT – it was much darker in colour than it is today. Again this is a mystery astronomers don’t quite understand what is happening on the surface of Jupiter. But for us observers this makes the planet so much more interesting to observe – you just never know what you will see when you look at this giant planet.
Looking at this creamy coloured disk through my eyepiece I couldn’t help but recall some of my earliest memories of watching Jupiter while on my dad’s lap through his department store 3 inch Newt, perched on our apartment building rooftop in Montreal. I will always remember that first glimpse of a super shiny orb with little moons lined up like a row of ducks beside it. Caught my imagination then – and still does today.
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