Glimpse Giant Asteroid Glide Through Taurus

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 6, 2014 – 4:22 pm -

A giant asteroid, first seen 110 years ago, is making a rare appearance for backyard astronomers this month.

Usually so far away from Earth that only very large telescopes can spot it, 532 Herculina will be coming closer to Earth than usual, thereby allowing small backyard scopes to observe it as it sails through the horns of Taurus, the bull constellation in the evening skies.  Making the hunt even easier, the 230 km wide space rock will be gliding past a naked-eye star this week and then a famous supernova remnant- the Crab nebula.

Path of asteroid Herculina within Taurus Constellation in February 2014

Path of asteroid Herculina within Taurus Constellation in February 2014

Despite its high asteroid number – referring to the order of its discovery – Herculina probably ranks in the top 10 in terms of mass. The giant rock has also been at a center of a mystery surrounding the possibility of it having an orbiting satellite asteroid. Despite multiple observations by amateur astronomers watching Herculina during occultations of stars back in the late 1970’s and 80’s, Hubble Space Telescope failed to find any evidence of a moon when it looked in 1993.

Miss this encounter with Herculina and you will have to wait until 2019.

Check out my full viewer’s guide with finder charts at National Geographic News.

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Jupiter joins Moon in the Evening Sky

Written by The Night Sky Guy on April 12, 2013 – 9:20 pm -

If you have clear skies in your neck of the woods over the weekend of April 13th then step outside and look west for a beautiful pairing between the Moon and some of the brightest stars and planet in the night sky.

While conjunctions like thee are not rare by any means, they do make for a great opportunity to track down some celestial objects that otherwise may be a challenge to find for beginner stargazers.  And for those more experienced navigating the heavens, this cosmic close encounter makes for a pretty photo op.

Read all the details about the Moon-planet-star event, including detailed star charts,  at National Geographic News

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Venus in the Head of the Bull!

Written by The Night Sky Guy on July 3, 2012 – 7:10 pm -

Look towards the low eastern horizon at least 30 minutes before your local sunrise Wednesday (July 4) you get a chance to see planet Venus – brightest celestial object in the middle of the 250 light year distant Hyades cluster – the head of Taurus the bull.  Meanwhile 65 light year Aldebaran and- the ye of the bull is below and jupiter is above Venus.


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Moon Visits the Crab on Sunday

Written by The Night Sky Guy on October 15, 2011 – 11:45 am -

Newbie skywatchers get a chance to track down with relative ease one of the most intriguing deep sky objects in the entire heavens thanks to the Moon. Our lunar neighbour will act as a convenient guidepost on Sunday night, October 16th to locate the Crab nebula.

Nestled within the constellation Taurus, the Bull, the Crab nebula, also known as M1,  is the remnant of a supernova explosion – basically the corpse of a star that died a violent death in our Milky Way galaxy in 1054 A.D. Located 6,500 light years away, it was close enough that it lit up the sky for many days and nights. In fact it was so brilliant that Chinese astronomers at the time recorded it being a bright guest star visible in their daytime sky for more than 2 weeks – as bright as Venus! Can you imagine how bewildered and possibly frightened people may have been at this sight?

Nearly a thousand years later it now appears as a tiny, expanding cloud though the eyepiece of a small telescope. Measuring roughly 5 light years across it shines at about 8.4 magnitude putting it within the range of binoculars, but a telescope using high magnification is really required to show it off.

So if you have ever wanted to see a supernova remnant, this Sunday night is a great opportunity because the moon will help you find it. And remember  once you know where it is in the sky, go back and look at it again when the Moon is out of the way. The glare from it can really cut down on the views of deep sky objects like the Crab nebula.  And keep in mind you will have plenty of time to keep watching M1 because it will be rising higher in the southeastern evening sky over the course of the autumn and early winter seasons.

Moon guides you to the Crab nebula this weekend. Credit: Starry Night Software

Moon guides you to the Crab nebula this weekend. Credit: Starry Night Software

So, on Sunday night between 9 pm and midnight local time, with binoculars or backyard telescopes, simply sweep 4 degrees to the lower left of the Moon to  find the tiny, ghostly patch of light we call the Crab nebula. This separation of 4 degrees in the sky is equal to about 8 lunar disks – well within the field of view of a standard pair of binoculars.

Crab Nebula Finders Chart

Crab Nebula Finder's Chart

A real observing challenge for those with giant telescopes is to glimpse the pulsar  at the heart of the Crab. At 16th magnitude this fast spinning neutron star – which is the naked core of the long dead giant star-  is so faint that you need a large telescope, 16 inches and up under very dark and pristine skies to catch sight of it.

Finally you may ask, where does the Crab nebula get its name? Its attributed to  a drawing made by an astronomer through a 36 inch telescope in Ireland back in 1844 where the views of the nebula were said to resemble a horseshoe crab.

Here is a short video of the Moon in Taurus this weekend…

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Latest Night Sky Episode

Written by The Night Sky Guy on February 12, 2011 – 12:54 pm -

This week’s episode highlights the awesome new NASA satellite images of our Sun and gives stargazers a heads up on two lunar sky shows involving star clusters.

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Mercury and Venus at their Best Now

Written by The Night Sky Guy on June 12, 2009 – 11:52 am -

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

If you get a chance to get up early this week you’ll get the privilege of seeing the  two innermost planets in the solar system at their easiest and brightest to spot in our skies. Look towards the low eastern horizon and the first to catch your eye will be the brightest star-like object in the morning – planet Venus. To its lower left is elusive Mercury. This little guy is much more of a challenge because it never moves very far from the glare of the Sun. In fact both Venus and Mercury are sometimes known as the Morning Star or Evening Star because their orbits hug the Sun so tightly, they are always hanging around the Sun at sunrise or sunset. This also means that that you have a limited window of opportunity to see them in the morning because they rise only an hour or so before the Sun. After which you will probably lose sight of Mercury  at first, because it is the fainter of the two, and then Venus later in the morning. If you have a small telescope lying around then take a peek at these little worlds. They will both look like miniature versions of the quarter Moon (see skychart above). This phase appearance is caused by the alignment of the planets, in relation to both the Sun and Earth.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

And if you are wondering, Venus lies in the constellation Aries, the ram, while Mercury is in Taurus, the bull.The constellations themselves however will be washed out by the dawn. to see their member stars you will need a binocular. As a side challenge try and see how long you can keep sight of Venus after the Sun rises. Binoculars will help you track it, but for fun see if you can follow Venus well into the morning. Venus is bright enough to shine through the blue skies, but you have to know exactly where to look, otherwise its pinpoint of light is invisible.

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