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Faint fuzzies

March 19, 2013

The nights this time of year are starting later. That's a good thing, giving you more daylight after the work hours, but for people like us that love astronomy it hurts us a little bit. We have less night-time hours to gaze up at the sky, and search for galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, and even the comets and asteroids that may be approaching Earth.

The weather should be warming up over the next couple months making the time we can get out at night more enjoyable for star gazing. The spring time also brings us another group of constellations to enjoy at night-time.

Early evening after the sun has set and the glow along the horizon is no longer there, and it is dark all around you, you can begin your night of looking up; take in the wonders of the sky above. Each star is a blazing sun light-years away from us. My favorite part about looking up at a star is looking up its distance. For example: the star Sirius - the dog star - in the constellation Canis Major is a distance of 8.6 light-years away, which means the light you are seeing left the star 8.6 years ago. In a way you are looking back in time when you look up at the wonders of space. But this isn't the only amazing aspect to think of while looking up at the night sky.

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This time of year brings a large cluster of galaxies into our night sky, many of which are visible with a pair of binoculars. Unfortunately they aren't visible with the unaided eye, like the next two objects I'm going to talk about. In the East around 8 p.m. the constellation Leo, the Lion, is already above the horizon, but just below it the constellation Virgo begins to rise.

To the north of these two is another constellation known as Coma Berenices which represents Queen Berenice II of Egypt who sacrificed her long hair. Between these three constellations is the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, and many of the brighter galaxies were discovered in the late 1770s and early 1780s by Charles Messier who, at the time, thought they were nebulae without stars. These weren't recognized as galaxies until the 1920s. This clustering of galaxies contains approximately 1,300 (and some have estimated 2,000) members many of which are too dim to notice with the average backyard telescope or binoculars. Charles Messier discovered a total of 16 of these galaxies with his low powered telescope in the 1700s, which makes these great little fuzzies to hunt for with your binoculars on a clear, dark, moonless night.

Also around 8 p.m., you can find a fuzzy looking cloud hanging out in the constellation, Cancer. This can even be seen from a moderately light polluted area as long as you don't have a street light shining in your eyes. Facing south and looking up you can find Cancer to the west of Leo.

The stars in Cancer are relatively dim stars and aren't as prominent as the stars of Leo, but within this faint constellation you may be wondering what that fuzzy cloudy object is. This object is known as the Beehive Cluster, Praesepe or M44, which was Charles Messier's 44th object added to his catalog of objects that could be confused with comets. In darker skies it looks like a large nebula, and has been known since ancient times. Ptolemy called it "the nebulous mass in the breast of Cancer," and was also one of the first objects that Galileo studied with his telescope. This mass is actually an open cluster of relatively young stars, and is one of the nearest clusters to our Solar System. It has been estimated to be between 500 to 600 light-years away from us.

In September 2012, two planets orbiting separate stars were discovered within the Beehive Cluster, and was of particular note because the stars these planets orbit are like our own star, the Sun. Unfortunately, the planets around these stars are more like Jupiter than Earth, but it's still a significant discovery.

The last fain fuzzy to try to spot with the unaided eye can be found in the constellation Orion, west of Cancer, and due southwest of Gemini. This faint fuzzy can be found in the sword/dagger of the constellation, just below Orion's Belt. Unlike the Beehive Cluster this isn't a cluster of stars, but a stellar nursery where new stars are being born; in other words this is a cloud of gas and dust which are the building blocks of star formation. Within this nebula there have been around 700 stars in various stages of formation that have been discovered. With the unaided eye this region looks like a bright star with a haze around it which could be mistaken for humidity in the atmosphere, or a thin layer of clouds in the area, but this is actually a large nebula.

If you pull out your binoculars and aim them towards the middle star of the sword you will see that it is an illuminated cloud of dust with the brightest areas reflecting the light from the nearby stars. This nebula is the closest star forming region to Earth, and is estimated to be 24 light-years across. In the brightest part of this nebula you can find what is known to astronomers as the Trapezium. The Trapezium can be seen as three, or four stars depending on the magnification you apply to it, but the more magnification you can apply, the more stars you can see in this asterism, and several of the stars have been determined to be binary stars. The stars of the Trapezium are relatively young stars and are born out of this parent nebula, and are responsible for much of the illumination of the nebula surrounding them.


Beyond this column, local astronomers are anxious to share our love of the sky with you. Check out the Adirondack Public Observatory website at for events.



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