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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hunting for some elusive objects

Thursday, March 22, 2012

OK, space fans, in the words of my good friend Monty Python, now for something completely different.

We have been watching the dance of the planets for the last few weeks, which is a grand sight indeed. This dance will go on for several more months with some exciting events in the future.

But now, let's turn our attention to something else, a challenge, a real challenge. A couple of objects that just might be a little difficult to find.

I know, this is a little beyond my normal, easy-to-find-and-identify objects, but I think you will enjoy the hunt, especially now that the weather is warming up.

I have been generally ignoring a comet that is now visible in the evening sky. Basically, because the little critters are notoriously difficult to find and, more often than not, generally disappointing in their appearance.

But, right now there is an easily identifiable and locatable object nearby that will be of great help.

OK, grab your binoculars and head out to your favorite dark-sky place about an hour and a half after sunset (that should be at about 8:30 p.m. local time).

Look north for our old friend The Big Dipper (Ursa Major). Right now, the cup of the dipper is upside down. Folklore tells us that is because it is dropping the spring rains onto the Earth.

Find the two pointer stars that we usually use to find Polaris (right now, the top two stars of the cup).

Put Dubhe, the lower of the two pointers, at about the three o'clock position in your field of view.

On the opposite side of the field of view, at about the 10 o'clock position, will be a small, slightly greenish smudge, that is the comet. See, I told you they are sometimes disappointing.

This is Comet Garradd (C/2000 P1). It is possible the comet may be just slightly out of view to the left. If that is the case, just swing your field of view to the left. Remember, a dark sky is essential.

Now, that is just the first part of the hunt. Let's go farther. Put the comet at the 3 0'clock position in the field of view.

Look at about the same place you found the comet (the 10 o'clock position) for two small smudges of light.

They may be slightly beyond the field of view depending on the size of your binoculars. Just swing the view slightly left.

You have found two galaxies. The one on top is M81, Bode's Galaxy. It is a nice, almost face-on galaxy about 12 million light years away.

If you want to do the math, one light year is about six trillion miles. Frankly, my calculator doesn't have enough zeros.

The smudge on the bottom is the Cigar Galaxy, M81. So named because although it is a spiral galaxy too, it is more edge on to us thus giving it an elongated, cigar shape. It is about 11 million light years from us.

The two are only about 150,000 light years apart, which is about the distance from the Milky Way to the Large Magellanic Cloud. Wow, imagine what the view would be from a planet located there.

SKY WATCH: New moon today. The moon, Jupiter, and Venus will be together again early next week. On Sunday, March 25, look low in the west for a four-day-old moon right up next to Jupiter. While you are there, check for Earthshine. The next night the moon moves on to cozy up with Venus. On Tuesday, March 27, it is Aldebaran's (the eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus) turn to play tag with the moon.

NEXT WEEK: Venus plays an April Fool trick on us, and more astronomical blathering.

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Vernon Whetstone
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