Exploring the Early Spring Sky

Returning to Deep-sky objects
Even though Roanoke County has a decent amount of light pollution, probably a 4 or 5 on the Bortle Scale, there are still a great deal of Galaxies, Star Clusters and Nebula visible in the night sky. These DSOs (Deep-sky objects), provide challenging yet rewarding targets for most amateur astronomers. With the assistance of Skysafari 4’s “Tonight’s Best” guide and the Intelliscope Computer Object Locator of the XT8i, the location of some of these more difficult to find highlights of the early spring sky came into view.

March 29, 2016: Highlights
Beginning in the Western portion of the sky, M38, the Starfish Cluster, was visible around 9:05 PM. While observing M38, a satellite passed through the field of view. These kinds of events are pretty common seeing as how many objects are in orbit. To the upper right of the Starfish Cluster, NGC 1907 barely registered as a slight blur at low magnification using averted vision. Moving over to the South West, the Rosette Nebula continues to refuse to reveal itself, but the open cluster that makes up the heart of it, NGC 2244, was a nice sight. Shifting down towards the neighborhood of Orion’s Nebula brought Sigma Orionis, the highlight of the night, around 9:30 PM. What appeared to be a triple star system revealed a 4th star at 200x magnification. In actuality, it is a quintuple star system, but the 5th star is difficult to pick up with amateur equipment. Attempts at viewing the Crab Nebula came up as disappointing as usual, it was barely visible in the Western sky around 10:25 PM. Finishing out the night was the always impressive pair of galaxies known as Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. At magnitudes +8.39 and +6.90, they never disappoint as distinctive galaxies even if they are around 12 million light years from earth.

ISS Passing Near NGC 2395

March 30, 2016: ISS Fly Over
From 8:53 PM to 9:03 PM the International Space Station sailed over Roanoke, Virginia from SW to NE. In an attempt to view it, SkySafari 4 was used to see if the station would appear near any objects during it’s 5 minute pass. This would allow the Computer Object Locator to know where the telescope needed to be pointed before the ISS reached this object, so there could be a quick view of it flying through the eyepiece. Thankfully, at 8:57:51 it would cross near NGC 2395. Right at that time and location, with Lauren looking through the eyepiece and myself looking through the finder scope, we viewed the ISS through the telescope. Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and being viewed at 48x magnification, the station only appeared in the eyepiece for a second, but the details were impressive. As detailed before from a previous viewing in 2010, the solar panels and cabin compartments of the Space Station were visible. The only difference noticed was that the panels appeared more tilted than on the previous sighting of station back. After the initial contact at NGC 2395, the stations was tracked for another minute or two, on and off, providing additional views as it raced across the sky.


Star Log: March 6, 2010

A beautiful Saturday with temperatures in the mid 50’s led way to an exceptionally clear night here in Clifton Forge.  Going from the light polluted skies of Roanoke to the dark skies of the county never ceases to amaze.  After washing my car (long over due) and working on some lesson plans, I decided to take my scope out with about an hour of sunlight left.  The hope was to get a glimpse of Venus at sun set while allowing the telescope to have a steady cool down.  Unfortunately, Venus was still too low on the horizon to observe (this will change come late spring and summer).

While still close enough to Earth to make out a spherical disc, Mars is moving away from Earth at a fairly substantial rate and will be too far for detail come April.  With that being the case, any chance to view “Big Red” should not be missed.  Tonight’s view was a fairly typical if not unspectacular view.  The atmosphere was very calm, making high magnification planetary viewing sharp; but Mars had little land features to show due to its “boring” side facing Earth on this particular night.  All that could be made out was the northern polar ice cap.  With that said, being able to make out any detail on Mars is still exciting.  Just ask Lauren about the night I had us stay up until 4 in the morning to view Mars through the old DS-114 only to reveal a somewhat bright red star (I’m lucky she hasn’t left me).

M81 & M82
Faint fuzzies are how most people describe deep-sky objects and while I have to agree with this assessment, don’t let the name fool you, these objects are an amazing sight.  Two of the best ones to view in the winter sky are M81 and M82.  My 8-year-old sister Abby described the irregular galaxy M82 as looking like the number 1 in space.  What makes these two objects even better is that with wide enough field of view you will be able to view and compare these spiral and irregular galaxies at the same time due to their apparent location in our sky.   While no structural detail could be discerned from these two objects, knowing that you are looking at an object 12 million light years away and effectively looking 12 million years into the past is an incredible feeling.  Although I have to agree with Abby, seeing the number 1 in space was pretty cool too!

Visual representation of M81 & M82