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Icy Skies, Moons, And A Stellar Nursery

By Dave Grosvold

The Moon and Saturn at 12:00 AM CST Jan 6, 2010
With the colder weather and snow this time of year, astronomical observing is usually limited to fairly short sessions. Although the cold is hard on the observer, it is also hard on the equipment. So, naked-eye targets are ideal for winter observing. At midnight on Tuesday evening, the Moon rises very close to bright, pale yellow Saturn, and will be far below the Red Planet (Mars) in the sky. This week, the Moon enters Last Quarter at 4:39 AM CST on Thursday morning, so it wonít be quite as bright as it was on New Yearís Eve.

Saturnian Moons, 4:00 AM CST, Jan 7, 2010.
With the aid of a small telescope, you may also be able to see Titan, Saturnís largest moon in the early morning hours if the sky is clear. At about 3:30 AM all this week,Saturn is high enough in the sky to rise above the “muck,” which is what astronomers call the thicker part of the atmosphere that we must look through when objects are close to the horizon. A view in a small scope will show Titan off to the right at about 2 oíclock. The image shown here will be reversed in the telescopeís field of view.

Early January is also a great time to observe the Great Orion Nebula, as it is in an ideal position by about 10:00 PM on these cold winter nights. The constellation of Orion rides high in the South-Southeast in late evening all week this week, and the Great Nebula is a special treat for anyone with a good pair of binoculars or small telescope. Orion is recognizable by his belt and sword.

Finder Chart, M42
Look closely at the center “star” in the sword and youíll see a faint fuzzy glow surrounding the “star.” this area is actually a huge cloud of gas and dust, in the middle is a massive star forming region — a stellar nursery in action! A pair of binoculars will show a number of stars and swirls of gas and dust. Small to medium telescopes will show even more. Although photographs of this area show lots of color, donít expect to see that in binoculars or small telescopes. The color receptors in our eyes are just not sensitive enough to see the brilliant color that can be captured on film or CCD chips.

M42, The Great Orion Nebula
The Great Orion Nebula is also commonly referred to by astronomers as M42 or Messier (pronounced “messy-ay”) 42, which is the 42nd object listed in Charles Messierís catalog of non-stellar objects. Charles Messier was a comet hunter in the 18th century who catalogued a list of bright “objects to avoid” that he noted were not comets, but faint fuzzy objects that did not change from night to night and season to season. Little did he realize then that these objects were actually huge clusters of stars, massive clouds of dust and gas, and even distant galaxies. Even the smallest of our optical telescopes of today show much more detail than the professional instruments of his day.

Hereís hoping you have clear skies and fair weather for the coming week!
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