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The Sky This Week, 2014 January 21 - 28

Star clusters galore...
M37_140102_01small.jpg
Messier 37, galactic star cluster in Auriga

Imaged 2014 January 2 from Morattico, VA
with an 80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor
and a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon wanes in the morning sky this week, passing through the rising constellations of spring as she dives toward the southern reaches of the ecliptic.  Last Quarter occurs on the 24th at 12:19 am Eastern Standard Time.  Luna can be found near the brightening planet Mars on the mornings of the 22nd and 23rd.  On the latter date she passes just five degrees south of the red planet, while at the same time she's just half a degree from the bright star Spica.  On the morning of the 25th look for the Moon just over west of golden Saturn.

Last week we introduced the mighty Orion Nebula, considered by many amateur astronomers to be the showpiece of the winter sky.  This week, with the waning Moon leaving the winter stars behind, it's a great time to check out some of the other hidden gems of the winter constellations.  If you live in a dark location look for the faint glow of the Milky Way. at 9:00 pm it stretches across the sky from the northwest to the southeast, passing through the zenith.  The winter version of the Milky Way isn't as impressive as the vast star clouds we see in the summer since at this time of the year we're looking in a direction that's opposite the galactic center.  However, owners of small telescopes will be amply rewarded for their "sweeps" of the fuzzy band.  Where the summer sky abounds in gaseous nebulae and globular star clusters the winter band offers dozens of galactic clusters for your enjoyment.  Some of the best of these are located overhead in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer, whose brightest star Capella stands out in golden splendor directly overhead.  Auriga's brightest stars resemble a pentagon, and if you look in the area of the figure that's opposite Capella you'll see three knots of light in binoculars.  These are the galactic clusters Messier 36, 37, and 38.  They are wonderful examples of this type of object which are well-suited for the small telescope.  Each one has a unique character in the number and concentration of their stars.  My favorite is M37, which contains several hundred stars sprinkled on a background of thousands of more distant Milky Way stars.  If you sweep your gaze about halfway between Auriga's second-brightest star, El-Nath, and Jupiter you'll run into Messier 35 in the constellation of Gemini.  This is a large, scattered group of stars that spreads over an area the size of the Full Moon.  It's easily seen in binoculars, and increasing telescope apertures will reveal progressively fainter stars.  In scopes of six inches or more aperture you should be able to spot the even more remote and populous cluster NGC 2158 just to the southwest.  If you enjoy these targets, continue to sweep down the Milky Way just east of Orion and into Canis Major.  There will be lots of other clusters for you to find.

Jupiter is now well placed for viewing as soon as it gets dark.  The giant planet dominates the evening sky, culminating high in the south at around 10:45 pm.  The best time to observe him is after 9:00 pm when he should be high enough to clear the heat radiated from nearby rooftops.  Try to pick a night to observe him when the stars don't seem to twinkle; this indicates steady air overhead and should give you good high-power views of the planet and his moons.

Ruddy Mars now rises before midnight, but you'll need to give him a couple of hours to climb above the trees.  The best time to observe him is still in the hours before dawn.  His disc is gradually becoming more distinct as Earth catches up to him, and more detail is visible in modest telescopes.  His north polar ice cap is particularly prominent at this time.

Saturn is also up before dawn, halfway between Mars and the southeast horizon.  At this time he's also fair game for the telescope, with his rings tipped generously in our direction.  You shouldn't have any trouble identifying him in even the smallest of telescopes.

Finally, keep your eyes on the southeast sky as morning twilight gathers.  By about 6:30, if you have a clear horizon in that direction, you should be able to catch a glimpse of Venus as she returns to the morning sky.

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