Look Up! What’s in the Night Sky?
BY BRYAN SHUMAKER
I hope all of you will have a great Thanksgiving!
The weather has still been quite up and down. Several times it was lovely during the day, but clouds and fog rolled in early in the evening.
Still, we have had more clear nights this last month than is typical and I am very grateful. Two years ago we had week after week of overcast.
The Moon is Full on the 25th, the day before Thanksgiving. By the way, the first ever photograph of a meteor was on Thanksgiving Day, 1885.
If the weather clears (a big “if” here in late-November), you may notice that the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) appears higher in the sky earlier every evening.
Right below it is Taurus; the constellation of mighty Orion soon appears and majestically rises in the eastern sky. By midnight will be quite high in the sky.
This constellation is probably one of the most recognizable constellations in the northern hemisphere and is dominated by several large bright stars and actually looks like a hunter with three stars for his belt and several stars for his sword hanging down.
If you look closely naked eye or use a pair of binoculars, you will recognize that the middle star in the sword is somewhat fuzzy.
This is because it’s not really a star at all, but a huge cloud of gas and dust where new stars are forming—a true stellar nursery. Some of the most spectacular pictures of the night sky have been taken of this area, like the first one above.
Lying over 1300 light years away, this area is enormous—almost 24 light years across!
Of course, with telescopes and binoculars you won’t see color, but an area of what appears to be mist punctuated by numerous brilliant stars. Only long time exposures can capture enough light to bring out the colors as you see here.
There are several other areas of dust and gas in this constellation, and I’ll discuss some of them in a later column.
The Orion Nebula is likely one of the most famous nebulae known, and even a pair of binoculars will show a vague “mistiness” around the third star of his sword.
This is perhaps the most common type of nebula, one we call an emission nebula.
The gas and dust glow because they are flooded with intense ultraviolet and radiation from the newly formed stars in the area—much like a neon bulb glows when the gas in it is excited by an energy source (electricity).
There is also present in Orion another type of nebula—one we call a dark nebula.
These do not glow on their own, but are seen as a dark cloud of dust and gas illuminated from behind by brightly ionized and glowing hydrogen gas.
What we see is a silhouette of the object.
Can you guess what deep sky object I’m referring to near the easternmost star in Orion’s belt?
Spoiler alert: It’s the famous Horsehead Nebula (and a picture of it and the Flame Nebula make up this week’s second astroimage).
Jupiter and Mars are only seen now in the immediate time around dawn, so if you want to observe them in the east, you will need to get up very early.
I would like to remind everyone that NOMAC (Northern Michigan Astronomy Club) meets on the campus of NCMC starting in January and continuing monthly throughout the spring.
All you need to attend is a willingness to learn about the night sky and arrange to join us for observing sessions.
We have a number of telescopes that can be borrowed, and we would be delighted to show you how to use them.
In the meantime, let one of us know if you need any help picking out observing aids (telescopes, binoculars, etc.) as holiday gifts.
Check us out at www.nomac.net!
Until next week, have a happy holiday and keep looking up.