All times are GMT, one hour is added for BST between March 25th and October 28th
The dark star studded nights of winter are far behind us, giving way to the fainter constellations of spring.
Get yourself outside under the stars if it’s clear, pull up a deck chair, and scan the star clusters, nebulae, and even see other galaxies with your binoculars. Their lower power makes them just perfect for objects such as the larger open clusters, giving you great views and of course as you get to use both eyes, providing almost a 3D view. Just
taking in the whole night sky scene and aimlessly wandering along the band of the Milky Way is also very enjoyable, who says astronomy has to be all scientific and technical? If you have binoculars up to 10 x 50 then they’re ideal for the job, portable, and easy to hold. Anything over this size will usually need a tripod. All the objects listed here are at their best in dark skies, ideally with the bright Moon not around.
But if old crater face is about, you will get amazing views of the lunar landscape through your binoculars. It’s best to look along the terminator, the boundary between light and dark as shadows are cast across craters and mountains making them easy to pick out.
Next new Moon, Saturday 8th of June
Next full Moon, Saturday 25th of May
The Coat Hanger
“Hey that’s a coat hanger!” That’s the first thing I thought when I first spotted this star cluster through binoculars…and it’s not actually a real cluster, but we’ll come to that later. Lying in the constellation of Vulpecula is Brocchi’s Cluster, Collinder 399, Al Sufi’s Cluster, or more commonly the Coat hanger. People will know exactly what you mean when you say the Coat Hanger. So now I think we’ve both established what this thing looks like…it looks like a coat hanger.
But all is not what it seems as the Coat Hanger is actually an asterism, just like the Plough/Big Dipper is an asterism. It is a collection of stars that are not physically related to each other, but happen to group together along your line of sight to look like a regular open cluster. Ten of these stars are responsible for forming the recognisable coat hanger shape, six of them make a straight line, then four more make the hook shape coming from the mid point of the line of stars. This is a large cluster, perfect for your low power binoculars being 1.5 degrees across, 3 times the diameter of the Moon. This nice looking object lies in the band of the Milky Way, and you may even see it with the unaided eye from a dark place.
The Coat Hanger lies between constellations Cygnus and Aquila, but an easy way to find it is to locate the bright star Altair in Aquila about 20 degrees south-west of the head of the swan in Cygnus. See the very bright star Vega north of the head of the swan? Now draw an imaginary line from Altair to Vega, and the Coat Hanger lies one third of the way up from Altair to Vega.
Look low to the east in mid to late evening and you’ll see Cygnus rising, with the Coat Hanger nearby. It continues to climb, and is high in the south east sky by daybreak. If you see the constellation of Cygnus, you’ll always know the Coat Hanger lies nearby.
How long will it be around for? The Coat Hanger Cluster will be around for some time, as the constellation of Cygnus climbs high above during the summer months. This unique shaped cluster will be at its least convenient viewing in February 2014 when it is below the north west horizon during evening hours.
The Beehive Cluster (M44)
The Beehive Cluster, Praesepe, M44, or NGC 2632 is a very nice and attractive open star cluster to look at through your binoculars, and does kind of look like a swarm of bees. The Beehive is another open cluster close to Earth, at 577 light years away in the constellation of Cancer. This puts it slightly further away than the Pleaides. M44 rises from the north-east in early evening. This cluster lies in the fainter constellation of Cancer, in between Leo, and Gemini.
The stars that make up the head of Leo the Lion look like a large backwards question mark. You’ll find M44 with your naked eye roughly half way between this “question mark”, and the two twin stars of Castor and pollux in Gemini. The Beehive actually has over 1,000 stars, and is around 600 million years old.
Tonight the Beehive Cluster is still visible in the west after dark, but it’s moving lower in the sky each night. Catch this nice open cluster of stars while you can, M44 the Beehive Cluster sets in the north-west at 1.42 am. This object is at magnitude 3.7
How long will it be around for? The Beehive Cluster will still be available in the night sky to see but it disappears in mid June 2013. At this time it will be low in the west at sunset, moving out of view into the Sun’s glare.
Do you think you can only see Earth’s moon with your binoculars? Think again! It’s often suprising to people that if you take a look at Jupiter you can not only see the small disk of the planet but also its four moons Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa as pinpoints of light on either side. Obviously the bigger the binoculars you use the better, you may even be able make out a hint of the cloud belts of the planet. But whatever binos you have, give Jupiter a go as the moons are a continuously changing scene as they orbit the gas giant. You can now see the solar system’s biggest planet from early evening, rising from the north-east. It is bright and has a still light so it doesn’t twinkle like a star, which is the easy way to tell a planet from a star.
Jupiter is now low in the north west by night fall, where it sets at 10.08 pm.
How long will it be around for? Jupiter has been with us for some time but is quickly moving away. By late May it will be out of sight, lost in the glare of the setting Sun.
Open Cluster M103
The great W of Cassiopeia is visible but quite low in the north by night fall. It is is a rich hunting ground with your binoculars. The plane of the Milky Way runs right through Cassiopeia, and so this is where open clusters can be found. One of these stellar jewels is open cluster M103 or NGC 581, one of the more distant of the open clusters at up to 9,000 light years away. It’s really easy to find, as it is close to the star that makes the left point in the W of cassiopeia. You’ll see it as a small hazy patch of nebulosity unresolved into stars, averted vision may be needed to get it to emerge out of the darkness, and a tripod for your binoculars would always be useful. This cluster has around 40 member stars, is 15 light years across, and a younster at only 25 million years old. Open clusters like M103 were formed from the same ancient cloud of gas and dust, with most of the cloud’s raw materials condensing down into stars…and very likely planets. Any remaining gas would have been blown away millions of years ago by the newly formed stars’ fierce ultra violet light and stellar winds.
To find M103 simply imagine a line drawn from the right point star of the W (Shedir), across to the left point star of the W (Ruchbah). Now continue on this straight line to a distance of 1 degree past the left point star to find this open cluster…1 degree is the width of your little finger held at arm’s length.
Tonight you’ll see the great W of Cassiopeia low in the north after dark. It climbs during late evening and gets moderately high in the north east by daybreak. Open cluster M103 is at magnitude 7.4
How long will it be around for? Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation from northern latitudes, meaning it never sets below the horizon. Right now during these short nights you have from late evening until the small hours, as daybreak quickly approaches .
Double Star Albireo
If you look at the constellation Cygnus tonight and find the star that marks the “head of the swan” you’ll have the star Albireo, and it does actually look to your unaided eye as one faint single star. But this is probably the best known double in the sky, two stars seperated by 35 arc seconds. Get your binoculars on it and you’ll see straight away that there’s actually two different colour suns there (colours will be more subtle than image above), a brighter yellowish star called Albireo A at magnitude 3.1, and its fainter bluer companion star Albireo B at magnitude 5.1. It seems counterintuitive but colours red/orange/yellow are far cooler than blue when it comes to the temperature of stars. So fainter blue Albireo B is quite a lot hotter than its brighter yellow companion, with blue Albireo B also being a “Be star”, rotating at a speed of 250 kilometres per second at its equator.
The yellow star in the double actually is a double in itself with an orbiting companion star, but they’re much too close together to see with your binoculars.
Visible rising from the east at night fall is the constellation of Cygnus. It then climbs high in the east and south east up to daybreak. The figure of the swan appears to be flying away from Cassiopeia, so it’s easy to find the head star Albireo.
How long will it be around for? Cygnus climbs very high in the sky during summer, and is visible for the remainder of the year. It will be at it’s lowest point in the sky and out of most convenient observing by the end of January 2014.
Open Cluster M39
Open cluster M39, or NGC 7092 is a nice little collection of stars right in the band of the Galaxy, giving you a backdrop of more distant suns. It is in Cygnus (see position of M39), a great constellation in its own right to spend time in as the Milky Way goes along its length. Look for the distinctive shape of this constellation, it resembles the shape of a cross, or of course what it’s meant to be…a swan. Unlike a lot of constellations it does actually resemble what it’s meant to be, a swan as it flies away from Cassiopeia. From the tail star of the swan (Deneb), along the body, to the head (Albireo) forms roughly a straight line. The back of your fist held at arm’s length makes 10 degrees of sky. The open cluster M39 lies just under the width of your fist from the tail star of the swan (Deneb) in the direction of Cassiopeia, then about 3 degrees lower.
Open cluster M39 is 800 light years distant, and its stars are about 300 million years old. It has between 30 and 50 stars forming an attractive triangular shape.
Tonight you’ll see open cluster M39 as it rises from the north east at night fall, west of the tail of the swan of the constellation Cygnus. It continues to climb during the evening as is very high in the east by daybreak, M39 is at magnitude 5.5
How long will it be around for? As we move from spring into summer, the M39 open cluster climbs higher into the sky making it a nice target for those warm nights. It will be at its lowest point by the end of January 2014. Open cluster M39 is circumplolar from northern latitudes meaning it never actually sets.
Galaxies M81 & M82
These two galaxies 12 million light years away are one of the best sights you’ll see through a telescope. Two island universes in the same view, separated by 130,000 light years. But they can actually be glimpsed with binoculars in dark skies. They are the “grand design” spiral galaxy M81 at 36,000 light years across, and smaller irregular starburst galaxy M82. They are in Ursa Major, and their proximity to each other is causing them to gravitationally interact. This interaction is causing intense star burst in M82, just at the galaxy’s centre new suns are being born 10 times faster than in our entire Milky Way.
They’re not really close to any easy marker points in the sky. But if you draw a line (line of red arrow on illustration), from the bottom left star of the bowl of the “Big dipper” (Phad) to the top right star at the bowl edge (Dubhe), then carry that imaginary line about the same distance again, you’re in the place in the sky for M81 and M82.
In your binoculars they will appear as two small fuzzy shapes close by each other, and you should notice they are different shapes. Spiral M81 is the brighter of the two at magnitude 7.0, and the irregular star burst galaxy M82 is slightly dimmer at magnitude 8.4, M82 is also called “The Cigar galaxy” for its shape. It takes practise to find these, and yes they will appear as two small fuzzy smudges. But those two fuzzy smudges are entire galaxies in interstellar space, and you’re seeing them with your own eyes with just a pair of binoculars. The star light from two stellar systems 12 million light years away.
By night fall Ursa Major is very high in the north west, as the evening goes on it moves lower but still fairly high in the sky by day break.
How long will it be around for? Galaxies M81 and M82 are circumpolar in the northern sky, meaning they will always be above the horizon, never setting. The best time to see them are when the bright Moon is not around, and under dark skies away from light pollution. Right now is still a good time to see M81 and M82, as they’re nice and high in the sky. During mid summer though, Ursa Major is at its worst position, only visible briefly low to the northern horizon.
M13, The Hercules Cluster
This famous globular cluster at 25,000 light years away is a classic of the northern skies, and if your first view of it is from a really dark site with a larger pair of binoculars, I promise you will not forget it. It’s well worth getting away from light pollution to see it. In clear dark skies through your binoculars you should see a quite bright, fuzzy, but crisp, glowing “ball of suns”, although individual stars will not be resolved. This globular cluster contains over a million stars all packed into a region of space 145 light years wide. Space is so limited here that stars are thought to collide in the centre, producing bluer suns called “Blue stragglers”. Globular clusters like M13 are not actually part of the Milky Way’s disk, but reside far above and below the spiral arms, surrounding the Galaxy in a halo. Their stars are known to be very old, and in 1974 a message was sent to the Hercules Cluster in the hope that an intelligent civilisation might live there.
The way to locate M13 is to find the Hercules “keystone”, this is four stars making a rough square 5 or 6 degrees across, at the centre of the Hercules constellation. In this map you’ll see M13 marked about a third of the way between the two right hand, (or uppermost right now) stars of the square. Look at Ursa Major, or “The Plough” and the first two stars of the handle that are attached to the “bowl”, make a straight line. This line points to the centre of Hercules. The keystone can be slightly difficult to find at first especially in more light polluted skies but once you get the hang of it, it becomes easy.
Tonight the Hercules Cluster M13 is visible fairly high the east at nightfall. It continues to climb as it moves towards the south, and the south west by day break. M13, or The Great cluster in Hercules is a magnitude 5.9 object, and it is even visible naked eye under very good skies.
How long will it be around for? The Hercules Cluster M13 is known as one of the classic objects of the summer sky. So this famous globular cluster is at its best position as we go through the coming months.
The Andromeda Galaxy, M31
Not at its very best right now, as you’ll be viewing this galaxy beyond midnight and quite low to the north east for the time being. Andromeda, or M31, the main large neighbouring galaxy of the Milky Way. It is a huge spiral galaxy 2.5 million light years away, with up to one trillion stars, and a diameter of possibly up to 220,000 light years. It’s more than twice the size of our Milky Way some think, others disagree saying it’s around Milky Way size, Andromeda’s size is a debated subject. You can quite easily see Andromeda naked eye as a fuzzy glow from a dark site. In fact if you know where exactly it is, you can pick it out even from an area that has some light pollution with averted vision.
There there are two main ways to find this island universe in the sky. One is to locate the large square of Pegasus with its four stars marking each corner. You’ll find Pegasus to the east of Perseus, and Cassiopeia. The star at the left of the square is called Sirrah (or Alpheratz), look to the left of Sirrah and you’ll see three stars in a line, a dimmer star and two bright stars. The first bright star is Mirach. Now look above Mirach and you’ll see a dimmer star, look about the same distance above again from the dimmer star, and here is located the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Another way to find M31 it is to use the right hand V of the W of Cassiopeia and imagine a line pointing down, this V points just to the left of Andromeda.
Get your binoculars on M31 and you’ll see the bright core of the galaxy as a small fuzzy blob. But keep studying and use averted vision, and you’ll soon start to make out the fainter shape of the galaxy’s disk extending out from the core. This is an object far outside the Milky Way, an entire ”island universe”. To be seen at its best Andromeda should be observed with the bright Moon absent under dark skies, but it’s still visible even from urban areas.
Right now during spring the Andromeda Galaxy is visible, but now very low to the north after dark. This means you’ll have to observe it during the early hours where it climbs from the north and into the north east up to daybreak. M31 the Andromeda Galaxy is circumpolar, meaning it never actually sets in northern latitudes. M31 is at magnitude 3.4
How long will it be around for? Right now the Andromeda Galaxy is placed fairly low in the night sky for seeing, but during late summer and autumn it will return for viewing in the most convenient evening hours. This object is actually circumpolar from northern latitudes so never goes below the horizon.
The Perseus Double Cluster
This cluster is one of my favourites, it looks stunning in a telescope at low power, but binoculars also show it well. The Perseus Double Cluster, NGC 884 and NGC 869, or H and X Persei are actually two seperate open star clusters close to each other in space at around 7,000 light years away. They are only a few million years old, much younger than the Pleaides. To find it I could tell you to find this star, draw a line to that star etc, but the easiest way I have found to locate the Perseus Double is just to look for a fuzzy irregular patch in the band of the Milky Way between Cassiopeia and Perseus, (cluster marked as H+X on Perseus map). Once you see it, get your binos on it and you’ll see two very attractive open clusters of sparkling stars set against the blackness of space. There’s also a nice line of stars that curves away from the upper most cluster, when you see this line of stars you’ll know you have this popular deep sky object in your view.
Tonight look over to the north at nightfall and you might see the Perseus Double Cluster nestled between Perseus and Cassiopeia. It is quite low at the moment so a darker site will be an advantage, as any light pollution could wipe it out. This very nice cluster won’t rise very high at this time of year, and a short window of darkness is all you have during these lighter nights. The Perseus Double Cluster never sets as it is circumpolar meaning, it’s always above the horizon from northern latutudes. This open cluster is a magnitude 4.00 object
How long will it be around for? Like Andromeda, the Perseus Double Cluster will always be above the horizon, as it is circumpolar from northern latitudes. It is placed at its low point in the sky during spring, but by late summer and into autumn this attractive cluster will be placed nice and high in the sky.