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Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 

The Monthly Sky Guide October 2019

 

Late October is normally the part of the year that finds those of us in the UK and Europe reverting to standard time (CET/GMT).  This is normally greeted with groans by those outside the astronomical community, as it leads to it getting darker earlier - those of us of a more astronomcial inclination will feel somewhat different, as it increases the opportunity for observations at a reasonable hour of the evening.  In the UK, the clocks go back on Sunday 28th October this year.  Those in North America will have to wait until the early part of November for this changeover to take place.  Naturally, what happens in the Northern Hemisphere has the opposite effect in the Southern.  Those in many territories in Australia and Brazil will begin their Daylight Saving Time (Summer Time) in October (New Zealand and Chile having started their DSTs somewhat earlier).

Wherever you find yourself in the world, there's plenty going on in the skies above us this month...

 

The Solar System

 

The Moon

 

The Moon begins October in Libra as a Waxing Crescent of just 12.5% illumination. At three days after New, you’ll catch the thin crescent of the Moon in the evening sky this evening if you’ve got a clear westerly horizon. The Moon will set just over an hour and a half after the Sun on the evening of the 1st. 

 

The Moon reaches First Quarter in the 5th while in Sagittarius, rising roughly in line with neighbouring Saturn, found just over 2 degrees to the east, both bodies sitting fairly low in the south as the Sun sets from temperate northern parts.

 

The Moon then starts its inevitable slide north through the Ecliptic, reaching Full in the large and rather barren non-zodiacal constellation of Cetus on the 13th, rising a little before 7pm (BST) from Western Europe. Naturally, this mid-month period is not the most opportune time for observation or imaging of deep sky targets (apart from those utilising narrowband filtration).

 

The Moon comes to Last Quarter on the Gemini/Cancer borders on 21st October, before becoming New, on the 28th in the eastern part of Virgo. The Old Crescent phase of the Moon is pretty high in the sky from a northern hemisphere perspective in the morning sky this month (though not quite as high as September’s). This is the autumnal morning equivalent of the evening sky’s High Spring Crescent phases. Our natural satellite ends the month as an evening object, at three days old. It should be possible to glimpse the very thin crescent in the west after sundown on the 31st, nestling just over a degree to the east of Jupiter in the early evening sky, the two bodies standing around 13 degrees high (from 51 degrees N) in the SSW as the Sun sets. 

 

 The Moon and Jupiter in the early evening sky, 31st October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 


Mercury 

 

Mercury starts October as an evening object. A resident of Virgo on the 1st, attempted observations from the temperate or higher Northern Hemisphere will be seriously hampered by the shallow angle of the Ecliptic plane as it sets from these parts of the world. While Mercury is just under 20 degrees separation from the Sun on the 1st, it will be just over 3 degrees high in altitude (from 51 degrees N) as it sets. A challenge which will prove impossible for most of us, though those in the equatorial regions of the Earth will fare much better at this time. Mercury has been in very close conjunction with Venus and although the two are moving apart, the brighter Venus will serve as a useful signpost for those in better positions to observe both worlds. 

 

Mercury is increasing its separation from the Sun as the month progresses, until it reaches maximum eastern (evening) elongation on the 20th. The planet at this point is just over 24 1/2 degrees from the Sun and will be shining at -0.1 magnitude. After this point in time, Mercury will start its swing back sunward. This sunward swing is very significant, as Mercury is in the last evening/eastern cycle before Mercury’s transit of the Sun on 11th November. 

 

Mercury at greatest eastern elongation, October 20th.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Transits are fairly rare events and worth planning for. If you have a telescope, or pair of binoculars of reasonable magnification, then all you’ll need is proper film/polymer or glass solar filters for them. These can be bought in sheets in the case of film, but are also available in pre-fitted cells. Those with dedicated Hydrogen Alpha Solar Telescopes, or Calcium-K, or white light Herschel Wedges will already be in possession of all they need to observe and share the view safely. 

 

The Mercury Transit begins at 12.35 GMT on the 11th November and we’ll cover this in more detail in next month’s sky guide. 

 

 

Venus

 

Venus starts October as a evening object, still rather close to the Sun after Superior Conjunction in mid-August, but slowly improving in angular separation. As we have covered with Mercury, with which it shares the same part of the sky, Venus is very low for meaningful observations from the Northern parts of our planet. At -3.9 magnitude on the 1st, it is bright enough, but very low at sunset - just under 4 degrees in altitude (from 51 degrees N) and just 13 degrees from the Sun itself. 

 

By the end of October, matters have improved by a tiny amount: Venus is no brighter and has gained a single degree in altitude at sunset (again, from 51 degrees N), but has increased its separation from the Sun to just over 20 1/2 degrees, which will mean those in further south will reap the benefits of greater height in the evenings. 

 

Venus and Mercury very low in the SW after sunset, 31st October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


While Venus’ position in the sky currently disappoints us in the temperate northern hemisphere, it is headed for a pretty spectacular evening cycle in the latter part of the year, but especially in the first half of 2020. By the end of March 2020, when Venus is again at greatest eastern (evening) elongation, the planet will be over 40 degrees high in the West at sunset - a much better prospect than the present. 

 

 

Mars

 

The Red Planet reached Superior Conjunction on 2nd September, after which, it has emerged as a morning object. At the beginning of the month, Mars presents a 3.5 arc second, +1.8 mag disk, which has a separation from the Sun of just over 9 1/2 degrees. Mars will be rather difficult for many to locate at this time and very disappointing if you happened to do so. 

 

By the end of the month, Mars will have increased its separation from the Sun to 20 degrees, rising a little over an hour before sunrise. However it will still be very underwhelming - its angular size is just 3.7 arc seconds across and it will be no brighter. There are more interesting and inspiring targets to find this month. 

 

 Mars, sunrise, 31st October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.



Jupiter 

 

The giant planet Jupiter is still well-placed for evening observing during the first part of the month. However, the window of opportunity for Jovian observations is shutting. On the 1st, Jupiter transits at 5.40pm (BST) and sets at around four hours later (from 51 degrees N). 

 

The King of the Planets is never poor in a telescope, but caution must be advised for those of us in the observing it in the northern hemisphere, as the planet is low in the south of the ecliptic and subject to much more in the way of potential atmospheric disturbance. Keeping magnification sensible will help combat poor seeing conditions to a certain extent. It’s pointless making any planetary target bigger and consequently appear lower in brightness and contrast detail. The 80A Filter is a light blue and is regularly recommended for Jovian observations. While it can’t help with atmospheric seeing, it can help isolate cloud belt detail and is useful in observing and isolate transits and shadow transits. 

 

In terms of Jovian events, visible from Europe, we have a Great Red Spot (GRS) transit on the early evening of the 2nd and the 5th, a Europa transit on the 6th, GRS transits early evening on the 7th and the 10th. There’s a good Ganymede transit early evening of the 11th, followed by a GRS transit on the early evening of the 12th and an early evening Io transit on the 15th. 

 

The latter half of October brings us an early evening GRS transit on the 17th, 19th, 22nd, 24th and 29th.  The piece de resistance as far as Jovian observations go however, occurs on the evening of the 31st, when there will be a rare simultaneous transit of Io, Europa, Callisto and the GRS - if you have a telescope and skies are clear, don’t miss this one.  An observable Callisto transit from a given part of the Earth is a reasonably infrequent event, when compared to the inner Galileans.  This is caused by a combination of Callisto’s longer exterior orbit than the inner Ganymede, Io and Europa - taking just under 17 days to orbit Jupiter - and the fact that for some periods of time in a Jovian year, due to conflicting lines of sight from our perspective here on Earth, Callisto’s orbit appears to miss bisecting the Jovian disk completely. So a Callisto transit, coupled with that of Io and Europa and the Great Red Spot, makes this something of a special event.  Jupiter won’t be very high above the horizon when the GRS moves into view, but the transits of the three moons will have been in full swing by the time the Sun sets and Jupiter is still at a reasonable height above the horizon in Europe.

 

Jupiter multiple Moon Transits, with GRS, early evening, 31st October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


By the end of the month, Jupiter sets at around 7pm (GMT) from the UK. This is countered somewhat by the steady encroachment of earlier darkness, but make the most of our time with Jupiter while you still can. 

 

 

 

Saturn

 

Again, like Jupiter, Saturn is well seen in the evening. But again, like Jupiter, it is low for observers in the temperate northern hemisphere, but is always worth seeking out, no matter where in the world you find yourself.  At the beginning of the month, now being some three months past Opposition, Saturn has dropped from its peak angular size, to a slightly smaller 16.8 arc seconds diameter and its brightness at +0.5 mag has faded somewhat from July’s peak.  Saturn of course will present a wonderful view in any telescope, with its glorious rings, while past their point of maximum opening, very well presented for observation. As Saturn is decreasing its angular distance from the Sun, its shadow is falling much more prominently on its beautiful ring system, giving an added sense of depth to its already impressive geometry on display. 

 

Saturn and major moons, 15th October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Saturn reaches transit point on the 1st at a little before 7.30pm from Europe a little over 40 minutes before sunset (from 51 degrees N).  This means it is at its peak height in the sky and offers the best potential for viewing at its furthest point from the horizon.  Saturn tends to appear slightly less affected by atmospherics that Jupiter is. But this is more of a perceptual difference - Jupiter being that much brighter, disturbances are easier to see telescopically.  

 

The planet will set at a little before 11.30pm (BST) at the beginning of October.  By mid-month, transit point occurs and hour earlier than it did on the 1st, with roughly the same being the case for setting times.  By the end of the month, Saturn will transit at a little after 4.40pm (GMT), when it sits around 15 degrees high in the south (from 51 degrees N) and sets around four hours later.  Just as with Jupiter, the window for evening observations of Saturn is closing, so get out and enjoy it in the early evening while you can.

 

 

Uranus and Neptune 

 

The outer planets are still visible largely as morning objects, but both Uranus and Neptune rise in the the evening during Octber. The brighter Uranus rises in Aries a little before 6.40pm (BST) on the 15th (from 51 degrees N), but Neptune being further west in the ecliptic in Aquarius, rises earlier at just past 5.16pm.

 

Uranus and Neptune's relative positions, 15th October. Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Last month, Neptune stole the limelight somewhat, as the planet was headed towards Opposition on 10th September.   This month it’s the turn of the brighter and more easily-found Uranus to reach Opposition - on the 28th. While this is significant, it doesn’t lead to the large increases in brightness and angular sizes that Opposition or closest approaches does with some more interior solar system inhabitants.  This is simply down to the fact that Outer Giants are a very long way from Earth.  On the evening of Opposition, Uranus will lie 2.8 billion km from Earth, with the light travel time between the two worlds of just under 157 minutes.  Uranus will be +5.7 magnitude and 3.7 seconds of arc across at this point - hardly a large or particularly brilliant target. Still, with a small telescope, or a reasonable-sized pair of binoculars, the planet will be relatively easy to find from a dark site on opposition evening, as it sits 11 degrees almost due South of Hamal, Alpha Arietis - the 2nd magnitude principal star of Aries.  You can see this star with the naked eye from rather light polluted environments, and binoculars should still pick it up very easily. 

Uranus and major moons, Opposition evening 2019.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Uranus is a green-gray disc, of similar dimensions to many planetary nebulae. Those with larger telescopes and/or cameras should see if they can identify the larger of the planet’s family of moons. Oberon, Titania, Umbriel and Ariel are the outer of the major satellites and a little easier to pick up, being around 13-14th magnitude around Opposition. The inner Miranda is more difficult at around mag +16.  Witness Marco Hodde's impressive picture of Uranus and four of its major moons below, as illustration of what's possible as far as imaging Uranus is concerned with amateur instruments.  Marco used a Vixen VMC260 and a ZWO ASI290 to take this image, from his home in Germany.

 Uranus and four moons.  Image credit: Marco Hodde.  https://marcosastroseite.jimdo.com

 

Neptune, by contrast, will be significantly fainter than Uranus, at +7.8 magnitude and 2.3 arc seconds across at the end of October. Sitting lower in the sky in Aquarius, it is not at all possible to make out the planet with the naked eye from very dark locations, as it is in the case with Uranus, but binoculars and telescopes will reveal its tiny blue disk, if you’re patient enough to find it.

 

 

Comets

 

As reported in previous sky guides, we have the prospect of C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS to look forward to.  This comet was discovered back in 2017, by the panSTARRS automated survey.  It emerged from conjunction with the Sun at the end of July/early August will be observable in the constellation of Taurus during very early October.  Found between the horns of the Bull for the beginning of the month, it is shouldn’t be too difficult, as long as you will need a telescope or powerful binoculars to pick it up.  Proximity to the “Winter” Milky Way through Taurus may make the comet a more difficult spot, as will its surface brightness, which will still be quite low.  Later in the month the comet crosses over into neighbouring Auriga and passes by the prominent star cluster M36 at the end of the month, making for a potential widefield photo opportunity, while the Moon is out of the way. 

 

C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS' path during October.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 

Observations of this comet made recently are confusing - visual predictions of magnitude remain on the higher side of the average predicted light curve of brightness, whereas electronic astrometric measurements tend towards the lower than average. The comet’s brightness was rising slightly faster than predicted and looked as if it continued on this course, it should be technically a naked eye object - but the note of caution raised by the more accurate astrometry tends to err towards a more pessimistic.  Brightness prediction of comets is a rather dark art and in this sky guide we are always cautious not to ramp up excitement too high.  However, the median of C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS’ predicted brightness puts it around the +0 magnitude.  The upper range of brightness prediction goes up to -5 to -6 magnitudes - brighter than Venus - though this is now looking distinctly less likely.  However, the more sober lower estimates, which put it around +5-6 at best, will still make for a good show - just a binocular or telescopic one, rather than a full-blown visual extravaganza.  The comet is predicted to reach peak brightness in March to May of 2020, so there is still some way to go before then and the situation can still change.  The good news for Northern Hemisphere observation is that the comet will be circumpolar for most of its peak in 2020 - though this will obviously disadvantage those in the Southern Hemisphere somewhat.

 

 

Meteors

 

October brings us a couple of meteor showers of note. Most prominent and well-known are the Orionids, which peak on the 21st, with a ZHR of around 20. The parent comet of the Orionids is the most famous of all comets, 1/P Halley. Halley’s Comet is also responsible for feeding the Orionids’ “sister shower”, the Eta Aquariids of April/May. The two showers representing the bisection of the comets’ debris field on either side of its and the Earth’s orbit. 

 

The Moon will be sitting almost next door to the radiant on the night of peak activity, though won’t rise until just before midnight, giving a small window of opportunity to see some Orionids, before moonlight sets in. Although the radiant of the Orionids won’t be high in the sky at all in the earlier evening, there’s still a reasonable chance of seeing some meteors. 

 

The Orion Radiant rising before the Moon, 21st December.   Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.


Minor shower the Draconids will also be observable during October, though their peak on October 9th will be negatively affected by the Waxing Gibbous Moon. This shower can produce outbursts in activity, but often less than 10 meteors are quoted as the ZHR. In truth, this is weak shower and with the presence of the Moon around, shouldn’t be too high on the list of anyone’s observations for the month, unless you are a die hard meteor fanatic.

 

Deep Sky Delights in Pegasus and Aquarius 

 

Pegasus and Aquarius.  Image created with SkySafari 5 for Mac OS X, ©2010-2016 Simulation Curriculum Corp., skysafariastronomy.com.

 

Moving in a southerly direction from last month’s Deep Sky highlights in Cepheus and Cassiopeia, we come to the constellations of Pegasus and Aquarius, which share a border and are home to some easy and not-so-easy to observe objects. 

Though lacking in major nebulae, Pegasus is a haven for galaxies - maybe not quite to the extent of the Virgo and Leo regions - but has many extra-galactic targets worth attention. 

 

The most famous feature of Pegasus is readily observable without a telescope - this is, of course, the famous Square of Pegasus. Consisting of the stars Alpheratz (Arabic for “the navel”), Scheat (”the leg”), Algenib (”the flank”), Markab (”the saddle”), the Square of Pegasus dominates this area of sky and can be used as a useful “jumping off” guide for starhopping. However, the Square of Pegasus is not solely “of Pegasus”, as Alpheratz is actually now officially a part of neighbouring Andromeda. This is a similar situation to Elnath (Beta Tauri) which is officially now part of Taurus, but has been shared as Gamma Aurigae with neighbouring Auriga. These constellations are rare as they are still shown on modern star charts as connected via their “shared” star. 

 

A third of the way along the line between the lower stars of the Square, Markab and Algenib, lies an object not visible to the naked eye at all. This is the notable (if unspectacular) Pegasus Dwarf Galaxy, This is an associated galaxy with the nearby M31, the Andromeda Spiral and as such a neighbour of our own Milky Way. It’s a rather faint object at +13.2 mag and spread out over a reasonable area of sky, so is only really detectable in long duration photos. Dwarf galaxies are often (though not always) older, more primitive than galaxies such as our own. However, whilst they are not brilliant in the conventional visual sense, dwarf galaxies such as the Pegasus Dwarf are havens for Dark Matter. The Pegasus Dwarf lies 3 million light years away from the Milky Way and is tidally interactive with M31. 

 

Much more easily-observed and better-known is an object on the other side of Pegasus: the great globular cluster, M15. Found 4 degrees north-east of the star Enif (Arabic for “nose”), or Epsilon Pegasi, M15 is a glorious object in any telescope or binoculars and at +6.2 mag can be seen as a naked eye object from a reasonable site. This globular was discovered by Maraldi in September 1746 and catalogued 18 years later by Messier in 1764. Located about 33600 light years away, M15 contains around 100,000 stars. As a well-known object, it has been studied exhaustively and found to contain the first extra-galactic planetary nebula discovered: Pease 1, first identified in 1928. In addition to Pease 1, M15 has a pair of co-orbiting neutron stars, 8 pulsars and two strong X-ray sources. It has been postulated that one of these sources is in fact a Black Hole, to which has been attributed M15’s relatively recent core collapse. Globular clusters are both beautiful and intriguing objects and M15 is almost certain to contain more as-yet-undiscovered features. 

 

M15, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope (showing Pease 1, upper left centre). Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


Back inside the Square of Pegasus lies the lovely NGC7814 - the “Little Sombrero” (so called because it resembles the Sombrero Galaxy, M104, in Virgo). NGC7814 is a Spiral, presented edge-on to our line of sight. This reveals a dark dust lane bisecting a bright core. At +10.6 mag this galaxy isn’t overly bright, but due to its compact nature, is still well-seen in small telescopes. NGC7814 is easily found due to its proximity to Algenib. 

 

NGC7814.  Image Credit: Hunter Wilson, Creative Commons.

 

Another galaxy near to a member of The Square is NGC7479, which lies just under 3 degrees south of Markab. This is one of the most photogenic Barred Spirals in the sky, lying almost face on to us. It was discovered in 1784 by William Herschel and is just slightly fainter than 7814 at +10.9 mag. NGC7479 is a very active galaxy - a so-called Seifert Type, in which enormous amounts of star formation are taking place. The serpentine structure of NGC7479 is beautifully depicted in long-duration photos - it almost seems to be slithering like a Sidewinder through space! 

 

NGC7479, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


Further north are a fascinating collection of galaxies: the NGC7331 group and Stephan’s Quintet. These two groups of galaxies are separated by just half a degree of sky and can be found north of Matar (Eta Pegasi). Of the two groups, the NGC7331 group are the more conspicuous and their principle member was discovered first - by William Herschel - in 1784. This principle galaxy, NGC7331, was thought to be a very similar size, mass and taxonomy to our own Milky Way: a tightly-barred spiral. However, most up-to-date surveys of the Milky Way suggest that it may only have two massive spiral arms, whereas NGC7331 has more (NGC6744 in Pavo is now seen to be the nearest Milky Way analogue). Behind NGC7331 lie NGCs 7340, 7336, 7335, 7327 and 7338 - some of which can be seen with averted vision in reasonable-size telescopes. NGC7331 at +9.5 mag is by far and away the most prominent of the group and can be seen in smaller scopes. The whole group is a great target for astrophotography as regular contributor Mark Blundell’s picture below clearly shows. 

 

NGC7331 and Stephan's Quintet.  Image Credit: Mark Blundell.


The second of these two galaxy groups is the famous Stephan’s Quintet. Discovered in 1877 at Marseilles Observatory by Eduoard Stephan, the Quintet consists of NGCs 7317, 7318, 7318A, 7318B, 7319 and 7320 (this is technically a Sextet as 7318A and B are separate galaxial cores). Stephan’s Quintet occupies a tiny area of 3.5‘ x 3.5’ of sky and is an area of both enormous destruction, as the component galaxies literally rip each other apart and massive areas of creation where the resulting gas-rich loops of material released by these dynamics leads to starbirth. 

 

The interior of Stephan's Quintet, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


Of the components of the Quintet, NGC7320 appears to be an unrelated foreground object - much closer to us at 39 million light years distance as opposed to the 210-350 million light years of the other members. 

 

Moving south into the Zodiacal constellation of Aquarius, the Water Carrier, we are presented with a large, but quite a barren area of sky. Although Aquarius is rather muted in terms of brighter stars, it is a haven for deep sky objects. The most northerly of these is the very fine globular cluster M2. At +6.46 mag, it is amongst the brighter of these interesting objects, lying 37,500 light years away from us and about 175 light years in diameter. From Earth, it appears 2.1 arc minutes in diameter, M2 is about the same relative size and brightness of the neighbouring M15 and the second of Hercules’ well-known globulars, M92. Discovered by Comet Hunter Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746, it languished in relative obscurity until Messier added it to his list in 1760, describing it as a “Nebula without stars”. Modern instruments show it as most definitely “with stars”, indeed there are several beautiful star chains visible through telescopes, as well as some deep, dark lanes and patches, adding to the “three-dimensionality” of the object, particularly in larger telescopes. There are quite a mix of older orange and newer blue stars within M2, making it a particularly pretty telescopic sight. 

 

M2, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


Moving SW from M2, we arrive at three objects in quick succession: NGC 7009, The Saturn Nebula, the asterism M73 and another globular, M72. The Saturn Nebula is a fascination Planetary Nebula, well worth seeking out in any telescope, as it is reasonably bright, at +7.8 mag, yet compact at 0.5 arc minutes across. Telescopes of 6-8-inch aperture will be needed in order to see the two extended lobes that give the object its popular name. Lord Rosse, observing NGC 7009 in 1850, described two lobes or projections sitting either side of the nebula, making it appear very similar to Saturn, when its rings are edge on to us. Although the object has a distinctly un-Saturn-like green-blue hue, which is most easily seen in long duration photographs. The Saturn Nebula, in common with some other Planetaries - including the Blinking Planetary - can appear to blink on and o when looking at it for prolonged periods. This is of course a trick of the eye, caused by NGC 7009’s reasonably bright central star overwhelming a dark-adapted observers eye. When the observer averts their vision slightly, the Saturn Nebula returns to view. Although the Blinking Planetary is the most well-known object that exhibits this phenomenon, to the writer’s mind, the Saturn Nebula is actually the best example of a “Blinking” Planetary Nebula. As ever, aperture helps in resolving the finer details of NGC 7009 (especially the projections), but the Saturn Nebula should be sought out by all those with telescopes - it’s certainly bright enough to be seen in even the smallest scopes. 

 

Saturn Nebula, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


The next object is an interesting one. When is a star cluster not a star cluster? Answer: when it’s an Asterism like M73. Lying less than 2 degrees SW of the Saturn Nebula, M73 has been the subject of some controversy over the years since its discovery. Charles Messier first noted it in 1780 as a “cluster of four stars with nebulosity”, although this nebulosity has never been picked up by any other observers. John Herschel, whilst including it in his General Catalogue, was suspicious of its definition as a true cluster. Debate raged on throughout the 20th century as to the true nature of the Y-shaped M73, with evidence of a relationship between the members of the group being published for and against. The matter was finally and conclusively put to bed in 2002, when spectral signatures of each of the constituent members, gathered in high resolution, concluded that they were all moving in different directions and the cluster was not, it fact, a cluster. M73 is not unique amongst the Messier list for controversial description, but remains interesting for the fact that it took so long to finally work out its true nature. 

 

1.5 degrees to the west of M73 is the slightly less controversial Globular Cluster M72. At +9.27 mag, it is considerably fainter than M2, despite being not much smaller. M72 is considerably further away from us than M2 - it lies 55,000 light years distance from Earth. As it is fainter and further away, M72 requires a larger telescope to resolve individual stars. It is a pleasing sight in a 10-inch reflector and above, though William Herschel in his observing notes of 1783, noted that a power of 150x was needed to resolve the individual stars “fairly”. 

 

M72, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain.


Lastly, we journey 23 degrees east of NGC 7252, to rendezvous with the closest Planetary Nebula to Earth, NGC 7293 - The Helix Nebula. Overlooked by experienced observers, such as Messier and William Herschel, it is not di cult to understand why. Though intrinsically quite bright at +7.59 mag, the Helix is half the diameter of the Full Moon, which spreads its surface brightness out considerably. The Helix was eventually discovered around 1824 by German Astronomer Karl Ludwig Harding. Observation or the Helix requires either large binoculars and a very dark site, or a wide eld low power eyepiece and as much telescopic aperture as you can throw at it! Large Dobs are the ideal instrument for observing the Helix, particularly when coupled with an OIII filter. From our perspective on Earth, we see the Helix like looking down a tube. Its prolate spheroid shape is almost aligned on axis with us, at a distance of 650 light years. 2.5 Light years across, the Helix appears 14.7 arc minutes across at its widest point. A magnificent object, it will take the right conditions to see it well - if the Moon’s up, you’ll have to wait until it has set before attempting to locate the Helix. It will be well worth the wait though. 

 The Helix Nebula, pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/ESA, Public Domain. 


 

Text: Kerin Smith