The Ultimate Challenge

Standing under a dark country sky on a moonless night, our eyes drink in a couple of thousand stars as well as visible planets. This alone is a wonder but once we use the magnification of a telescope, fainter objects now reveal their subtle detail. Amateur astronomers not only use their telescopes to magnify what the unaided eye sees but hunt down the elusive galaxies, star clusters and nebulae.

Amateur astronomers use a list of 110 objects that are either located in the Milky Way or remote galaxies millions of light-years away in the cosmos. This is called the Messier Catalogue and is a great way to begin your astronomical journey. Just like stars, the celestial objects come in a range of brightness’s of which 42 Messier objects on the list can be located with simply binoculars with another 34 be of the tougher or challenge variety. After a while, these targets are just too faint and this is where a telescope and detail star charts come into play.

So why do we look for these faint patches of light? Surely every Messier object and others have been photographed using ground bases telescope as well as those located in space. It comes down to the challenge of the hunt. An analogy I often use is a hockey game reported in the next day’s newspaper with an accompanying photo of the winning goal. Staring at a distant object whose photons have been travelling for millions of years is like being at the game with the thrill and excitement.

This list is used throughout the year except those lost from time to time in the solar glare due to our yearly orbit around the sun. There is however a specific window of opportunity to try and see all 110 in one entire night from dusk to dawn on the night of March 24. That date falls on a Tuesday but a few days either side is also prime time. The moon will be new on the 24 so its light will not interfere spotting some of the fainter objects. Use the list in order as you will be using every minute hunting for the first object, the spiral galaxy M77 in the west to the last one which is a globular cluster called M30 in the east before the sky lightens.

The spring equinox will occur on March 20 at 3:50 Universal Time. The word "equinox" comes from Latin aequus, meaning "equal", and nox, meaning "night". After this point daytime, hours in the northern hemisphere will begin to exceed nighttime hours. The opposite occurs in the southern hemisphere as fall occurs. The equinox is also a great time to see and image the Zodiacal light in the western sky for about two weeks after the full moon. This faint cone of light is slanted to the upper left and close to the Pleiades star cluster along with brilliant Venus. You must, however, get away from any and all sources of stray light to catch and image this layer of interstellar dust.

Venus is high in the western sky as the sun sets and reaches greatest eastern elongation, its farthest point from the sun at 46 degrees, on March 24. In a telescope, At the beginning of the month, Venus appears half-lit. Over the next few weeks keep following its progression with a telescope. As Venus appears closer to the horizon, it is moving closer to us as it positions itself between the earth and the sun. This will produce a larger disk and a thinning crescent. By May 5 it will be only 20% lit. Mars Jupiter and Saturn are now seen in the southeastern sky before dawn with tiny Mercury appearing about five degrees to the upper left of the waning crescent moon on March 21.

Daylight Saving Time begins on Sunday, March 8 at 2 a.m. and spring forward one hour where applicable. The Full Worm Moon (largest in 2020) occurs on March 9 with the new moon (lunation 1203) on March 24.       

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

eNews date: 
Sunday, March 1, 2020