The new year is well underway and the weather has been a bit unpredictable, to say the least – from warm and cloudy, to a trip straight into the deep freeze.
In these conditions, astronomy can become a lesson in futility and frustration. One solution is to get friendly with your binoculars.
You can always head out for a couple of minutes of clear sky on a cloudy night, or if the temperature has hit bone chilling. There is plenty to see if you know where to look, so take a basic star chart with you.
Let’s explore a couple of target-rich constellations with a pair of binoculars. The constellation of Andromeda is located on the western horizon in the early evening and holds two large and easily located galaxies.
As galaxies go, the Andromeda galaxy (also known as M31) is our sister galaxy. The Andromeda galaxy is a spiral galaxy and the most remote object visible to the unaided eye at a distance of 2,300,000 light years.
To the unaided eye this galaxy appears as a hazy patch or smudge in the northwest of the constellation that bears its name. In pair of binoculars this galaxy appears to be about three degrees long and has a much brighter center or nucleus.
As you look to the south of this beautiful galaxy you will see a fuzzy star, which just happens to be another galaxy. This satellite galaxy is known as M32 and is visible in 7×50 binoculars, but is best seen in larger 20x80s.
There is also a second satellite galaxy known as M110, which rests right above the Andromeda galaxy. This is a very dim galaxy and larger binoculars, such as 20x80s, are recommended.
I have seen all three galaxies in a pair of 10×50 binoculars a few times, but only on the clearest and darkest nights.
While we are in the neighbourhood, we should check out open star cluster NGC 752. To locate this star cluster of about 75 stars, move southward from Andromeda galaxy to the bright star named Mirach, and then move eastward in a diagonal line toward the bright star Almach.
These are very bright stars that are easily seen and marked on even the most basic of star charts. About three quarters of the way to Almach you will see a small triangle of stars, marking you are there.
Now for something completely different and challenging – try to find a planetary nebula in binoculars. One of the finest planetary nebula in the night sky is the Blue Snowball.
Moving southeast from the Andromeda galaxy cluster, you will notice a “star” with a soft blue-green glow. This little planetary nebula can be glimpsed in a pair of 7×50 binoculars with a little diligence and a tripod.
A planetary nebula is formed when a star at the end of its life expels up to a quarter of its mass into space through a continual stellar wind.
This process takes thousands of years and creates complex nebula structures, which we see as clouds like an intricate lace on a wedding dress. Very, very cool to see.
If you look to the east of the Andromeda galaxy you will notice an upside down triangle of stars. This is known as the constellation Triangulum.
There are dozens of galaxies in this region of space, but these are for medium to large aperture telescopes. However, there is one galaxy that can be seen in 7×50 or larger binoculars – M33 – also known as the Pinwheel galaxy.
This galaxy is 2,400,000 light years distant and is the night skies’ finest example of a face on spiral galaxy. In binoculars the spiral arms will not be visible, but they are visible in a telescope on a clear dark night.
To locate this galaxy, start at the point star in the constellation of Triangulum and move your binoculars in a northeastern direction several binocular fields. This small fuzzy patch is what you are looking for.
If you look at a star chart, this galaxy should be very bright, except that this brightness is spread over a very large area, making it a challenging object to find. Using binoculars is perfect for viewing this galaxy.
On several nights I have been able to see the Triangulum galaxy in my 10×50 binoculars, yet I could barely make out the galaxy in my eight-inch reflector. Sometimes a telescope is not the best for viewing – binoculars are.
So grab your binoculars, a simple star chart and head outside and take a look for yourself.