Fabulous FebruaryBoy is it cold. How cold it is? It’s so cold out that the Lawnchair is wearing bright orange galoshes and clicking his ice encrusted legs together while softly chanting "There’s no place like Cancun, there’s no place like Cancun" . . .
Lawnchair Curses, Bright Orange Galoshes
Snow Removal Professionals Gone South
While enduring the fourth snow "event" in a week and hearing foreboding news reports of the return of yet another dreaded "Polar Vortex", the Lawnchair and I are not only cursing the winter, but ceremoniously burning an effigy of our regularly co-suffering but currently Mexican vacationing plow-truck driver.
It won’t be long now, though, before March and the Spring Equinox arrives. We just have to get through February and all will be peachy keen. Keep telling yourself that, unless of course you live in Georgia. Even they’re envisioning trips to "de islands mun".
However, as a way to warm the Lawnchair cockles during the last months of winter, there are indeed sights to behold that will heat up even the most ice enshrouded piece of outdoor furniture. To the east and well above the horizon after sunset in February is the constellation Cancer. Made up of a set of fairly bright stars formed into a dueling pair of inverted Ys, it is easily discerned. At its heart is the Beehive Cluster, which is visible as a nebulous patch to the naked eye in a very dark sky. Under slight magnification, it fits well within a wide angle lens view in binoculars or a small telescope. Once your eyes begin to fully take in the sight, you'll quickly realize that this is no run-of-the-mill deep-sky-object.
Cancer floats just ahead of the emerging big kitty, Leo, who is obviously hoping for a crustacean-based snack. Cancer the Crab is home to just a few amateur accessible Deep Sky Objects or DSOs. Namely the previously mentioned Beehive cluster, M 44, and another open cluster catalogued as M 67. The Beehive, named for its hymenopteran appearance, is a classic open cluster. Once you see it for yourself, you'll immediately understand how it got its name. You can find it just above the intersection of the inverted Ys. The next stop, near Cancer's left foot is where you can find M 67, which is also quite nice, though just not as A-List as the Beehive Cluster. Of course that may be a personal opinion.
Appearing nebulous at best in binoculars, a moderately sized telescope will break up the M-67 group. A moonless and clear night is, of course, a prerequisite for capturing this potential Lawnchair Trophy Chest keepsake. An interesting fact about this cluster is that it lies nearly 1500 light years above the plane of the galaxy. Most globulars lie within the plane, making M 67 a bit of an odd duck. It has been determined that M-67 is an extremely old cluster, its members weighing in, so to speak, at around 10 billion years old, indicating that its constituents are Population II stars. They may have been here well before the Milky-Way congealed into existence.
Just below Orion above the southern horizon is where you can find a beautiful globular star cluster. Within the borders of a small group of stars comprising the constellation Lepus, the bunny, M 79 is a characteristically wonderful deep-sky sight. A little smaller than the great cluster in Hercules, but still just as fascinating, it is sure to elicit Ooos and Ahhhs amongst your guests if you’re sharing the eye-piece. It is quite fascinating in the larger backyard telescope, a fuzzy star in smaller instruments. This is one of those proverbial jewels that can often make the whole night well worthwhile. Other than this fine globular, there are only a handful of dim galaxies and little else of interest to amateur observers within the borders of Lepus the Hare.
Another target I’d like to steer you toward is perhaps less well known and off-the-beaten-path, but here is a constellation that doesn't get as much publicity as many of the more famous stellar murals. Following the descending Andromeda and the diamond oriented Square of Pegasus above the western horizon after sunset, try spotting the aptly named triangle-shaped, Triangulum. This very small constellation seemingly points down to the horizon and by midnight spears the treetops. Though nothing of any real interest resides within the boundaries of the three stars that make up this tiny sky picture, if you follow the line from the bottom point star to the star in the upper right and then travel a little more than that distance up into the sky, you'll come across a beautiful open cluster.
M 34 is a smattering of both bright and dim stars which were first cataloged by Charles Messier in the late seventeen hundreds. Containing a few white giants, interspersed with nearly 80 minor members, this cluster can be detected with eyes alone in a very dark sky. Though, if your western horizon is backed by a distant city or town, the ambient light associated with it will make it impossible to see without the aid of at least a pair of binoculars. Larger instruments are not necessarily suited in this case for optimal viewing of M 34. Your best telescopic configuration would be to use a low power wide angle lens. Additional magnification will only spread out the view. For that reason, a good pair of binoculars are best suited for this deep sky target.
At the other end of the spectrum, and to the west or right of the bottom point star, you can locate a large, face on spiral galaxy. M-33, better known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, is as large as the full moon. However, it is extremely dim. Many observers pass right over it thinking it just the glow of light pollution. Though expansive, its very low surface brightness serves to make it a somewhat difficult target to find. Once located, however, a large instrument of 12 inches or more will resolve some of the structure of this local group member. Messier saw it in his three inch glass, though, noted it to be featureless. A truly dark sky is absolutely necessary to provide the needed contrast, which will make this puppy stand out. In deep sky photos the knotty arms are quite apparent and visually appealing.
Remember, there are no rules against carting out a thermos full of hot chocolate or coffee to help make the adventure tolerable. The Lawnchair won’t mind at all. As a matter of fact, if you can talk the kids or your elders and the neighbors into joining you, I'll guarantee they'll be talking about it for months and years to come. About how they spent an evening out on the frozen tundra with that crazy guy and his telescope and saw the most amazing things they ever saw in their lives. I guarantee you'll be a hero!
The Lawnchair Astronomer
Gerry Descoteaux is the author of “The Lawnchair Astronomer,” a Dell Trades paperback. He has been writing about astronomy for more than 25 years. He also played an integral role in the development of America Online’s pioneering distance education program known as AOL’s Online Campus and served as Professor of Astronomy there for 10 years. He can be reached at TheStarMan@thelawnchairastronomer.com.
Notes From the Lawnchair