Can it be? Light at the end of the tunnel? I can’t say that chipping ice and snow from the Lawnchair for the umpteenth time this winter hasn't gotten old. So I am quite thankful now that March promises to deliver us from, if not a brutal, a certainly trying cold season. As the Earth continues its slow tilt back toward a summer orientation, it reaches the midway point at the Spring Equinox on the 21st. Inclement, Lawnchair chilling weather should begin to subside, at least enough to enjoy some sneak peeks into the upcoming warm season of summer sights. Also, as a gift from the global time barons, we return to daylight savings time. Another sure sign that winter will soon be nothing more than a bad memory!
Beginning this month's adventure above the western horizon just prior to midnight, you'll see the twin stick figures of Gemini following Orion, destined to shortly sink below the tree tops by early morning. By 1:30 a.m. the Twins, standing upright just above the horizon, will make it too late to capture their own famous jewel. In the hours before midnight, though, Gemini is an excellent area of sky to peruse. Its claim to fame, besides its very bright head stars, Pollux and Castor, M 35 is a wonderful low-power cluster at the foot of the right twin. It is considered a very fine star cluster, bright enough to be glimpsed with eyes alone as a “dimmish” star under perfect seeing conditions. Classified as an open star cluster, in a dark sky, use the averted vision technique to glimpse it. Seen through binoculars it's easily a nebulous sight, with perhaps some of the edge stars sparkling into view. In a telescope you'll see many more of the constituent’s members, which, after all, is true of any star cluster. In a telescopic view, most of its stars, about 200 in all, can be resolved easily. Also within the same field of view is a smaller, denser companion. NGC 2158, is also classified as an open cluster. However, many first time observers have mistaken this fuzzy spot for an undiscovered comet.
The area to the west or right of Gemini is also quite flush in special sights. Here you should easily be able to discern the house shaped collection of stars called Auriga. Its bright alpha star, Capella, is sixth brightest overall in the sky. Try training your binoculars onto it and make a determination on its color. It is has long been a subject of debate. A few ancient writers, Ptolemy included, noted it as a red star, though today, most agree that it is a warm golden yellow. In a telescope, the star is simply astonishing. Though not possible to split telescopically, it orbits a common center with a close 10th magnitude companion.
Sitting smack dab in the middle of the springtime Milky way, Auriga is home to some wonderful star fields. In a few places they knot into incredibly thick open clusters of stars. Visualizing the house shape, look just above and to the left of where the front door would be. Here you should see the first on our list, M 38. Next to that, perhaps in the same field of view in a wide angle lens, just to the left and above our imaginary bay window, is another wonderful Messier, M 36. M 37 is the last partner of the threesome which actually lies outside the house's exterior wall to the left just a bit further out. Think of it as a blossom out on the rose bushes. It too, can be captured in the same wide field of view along with M-36.
Each cluster has different characteristics to catch your attention. M 37 is imbedded in a field of like stars numbering in the tens of thousands, while M 36 is much more compact and consisting of brighter stars. M 38 contains a few elements of each and also catches the eye in a dramatic way. In binoculars, you may glimpse a little of the volume of stars in and around these clusters. In ever increasing sized telescopes, you'll get to see more and more of these intergalactic neighbors.
Admittedly, it’s probably still a bit cool to spend a lot of time under early March morning skies. But seeing the treats described above will surely warm the hearts of you and anyone you might convince to join you for such an adventure. Bring the hot coffee and yummy donuts along and don't be surprised if members of local law enforcement show up unexpectedly. In any case, voila! An early morning party just might break out!
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