4 Sky Events This Week: Cosmic Dumbbell and Lunar Lineup

The Dumbbell Nebula, a remnant of a dying star some 1,300 light-years from Earth, is a favorite summertime target for backyard telescopes. Courtesy REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

With the moon out of the night sky this week, some far-off treasures come to light. A planetary alignment with the stars adds to the delight.

Dumbbell Nebula. With the moon out of the evening sky for much of the week, this is a perfect time to hunt for deep-sky targets—celestial objects that lie outside our solar system.

One summertime favorite is a dying-star remnant known as the Dumbbell Nebula or Messier 27.  Located some 1,300 light-years from Earth, in the faint constellation Vulpecula, or Little Fox, it consists of a bubblelike gas cloud lit up by a small star at its center.

Glowing at a magnitude of 7.5, the Dumbbell is a fairly easy target for backyard telescopes.

To spot it (see star chart below): First identify Albireo, the head star of the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.  Then find the star Rotanev, one of the faint naked-eye stars of the tiny constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin.

Skychart showing location of Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in the constellation Vulpecula. Credit: SkySafari
This sky chart shows the location of the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in the constellation Vulpecula. Credit: SkySafari

Finally, draw an imaginary line between the two stars, and about a third of the way down from Albireo is the Dumbbell Nebula.  Once you’ve located the tiny gray, ghostlike cloud in a low-power eyepiece, shift to a higher magnification to see its subtler details.

 Aquarids Peak. The predawn hours of July 29 and 30 will be the best time to look for this annual minor meter shower. Usually outdone by their August cousins, the Perseids, the Aquarids will put on a better sky show this year, since their peak will be during a new moon.

Check our detailed viewer’s guide.

 Celestial Lineup.  As dusk settles in on Friday, August 1, look for the waxing crescent moon to pin down a stunning cosmic alignment of the bright star Spica and the planets Mars and Saturn.

Skychart showing a stunning cosmic alignment of the moon with Spica, Mars and Saturn. Credit: SkySafari
The moon aligns with Spica, Mars, and Saturn. Credit: SkySafari

Worth noting are the differences in the color of these starlike objects. Spica, which is some 250 light-years from Earth, shines with a distinct blue-white light. It actually consists of two stars that orbit each other once every four days.  Mars, which is some ten light minutes from Earth, shines with a distinct orange hue, thanks to all the iron-oxide-rich, dusty soil that covers its surface.

Saturn, 81 light minutes from Earth, is a yellow-hued cosmic beacon.

 Lunar Sandwich. By the next evening, Saturday, August 2, the moon will have slipped between Spica and Mars for sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere.

It just goes to show you that the moon will stay out of the picture only for so long.

Skychart shows the moon positioned between Spica and Mars on the evening of August 2, 2014. Credit: SkySafari
The moon slides between Spica and Mars on the evening of August 2, 2014. Credit: SkySafari


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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.