Visit stunning stellar grave sites and watch the moon pair up with kings of the celestial jungle for a delightful starry tour this week in sky-watching.
The Moon and the Crab
In the predawn hours of Tuesday, September 16, backyard telescope users can hunt down the sky’s most famous, and arguably best, example of a supernova remnant, thanks to the moon pointing the way.
Look for the faint Crab Nebula approximately 4 degrees above the moon, slightly less than the width of your fist held at arm’s length. The nebula is also easily found about 1 degree northwest from the star Zeta Tau, the gleam that marks the tip of the southern horn of the Taurus, the Bull.
Despite the Crab Nebula intrinsically shining some 75,000 times brighter than our sun, it glows only faintly in the sky at magnitude 8.4. It is still not too difficult to spot with a run-of-the-mill 7 x 50 binocular from dark skies.
Current estimates put this stellar wreckage, the aftermath of a star explosion, at about 6,000 light-years away from Earth. Amazingly, after its massive progenitor star blew itself apart, it was actually seen in the sky in A.D. 1054 by Chinese astronomers.
Swan Points to Dumbbell
After nightfall on Thursday, September 18, sky-watchers across mid-northern latitudes can look straight overhead and find the bright summertime constellation of Cygnus, the Swan.
Otherwise known as the Northern Cross, this bright stellar pattern is easy to spot this time of the year, even from light-polluted suburbs. While the most prominent star in the group is Deneb, the second brightest, Albireo, marks the head of the Swan, or foot of the Cross.
Using binocular, scan just one field of view below Albireo (about 8 degrees) and you may notice what looks like the faint, tiny cloudlike spot known as the Dumbbell Nebula or Messier 27.
Shining at magnitude 7.3, it is an easy target for even small backyard telescopes. With its double-lobed shape, it looks a lot like its name implies.
The Dumbbell is a cloud of expanding gas and dust, the remains of the death of a sunlike star sitting about 1,700 light-years away.
Astronomers have not been able to pin down the exact age of the object, but they estimate that the progenitor star died sometime between 3,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The Moon and Jupiter
Early risers on Saturday, September 20, may see the waning crescent moon park itself next to brilliant Jupiter. The stunning pair will appear only about 5 degrees apart.
It is amazing to think that while light takes only 1.3 seconds to bounce off the lunar surface and hit your eye, the photons of light reflecting off the upper cloud deck of Jupiter takes a stately 49.6 minutes to reach us.
The Moon and Regulus
By the next morning on Sunday, September 21, the moon will have sunk lower in the East and by this time join the brightest star in the constellation, Leo (the Lion).
Regulus, known to ancient astronomers as Cor Leonis—the heart of the lion—lies some 79 light-years away from Earth.
This bright blue-white star is so far from Earth that the light we see it by tonight left on its journey in the same year that Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California; T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) died in a motorcycle accident; and the U.S. unemployment rate was hovering around 20 percent—in 1935.