February 9, 2015
The Night Sky:
Winter stargazing on the islands
By GERRY LEBING
you ever wonder what all those twinkling lights are in the night
sky? I do. Do you enjoy sitting out on dark clear evening
looking for shooting stars? I do. I remember how thrilled I was
when my parents got me a very used telescope and tripod for my eighth
birthday. I used it to look at the craters on the moon and
learned how to project an image of the sun onto a cardboard screen so I
could view a partial eclipse.
Somewhere along the line,
that telescope disappeared, but I guess the memory didn’t. About
five years ago, my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and,
without a moment’s hesitation, I said I wanted a telescope. Since
then, I try to take advantage of every clear night I can to look at the
stars and beyond!
I quickly found out that astronomy can
be really cold in the winter. I can’t tell you how many nights I spent
dressed in insulated coveralls and a ski jacket trying to stay warm
while enjoying the night sky. But the cold always won out in the
end, so I had an observatory built adjacent to my house. Now I can
pursue my nocturnal hobby and avoid getting pneumonia.
observatory raised a lot of eyebrows and interest in the
neighborhood. It also caught the attention of the Island Free
Press. The editor, Irene Nolan, contacted me and asked if I
would be interested in writing a column about the night skies here over
Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. I immediately accepted hoping to
inspire others to get out and enjoy the treasures of the night sky.
I intend to loosely organize this column into three main sections:
- Last month’s highlights. I will touch upon some of the high points as seen through my telescope.
skies. I will describe some of the astronomical phenomena that you can
expect to see in the upcoming month. I will describe sights that
are visible to the naked eye, as well as events that require more
sophisticated equipment, including binoculars, telescopes, and
- Astronomy talk. I will clarify
some of the terms that are commonly used by astronomers and describe
some of the techniques I have successfully used to improve my viewing
was a lovely view of Venus and Mercury before and after sundown.
You didn’t need any kind of visual aid to spot both planets just above
the southwest horizon.
Comet Lovejoy passed closest to the Earth
on Jan. 7. Although at its brightest point Lovejoy was
supposed to be 4th magnitude, I could not spot it without the aid of
binoculars or telescope. And worst of all, I failed to get any
good pictures of it!
Here are a couple of the images I took from my observatory in January:
This is NGC 2903, a spiral galaxy (viewed on Jan. 26). Its light took about 30 million years to reach us.
is the Orion Nebula, M42 (Jan. 26). It is one of the brightest
nebulae in the sky and is believed to be the closest star-forming
region in the Milky Way. It’s only about 1,300 light-years away.
FEBRUARY SKY WATCHING
will continue to be the bright evening star in the west-southwest
sky. Mars will be in close proximity to Venus for much of the
Jupiter will be visible all night long. It
stands out as a very bright star to the naked eye, but add a pair of
binoculars or a telescope, and you should be able to see its bands. On
a good night, you might spot several of its larger moons.
is currently rising in the east-southeast just after 2 a.m. If
you get up early in the morning, it’s a good time to get a view of its
rings. You can make them out with a good pair of binoculars or a
Orion, the hunter, continues to be the most
prominent constellation in the southern skies. Look for a group
of stars that appear to form an hourglass. The rectangle of
the hourglass is defined by four prominent stars--Betelgeuse,
Bellatrix, Saiph, and Rigel. Three stars appear to form a belt at
the center of the rectangle. Another set of three fainter stars
hangs down from the belt forming the hunter’s sword.
out the center star in the sword. If you have very good eyes, it
will appear blurry. That’s because it’s surrounded by the Orion
Nebula. Through my 8x42 binoculars, I can clearly see the
In the northern sky, look for the Big
Dipper. Just about everybody knows that the two stars farthest
from the handle, Merak and Dubhe, point to Polaris, the North
Star. Do you know that the second star in the handle, Mizar, is a
double star? Its companion star, Alcor, can be seen with
the naked eye. But that’s not the whole story. A closer
investigation with very expensive equipment will reveal that the Mizar
actually has three other companions and Alcor is a true double in its
own right, bringing the total number of stars in this system up to six
-- that’s a sextet!
Another smaller cluster of stars that I
always enjoy is the Pleiades or Seven Sisters (M45). Through February,
it will be just about directly overhead around 8 p.m. As the name
implies, it is a cluster of 7 stars in close proximity to each
other. I can still see five of the seven unaided on a clear
night. If I use my binoculars, it is very easy to see all seven,
and I can also see the bluish glow of the nebula that surrounds each of
the individual stars. Just a side note on the Pleiades: The
Japanese word for Pleiades is Subaru. The six-star logo on
these imports is a representation of this star cluster. Guess the skies
over Japan never revealed the seventh star.
If you have access
to a larger scope, there are quite a few galaxies and nebulae to
view. The Orion Nebula (M42) is visible in Orion and
in close proximity you can also view M43 and the Horsehead
Nebula. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and Pinwheel Galaxy (M33) are
both visible in the northwest. (M31 is visible to the naked eye
as a faint star and is fun to view through binoculars) And both
of Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82, are visible to the north.
Here are some clarifications of a few of the terms and names I used in this month’s article.
of the objects I reference are denoted with an "M" or "NGC," followed
by a number. The "M" stands for Messier. It is a set of 110
prominent deep space objects that French astronomer Charles Messier
compiled in the mid-1700s. He was looking for comets, and this
was his list of objects that were a waste of time observing. The
list is filled with star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae! I use it
all the time as a great starting point for selecting deep space objects
that are relatively easy to see. "NGC" stands for the New General
Catalog. It is a collection of about 8,000 deep space objects
that was compiled by John Louis Dreyer in the late 1800s.
nebula is a cloud of gas and dust in deep space. Some are thought
to be the birth place of stars, while others are the remains of stars
that collapsed upon themselves and exploded!
Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey
in Washington, D.C. He has visited Hatteras Island since the
mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several
years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013. You can send
him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)