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March 28, 2013

CAC's Spaced Out Challenge

Since we have a few months before Comet ISON can wow us, and PANSTARRS is leaving us fast, here's two challenging object for you morons and ettes blessed with a decent pair of binoculars or gifted with a half-decent telescope.

In the Northern Hemisphere, only a small portion of the Centaurus constellation makes an appearance**. However, two of the most spectacular objects "in" it are visible right now if you know where to look. Late March/April gives everyone south of NYC their best chance at spotting Centaurus A and Omega Centauri. Here's how.


First up, a bit on the target objects.


Omega Centauri
Omega Centauri was known until the mid 17th century as a star, hence it's designation. It is the brightest globular cluster in the night sky, and the largest, covering double the apparent view of a full moon. Some have speculated it isn't even a globular at all, but a captured galaxy, regardless it makes for an impressive sight with even a modest telescope.


Centaurus A (the "Hamburger" Galaxy)
Centaurus A is the fifth-brightest galaxy in our night sky, though it's southern declination discourages a lot of amateurs in our hemisphere from sneaking a peak. It's active galactic nucleus is shooting out relativistic jets at half the speed of light, with radio jets over a million light years long.
How to find them
What should you expect? Barring exceptional vision, you won't see the Hamburger Galaxy naked-eye in any zone. The further south you are, the more details you may pick out with moderate binoculars and an amateur telescope. Omega Centauri, on the other hand, changes radically the further South you live.
IF THE MOON IS FULL, DON'T BOTHER LOOKING FOR BOTH. This should be obvious, but in case it isn't, the brighter the moon, the brighter the sky, and the dimmer the deep sky objects, regardless their apparent brightness. Aim for observing around new moons or consult this site to see when the moon isn't up.
Beyond anything else, first thing's first: find a clear, flat view of the Southern horizon. Then find someplace flatter and more horizon-y.

My preferred quite-flat observing site, Amboy, CA

The further North you are, the more essential this is. The map below gives you a rough picture of what to expect in your hunt for the southern object, Omega Centauri:
Omega Centauri View

If you live in the impossible zone, you're shit out of luck.
Zone 1 residents may theoretically spot Omega Centauri with absolutely perfect conditions and little atmospheric interference on the horizon.
Zone 2 residents will need to consult the chart below and adjust for their latitude (see how far from the horizon?). Some further tips for urban residents in this zone can be found here.) A naked-eye view is virtually impossible, and binocular viewing will yield at most a fuzzy star. Telescope viewing will require a lot of prep but will yield a slightly less fuzzy clump of stars.
Zone 3 residents really start to enjoy the view. Naked-eye viewing is possible, I spotted Omega in Amboy, California on a less-than-ideal night last year and used my binoculars to confirm. The view in the binos resembled a fuzzy clump, through my telescope (with which I had a good two hours of seeing) it started to resemble the picture above.
Zone 4 residents: moderately easy naked-eye with good vision and transparency, here both targets rise high enough where atmospheric interference begins to subside. Binocular view in simple 8x50's will yield a swarming ball, through a cheap telescope you are closing in on the above view.
Zone 5 residents (southern Lousiana, Texas, most of Florida) can really enjoy all three views. Through a moderate-sized telescope you can resolve individual stars, and large binoculars will yield a view similar to what I enjoyed with a scope.
Zone 6 residents: spectacular view, particularly in the Florida Keys.

Binoculars of 10x50 or better should bring out the Hamburger Galaxy from the darkest sites in zones two and better, and a modest telescope should yield a view in all six. So the second piece of advice: bring a scope or binos.

You've figured out your spot, and you have your binoculars or your dob. Now what do you do?

Starhopping to the Objects
Here is the view from about half-way in zone three. Here, Omega Centauri is almost 9 degrees above the horizon:

STARHOPTOOBJECTS

I don't live in SoCal, you might say. How far above the horizon should I look?
ωCentauri is at -47 declination on the celestial map, while Centaurus A is about -43. To figure out how many degrees above the horizon you can expect to spot it, add 47 to your latitude, and subtract that from 90. For example, if you live in, say, Los Angeles, you get just under 9 degrees, or just about a fists-width held out at arms length, and a spread-hand's-width for the Hamburger Galaxy. With every two degrees of latitude north or south, subtract/add a finger's width from the object's altitude above the horizon.

Good luck and clear skies!


**Those of you fortunate enough to live in Key West get a far, far grander view of both of these objects. During key hours in March, April and May, you lucky morons also get to see the Coalsack, Eta Carinae Nebula, the Southern Cross, and Alpha and Beta Centauri. If you don't have a telescope and you live in southern Florida...what are you doing?

ADDED:
Don't have binoculars or a scope, but are intereseted in purchasing one? Well, using Ace's Amazon store, here are some decent buys:
Celestron 15X70s here
Orion XT8 Dobsonian scope (which I can vouch for) here
Bushnell PowerView 10x50 binoculars here
Celestron NexStar 8" (computerized scope) here
Orion 90mm refractor here
and of course don't forget the accessories here

digg this
posted by CAC at 08:30 PM

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