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April 10, 2013

CAC's Spaced Out Challenge: Death and Rebirth

This week, we're talking the circle of stellar life. For the urban observers, I challenge you to find and enjoy De Mairan's Nebula (M43), a smaller portion of the Great Nebula in Orion. For those of you with darker country skies, I invite you to hunt down the Crab Supernova Remant in Taurus. Next week we'll focus on the cosmic time-bombs that lay between the clouds. Coincidentally Sky and Telescope has an article about a new possible type of supernova, though this one involves much smaller stars and with the added disappointment of progenator star survival. Also making news this week was the Herschel Space telescope's protostar images, some of the "youngest" images of stars yet taken. Anyway, onto the challenge.

Urban/Suburban Sky Challenge: M43, De Mairan's Nebula:

An overlooked region of the greater Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, M43 is an active star-forming region much like its far more famous brother to the south. Make sure your eyes are dark adapted, and you shield yourself from as much stray light as possible. A cheap nebula filter used behind your telescope's eyepiece will bring out even more detail, and you can buy a few of them through Ace's Amazon site here and here.

How to find it

One hour after sunset, begin your hunt. This late in the year, Orion sets rather quickly, so be at the ready. Fortunately Orion is one of the easiest constellations to remember in the sky, thanks to the brilliant 7 stars that make up his shoulders, knees and belt. Zero in on the target region indicated by the circle below. In either binoculars or a telescope, you will see a larger area of cloudy nebulosity, with a smaller region offset. That offset region is your target:


map generated with Stellarium software

M43 as seen through binoculars from a light-polluted site...

M43 as seen through a moderate telescope.

Also try your hand at the Trapezium, the hot cluster of stars in the Great Nebula that lights up the gaseous region. Four are clearly visible with good binoculars, and six can be teased out with a moderately-sized telescope.

Dark Sky Challenge: The Crab Supernova Remnant (M1)

The very first item in Charles Messier's famed catalog of objects, the Crab Supernova Remnant, or Crab Nebula as it's more frequently referred, was the first such remnant successfully connected to a recorded supernova, that of 1054 A.D. It's xray and radio waves emanate from the pulsar at it's heart, furiously spinning and lighting up the slowly expanding gas cloud. Given time, the remnant's gas and dust may become the seeds of future stars, though thanks to the fusion of higher elements in its violent death, certainly nothing of the magnitude that once was. This object is very, very faint, and requires, even in the country, a night of good transparency and patience to enjoy. Make sure your eyes have been fully-dark adapted, and use as large an aperture instrument you can. You could see a faint smudge with binoculars but to appreciate the crab, go big.
How to find it
Use Orion to get yourself situated, then find the horns of Taurus and take it from there:


And here is the view you could expect at higher power with a filter, though your vision may be strong enough to bring out some of the filaments and, if your telescope is large enough, even a glimpse of the pulsar:

A new recommendation this week: Tri-Atlas, which is perhaps the most comprehensive of it's kind, showing stars down to 13th magnitude and galaxies down to 15th. Best of all, the pdf version is free. There is also an iPhone app as well. This week will be the best week for the month of April to view DSO', with the thinning and very-soon-to-be-new moon leaving a darker night sky. Clear skies to you and good luck!

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posted by CAC at 11:30 PM

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