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May 11, 2013

A Weekend of Southern Night Sky Wonders

Omega Centauri

Tonight and tomorrow night are your best opportunities to spot elusive Omega Centauri, first discussed in the spaced-out thread a few weeks back, for residents of much of the United States. This month's Sky and Telescope has it as their binocular highlight of the month, as well it should be: with over three million stars crammed into a space only a hundred and fifty light years across, even in the murky southern haze it is a sight to behold. Just further north, we have several other objects targeted in previous editions, and for those very lucky morons living in the Florida Keys, a very, very special quadruplet skates across your southern horizon. With the moon setting early enough to give a darkened view, you don't need much else to spot these gems:

Seeing the southern wonders
Besides binoculars and/or your scope, here's all you need:
1- A CLEAR view of the southern horizon. The further south you live, the less strict the rule, but the closer you are to 42N, this is the most essential thing.
2- No glaring lights. Light pollution is irrelevant: I live in a very bright part of the LA Metro area, and have spotted the Omega three times with bad haze. Keep your eye's shielded from bright stray lights.
3- Let your eyes adapt to the darkness for a good thirty minutes before beginning your search. Night vision is your friend here, as the southern declination of Omega will put it in the haze for everyone who doesn't live in the Gulf or Hawaii.
Here is an adjusted map for Omega, with recent Spaced-Out targets added:


Again, for urban/suburban astronomers, feel free to check out the FULP List (198 objects long) for other suggested sites to challenge you from your washed out skies.

Darkening your view in a sea of light
One common complaint for amateurs living in urban settings are stray lights: car headlamps, the occasional house light that flickers on, etc. How can you possibly preserve your vision in such an environment?

Use a trick from the high seas: the lowly eyepatch. For $2 you can protect one of your eyes and keep it dark adapted even with the other blinded by your neighbor's impromptu fireworks display. When readying to view through your telescope or mounted binoculars, use a dark cloth or towel to completely cover your head and the eyepiece/binoculars, blocking out any stray light, then flip the eyepatch off your unprotected eye and enjoy the view. This extremely simple though somewhat awkward technique can go a long way in teasing out spiral arms, stray stars, planetary details, and other features typically ruined by white-light blindness. An alternate tool are Orion's AstroGoggles, which help filter stray light and protect your vision, available here

If tonight doesn't look promising, fear not, here is's forecast for stargazing tomorrow, and for much of the United States it's looking good to excellent:

Live in the Florida Keys? You're in luck.
This weekend presents the best opportunity to spot four Southern objects nobody else in the continental United States can: the Southern Cross, the Coalsack, the Carinae Nebula, and Alpha/Beta Centauri. Since all of them take turns hugging due south, just look there as the night unfolds, and enjoy:
KeyWest Southern Four View

Of all of these objects, the Carinae Nebula may be the most intriguing:

Carinae Nebula

Containing numerous infant stars, this star forming region is four times the size of the Great Nebula in Orion, and contains one of the most famous doomed stars in the sky, Eta Carinae, hidden within a gasous cloud. A gigantic death star (150 solar masses) in it's final throes, the homonucleus nebula enveloping the dying star is the result of a massive gas ejection observed over a hundred years ago. Don't expect to see much detail with the atmospheric haze, but the nebulosity and dark/bright lanes can't be missed.

Much of the United States is currently forecast for good seeing either tonight or tomorrow, so take some time and see what's up!

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posted by CAC at 05:00 PM

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