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Highlights of the Winter Sky
Submitted: Friday, 25th May 2012 by Suzy Webb

One of the first things that enters a beginners mind when they purchase a telescope is “what can I see now?”. 

So I thought I’d compile a list of showpiece objects that can be fairly easily found during the learning curve.

Some good binocular targets are also noted on the list.

I will build on this list as the constellations seasons arise, so to start off with, here is the first list.

Highlights of the Winter Sky

  • M6 - The Butterfly (star cluster) in Scorpius.

    Great binocular object.

  • M7 -  Ptolemy's Cluster (star cluster) in Scorpius. 

    It sits only 3 degrees away from M6. Another great binocular target. To the naked eye, it’s very easy to make out the hazy patches of sky under Scorpius’ stinger where M6 & M7 reside.

  • M8 - The Lagoon Nebula (nebula) in Sagittarius. 

    Very bright and a good performer in binoculars.  The nebula has an embedded bright star cluster (NGC 6530) which makes it stand out brightly.

  • M22 -  (globular cluster) in Sagittarius. 

    This is the third brightest globular cluster in our skies (Omega Cent & 47Tuc are the other two in respective order of brightness).

  • NGC 6231 -  (star cluster) in Scorpius.

  • NGC 3242 -  Ghost of Jupiter (planetary nebula) in Hydra.

    It's blue!  Or depending on your eyes, green. Use medium to high power on this one to resolve some detail.  About the same size as Jupiter, it's very easy to find, only sitting one degree away from mu Hydrae.

  • NGC 3132-  The Eight Burst Nebula (planetary nebula) in Vela.

    Fairly large and bright at 8th magnitude, it looks bigger than Jupiter through a telescope.  Low power can make this object look more stellar than a planetary nebula, therefore high power is needed.  The outer ring has a distinct rusty orange coloured tint- see if you can you make it out.

  • NGC 3918 -  The Blue Planetary (planetary nebula) in Centaurus. 

    A very vivid spot of blue in the sky.

  • NGC 5139 -  Omega Centauri (globular cluster) in Centaurus.

    This is the largest and brightest globular cluster in our sky.  It’s thought to be a remnant core of smaller galaxy since consumed by the milky way.  It’s an awesome sight both in telescopes and binoculars.  At high magnification a wide-field eyepiece is required to fit this whole cluster within the field of view due to its size which is slightly larger than a full moon (36’ arc mins.)  High magnification is also required toresolve the stars well into its nucleus (providing the seeing conditions are good).

  • NGC5128 -  Centaurus A (galaxy) in Centaurus.

    The 5th brightest galaxy in our sky and also one of the closest radio sources to Earth.  These radio signals are the result of an active galactic nucleus generated by a supermassive black hole.  Because of this, it’s amongst the most studied galactic nuclei.  This is a very strange looking galaxy- thought to be a giant elliptical galaxy having consumed a spiral galaxy- hence the dust lane running through the middle of it.  Also aptly nicknamed “the hamburger galaxy” because of its split appearance. Through a telescope it appears as a soft white, fairly largish (26’ arc min.) round glow. Further observations and good sky conditions will reveal the dust lane within it and some detail. See if you make out the thicker bar of the dust lane.  Some patience, perseverance and averted vision are needed here I think and in my opinion, quite a rewarding object to look at once you start to see some detail.                                          

  • M65/66/NGC 3628  - The Leo Triplet (a group of 3 galaxies close together) in Leo.

    The third member (3628) is fainter and sometimes a bit difficult to make out.  This famous group can apparently be made out in binoculars or with a 100mm scope under good conditions.

  • IC2516  -The Diamond Cluster (star cluster) in Carina.

    Very easy to find and quite spectacular, it sits only 3 degrees from the bright orange star, Avior.

  • IC2602 - The Southern Pleiades (star cluster) in Carina.

    Otherwise known as the theta Carinae Cluster. Again, very easy to find sitting within the same field of view as theta Carinae.  This is a very large & bright cluster.  Use low  magnification to enjoy the complete field of view of this object- it's as wide as nearly two full moons!  Great binocular target.

  • NGC 3532 --The Wishing Well Cluster (star cluster) in Carina.

    This is a huge closely packed cluster containing some 150 stars spanning one degree.  So large in fact, that even from suburbia, you should be able to make out the hazy patch of sky this cluster resides in.  The entire field of an eyepiece is taken up with a heavy concentration of stars. Low magnification is recommended. Sometimes I like to use high power of say 140x for a real knock out effect, but naturally the whole cluster doesn't fit in the eyepiece at this power.  It remains one of my favourites.

  • NGC 3372 - The Great Carina Nebula (diffuse nebula) in Carina.

    The largest and brightest nebula in our sky, it spans nearly four full moons wide!  Like the Wishing Well Cluster, this hazy patch in the sky is easily made out with the naked eye.  In fact the area of sky spanning Carina, Crux & Centaurus is populated with easy to see, conspicuous hazy patches of luminosity.  A binocular de-tour delight is to explore these surrounds.

    The nebula itself is embedded with a number of star clusters, most notably the famous star, eta Carinae star blazing away a brilliant large yellow glow towards the edge of the nebula.  This is a hyper-giant star approximately 100-150 solar masses, with a luminosity of 4 million times that of our sun and in its final stages of life.   Theoretically, this star shouldn't still be in existence due to its sheer size which sits on the edge of the Eddington limit.  It's thought the reason it’s still here is due to an outburst event which took place in 1841, releasing some of its energy and at the time, briefly appearing as the second brightest star in our sky (the remains of this event which we now see as the homunculus nebula).   This star is so highly unstable, it will end its life sometime soon- either tomorrow or the next 100,000 years, in a violent explosion known as a hyper-nova.

    Look closely at this star using high magnification (around 200x) and you should be able to make out the Homunculus nebula which surrounds Eta Carinae- it rather resembles the appearance of a bon-bon.  Can you see one lobe of the nebula brighter than the other?  Under good conditions you should be able to see this star with your naked eye, and from a dark site especially so.  The star and surrounding nebula make a great binocular target.

  • NGC 3293 - The Gem Cluster (star cluster) in Carina.

    Sits on the edge of the Carina Nebula at only one degree away.

  • NGC 4755 - The Jewel Box (star cluster) in Crux.

    A well celebrated cluster of the southern skies noted for its array of coloured stars; notably the three stars intersecting through its centre in a diagonal line of white, blue and yellow. A good binocular target.

  • NGC3766 - The Pearl Cluster (star cluster) in Crux.

  • RUBY CRUCIS - Carbon star in Crux.

    Point the telescope onto the bright star Beta Crucis (the bottom left star of the Southern Cross) and position the star to the right of the middle of your eyepiece.  Now look directly to the left (on the same line) and you will see the reddest of all carbon stars.  So red in fact, that it looks like a drop of blood in the sky.  Being a southern star it unfortunately doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves (compared to northern objects).

  • M-104  - The Sombrero (galaxy) in Virgo.

    The 11th brightest galaxy in our sky at mag. 8.3, it sits on the outer edge of the Virgo Cluster. This is the best example of a spiral galaxy with a dark dust lane.  It cuts a prominent line from one edge of the galaxy to the other. The core is quite bright, showing a defined rounded bulge protruding from the galactic plane.

    It can be seen in binoculars as a stellar in appearance due to its bright rounded core,  but needs at least an 8"scope to do it justice in showing its strikingly sharp dust lane.  This object can usually take high magnification quite well (depending on the sky conditions).


Article by Suzy Webb (Suzy). Discuss this article on the IceInSpace Forum.

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