There are a few positive things to be said about the weather still acting like winter in the Mid-Atlantic – tree pollen hasn’t been bad yet, I have so far avoided to mow the lawn, and the skies are still free of humidity and good for star-gazing.
Tonight, it actually felt sort-of comfortable to be outside, so I took advantage.
By 9pm, Spica has risen – the Spring Triangle (Arcturus, Spica, and Denebola – in the constellations Bootes, Virgo, and Leo, respectively) is a huge equilateral triangle on the eastern horizon, while the Winter Triangle (Betelgeuse, Sirius, Procyon – in Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor) is hanging out in the west. Sort of fitting that we have both at the same time.
If you wait til after midnight, Jupiter will be up. Together with Arcturus and Spica, Jupiter is forming a temporary triangle in the other direction, opposite Denebola. Temporary, of course, because Jupiter is on the move (as it always is).
Tonight though, I was after a couple open clusters. As I set up my camera, I could hear peepers in the swamps out in the forest. A screech owl was hooting out there too. And then, I saw what was probably an early Lyrid meteor (but a very big, bright one). All this reminded me – the night sky is beautiful, but it’s also an EXCUSE. It’s just another thing to appreciate about being outdoors, and enjoying the different aspects of nature that darkness brings out.
Anyway, the clusters – they’re easy to spot, barely visible with the naked eye, but the kind of thing a pair of binoculars reveals easily. New backyard astronomers are always impressed at just how many more stars you can see in these beautiful groups. Give it a try!
The first: The Beehive, or Messier 44 (M44 for short). This small open cluster is just barely naked-eye visible with averted vision, given the light pollution around my place (which admittedly isn’t horrible). What I mean is, you can see it better when you’re not looking straight at it. It’s in dark Cancer, almost straight up in mid latitudes, halfway between the Sickle of Leo and the heads (Castor and Pollux) of Gemini, and looks like a faint smudge when you look toward either of these neighboring constellations. Pull out the binoculars, and prepare to be dazzled!
The second is much larger, big enough to have a constellation all to itself – Coma Berenices, or “Berenices Hair”. It sits just west of Bootes, or “above” it and Arcturus in spring skies, since Bootes is essentially laying on his back along the horizon. It’s hard to fit in a single view, and amazing just how many stars are in this patch of sky.
While you’re out there, enjoy the owls, too. The night has many things to offer, and stellar scenery is only one of them!
Get Out There!