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Owls, Roses, and the Horn of Plenty

Nov. 22, 2022 | By Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs

NGC 457, the "Owl Cluster" in Cassiopeia
Imaged 2019 September 27 at Blackwater Falls State Park, Davis, West Virginia
with an Explore Scientific AR102 10.2-cm (4-inch) f/6.5 refractor and a Canon EOS Rebel SL2 DSLR
Note the galactic cluster NGC 436 an lower left

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, working her way up from the southwestern horizon as she draws a bead on Saturn.  First Quarter occurs on the 30th at 9:37 am Eastern Standard Time.  This is the second time this month that Luna reaches this phase, the first occasion having occurred on the 1st.  You will find the Moon near Saturn as the week ends.

We still have ample time to enjoy the splendors of the autumn sky before the Moon begins to wash out the fainter stars of the season.  You will find the Milky Way arching from the southwest to the northeast, where you will find some of the more noticeable fall constellations.  Perhaps the most recognizable of these is the “W”-shaped group of stars that represents Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Within the bounds of this diminutive group you will find a number of galactic star clusters, many of which are visible in binoculars and small telescopes.  The showpiece of the area lies in the Milky Way just east of the “W” and the bright star Mirfak in Perseus.  Known as the “Double Cluster”, keen-eyed people can see two small fuzzy patches in the Milky Way star cloud.  Binoculars will begin to resolve the two “fuzzies” into stars, and small telescopes will show each cluster resolved into hundreds of stars.  My favorite views of the Double Cluster are made with low magnification through my 3- and 4-inch refractors.  In the latter scope several of the stars between the clusters begin to show a reddish tint, and represent some of the most intrinsically bright stars in the Galaxy.  Just south of the eastern pair of stars in the “W” is another fine cluster for binoculars and the small telescope.  It lies close to the 5th magnitude star Phi Cassiopeiae.  Through the small telescope it takes on a shape that resembles and owl, with the star Phi forming one of the owls “eyes”, giving rise to its popular name, the Owl Cluster.  More challenging is a very dense cluster of faint stars that lie to the west of the two bright western stars of the “W”.  A small telescope will show a softly glowing fuzzy patch at first glance, but my 4-inch instrument will resolve it into hundreds of faint stars.  An 8-inch instrument will show it in all of its glory.  Discovered by Caroline Herschel, the indefatigable sister and assistant to the English astronomer William Herschel.  Its popular name today is “Caroline’s Rose”.

If you’re out near midnight after your Thanksgiving feast the eastern sky begins to light up with winter’s bright stars.  After the relatively sparse star patterns of autumn they are a welcome sight to accompany the lengthening nights.  By midnight the parade of first-magnitude stars known as the Great Winter Circle has cleared the eastern horizon, anchored by the striking figure of Orion, the Hunter.  The highest of the stars in the circle is now approaching the meridian in the form of a bright yellow-tinted luminary known as Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer.  The sixth-brightest star in all of the sky, Capella represents the she-goat Amalthea who suckled the infant Zeus.  The strong toddler accidentally broke off one of the goat’s horns, which then was transformed into the Cornucopia, the “Horn of Plenty” that provided its owner with whatever he or she desired.  This star and its associated legend have come to symbolize the bounty that we now celebrate as Thanksgiving.

Saturn continues to slide westward as the evenings pass.  He becomes visible shortly after sunset in the south, just west of the meridian as evening twilight falls.  Your best time to view him begins during the twilight hour and runs for another hour or so before he begins to sink toward the southwest horizon.  The ringed planet is slowly creeping eastward among the stars that form the “tail” of Capricornus, the Sea-Goat.

You have much more time to peruse giant Jupiter in the early evening hours.  Old Jove now crosses the meridian between 7:30 and 8:00 pm, and he stays well above the horizon until around 11:00 pm, when he’ too begins to settle into the denser air above the horizon.  Jupiter reaches the second stationary point in the current apparition on the 24th.  After that date he will gradually resume direct, eastward motion against the stars.

Ruddy Mars rises shortly after sunset and is well up in the east when Jupiter transits the meridian.  The red planet now rivals Jupiter in brightness, but his pink hue sets him apart from anything else in the sky.  Earth is rapidly closing in on Mars as the two planets run their never-ending courses around the Sun.  Opposition occurs on December 8th, and the two planetary neighbors will be closest to each other on the 1st.
 
Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529