By far my preferred instrument for visual observation of the night sky is a pair of binoculars. There is nothing like a binocular view of rich star fields, clusters, nebulae and other objects from a dark sky site! One of the more overlooked areas of the sky is the southern part of the winter Milky Way in the region of Canis Major, the “Big Dog”. Many people are not aware that the band of dust, gas and stars we refer to as the “Milky Way” is not just visible in the summer. In the winter at a dark sky site it is equally as impressive. Just look for the star Sirius toward the south. Sirius is the brightest star in the Northern hemisphere sky. Starting there if you sweep with your binoculars to the East and to the South you will see several bright clusters of stars, called open clusters. These are amazing in binoculars as they appear as small collections of jewels in the sky! If you look at star charts these open clusters which are generally groups of say 1-200 loosely aggregated stars are everywhere in this region of Canis Major and also Puppis slightly to the south. One of my favorites is M41, also known as the “little beehive” due to the larger than average number of stars visible but still smaller as a cluster than M44 the real “Beehive” located in the constellation Cancer. M41 is about 7 oclock from Sirius if you just move a little downward and to the left from the star you can’t miss it (blue square in the image below). These gems, about 50-100 of them will jump right out at you! Now if you keep moving downward in the same direction you will stumble on a pair of clusters Cr 132 and 140. Cr is the lesser known Collinder catalog which has many objects in this region. Cr 132 is bright like M41 ,but not quite as many stars . Cr 140 is also known as “The tuft in the tail of the dog” as it looks like a nebula but is actually a dim cluster of stars. This pair sits at the hind feet of Canis Major. You could spend easily an hour or two just marveling at the “cluster” of treasures in this field alone!
The southern edge of the Winter Milky way features a myriad of open clusters to the south and east of Sirius which is seen here to the right. All of the small green circles are open star clusters! Many have interesting names beyond their catalog designations: Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree lies due east of Sirius and the Butterfly cluster to the east of that, just to name a couple.
My visual observing instrument of choice! These are a pair of 16 x 70 binoculars. You could just as well use a smaller pair, such as 10 x 50 , probably the most common size, and easier to handle.
The book which bears the title of this post is a must have for binocular viewing!
Time to head out for the binocular night show!
Thanks for reading!
As seen from the northern hemisphere, the constellation’s brighter stars form an easily recognizable asterism known as ‘the Teapot’. The stars δ Sgr (Kaus Media), ε Sgr (Kaus Australis), ζ Sgr (Ascella), and φ Sgr form the body of the pot; λ Sgr (Kaus Borealis) is the point of the lid; γ2 Sgr (Alnasl) is the tip of the spout; and σ Sgr (Nunki) and τ Sgr the handle. These same stars originally formed the bow and arrow of Sagittarius. (From Wikipedia, “Sagittarius constellation”)
In today’s “morning coffee” addition up at the observatory we turn our attention back to early morning visual and binocular viewing! It’s 5:30 AM MDT. Spring has sprung and with it some of our old Milky Way friends in the South: the bright star clouds toward our galaxy’s center, the Lagoon nebula, Trifid, M22 globular cluster, M11 the Wild Duck cluster and others. However there was quite an unexpected surprise just above the constellation Sagittarius. 2 very bright objects, one red and one yellow nearly a fist width apart almost like 2 bright eyes! Yes, eyes over the teapot ,which is a known asterism for the constellation Sagittarius. The yellow object is Saturn. However the bright red object surprised me. This year, in fact by the end of this July, Mars will reach opposition and be nearly 2 times brighter than Jupiter! That hasn’t happened since 2003, when Mars was its closest to Earth in 60,000 years! Usually Mars is an inconspicuous rust colored dot lost amongst the stars. Not this year! It’s already making quite a show. Don’t miss it!
2 “eyes above the teapot” in early morning. Saturn is to the left and Mars right. Mars actually appears in the same binocular field as the Trifid nebula and the Lagoon nebula