Kitt Peak Nightly Observing Program
Splendors of the Universe on YOUR Night!
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The Big Dipper (also known as the Plough) is an asterism consisting of the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Four define a “bowl” or “body” and three define a “handle” or “head”. It is recognized as a distinct grouping in many cultures. The North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star and the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper, can be located by extending an imaginary line from Big Dipper star Merak (β) through Dubhe (α). This makes it useful in celestial navigation.
Constellation Ursa Minor is colloquially known in the US as the Little Dipper, because its seven brightest stars seem to form the shape of a dipper (ladle or scoop). The star at the end of the dipper handle is Polaris, the North Star. Polaris can also be found by following a line through two stars in Ursa Major—Alpha and Beta Ursae Majoris—that form the end of the ‘bowl’ of the Big Dipper, for 30 degrees (three upright fists at arms’ length) across the night sky.
Orion is a famous constellation, well known especially for the Belt of Orion—three stars in a line at what seems to be the waist of a human figure. The bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse are two of the brightest stars in the sky. Between the Belt and Rigel you can see the Orion Nebula—the closest star forming region to our Solar System. A beautiful object in a telescope or binoculars, you can also just make out the nebula naked-eye.
M42 The Orion Nebula
M42, the Orion Nebula is a region of star formation about 1,300 light-years away—the closest to our Solar System. It is roughly 30 light-years across, and contains enough material to make 2,000 stars the size of our sun.
NGC 2261 Hubble’s Variable Nebula
Hubble’s Variable Nebula is a nebulous cloud of gas illuminated by single star R Monocerotis, 2,500 lightyears away. It is thought that the brightness of this nebula varies due to clouds of dust moving inside the nebula, periodically blocking the illumination of the star.
M65 (in Leo Triplet)
M65 is a spiral galaxy about 35 million light-years away. With a diameter of only 60,000 light-years, It is smaller than the Milky Way. It is one of three galaxies in a small group called the Leo Triplet.
M66 (in Leo Triplet)
M66 is a spiral galaxy, and one of three galaxies in a trio of galaxies called the Leo Triplet. M66 is a stones throw (180,000 light-years) from M65.
M81 Bode’s Galaxy
M81 is a small spiral galaxy, 12 million lightyears away. It is a disk of 50 billion solar masses, only a stone’s throw (150,000 lightyears) from M82.
M82 Cigar Galaxy
M82, the “Cigar Galaxy” is an edge-on spiral galaxy, 12 million light-years away, and perhaps 37,000 light-years across. There are vast gas clouds in this galaxy, where stars are being born at an incredible rate.
NGC 3628 (in Leo Triplet)
NGC 3628, also known as Sarah’s Galaxy. Is an unbarred spiral galaxy about 35 million light-years away in the constellation Leo. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1784. It has an approximately 300,000 light-years long tidal tail. NGC 3628 along with M65 and M66 form the famous Leo Triplet.
M3 is a globular cluster with a half of a million stars. It orbits the core of our Milky Way Galaxy almost perpendicular to the galactic disk. It is currently 33,900 light-years away, and approaching our Solar System at 100 miles per second.
NGC 2419, also known as Caldwell 25, is a globular cluster in the constellation Lynx. It was discovered by William Herschel on December 31, 1788. NGC 2419 is at a distance of about 300,000 light years from the solar system and at the same distance from the galactic center. It is about 520 lightyears across.
It was originally, and erroneously thought that NGC 2419 was an “Intergalactic Wanderer,” but it is in fact in orbit around the Milky Way. Its orbit takes it further away from the galactic center than the Magellanic Clouds (at 160,000 and 200,000 lightyears). At this great distance it takes three billion years to make one trip around the galaxy.
The cluster is very faint compared to the more famous globular clusters of the Messier catalog. Nonetheless, NGC 2419 is easily seen in a telescope, under good conditions.
The ecliptic is a path in the sky, forming a great circle around the Earth, which the Sun and other planets of the Solar System move along. It is formed where the plane of the Solar System intersects with the Earth’s sky.
Quick streaks of light in the sky called meteors, shooting stars, or falling stars are not stars at all: they are small bits of rock or iron that heat up, glow, and vaporize upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When the Earth encounters a clump of many of these particles, we see a meteor shower lasting hours or days.
That clumpy band of light is evidence that we live in a disk-shaped galaxy. Its pale glow is light from about 200 billion suns!
Human technology! There are almost 500 of these in Low Earth Orbit (we can’t see the higher ones). We see these little “moving stars” because they reflect sunlight.
Zodiacal light is the faint, smooth glow marking the ecliptic (the plane of the solar system). It is sunlight scattered off of gas and dust that orbits the Sun. This is a rare sight, only visible under very dark skies, and best viewed early in the year when the Ecliptic is higher above the horizon.
M45 The Pleiades
M45, the “Pleiades,” is a bright, nearby star cluster, in the last stages of star formation. About seven stars stand out as the brightest in the cluster, and is why the cluster is also known as the “Seven Sisters,” alluding to the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters from Greek mythology. In Japanese, the cluster is known as “スバル,” “Subaru,” and is featured as the logo of the automobile manufacturer of the same name. The Pleiades lies about 440 light-years away and is a very young (for an open star cluster) 100 million years old.
NGC 2169 The 37 Cluster
NGC 2169 is an open star cluster in the constellation Orion. It was discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna before 1654 and discovered by William Herschel on October 15, 1784. NGC 2169 is at a distance of about 3,600 light-years away from Earth. It is nicknamed The 37 Cluster due to its striking resemblance to the numerals 37.
M97 (Owl Nebula)
Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System, a “gas giant” 11 Earth-diameters across. Its atmosphere contains the Great Red Spot, a long-lived storm 2-3 times the size of the Earth. The 4 large Galilean satellites and at least 63 smaller moons orbit Jupiter.
Hind’s Crimson Star (R Lep)
Hind’s Crimson Star (R Leporis), contains lots of carbon in its outer atmosphere, which dims and reddens its starlight. Changing amounts of carbon cause the star to vary in color and brightness, sometimes making it one of the reddest stars in the sky.
Two stars in Canis Major bear a striking resemblance to a pair of stars in Cygnus known as Albireo. Visible in the Northern Hemisphere summer, Albireo is a pair of stars that have very different surface temperatures, and therefore, noticably different colors. The same is try of the golden star 145 Canis Majoris, and it’s fainter, blue neighbor.
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