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Explore the Winter Hexagon Tonight – Sky & Telescope

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This expansive area of the sky is house to loads of vivid stars and deep-sky wonders.

Winter Hexagon

Stellarium, with additions

With the February darkish of the Moon upon us, we’ve got a high quality alternative to get pleasure from some winter sights. Maybe most interesting for naked-eye observers is a powerful assortment of stellar luminaries. Face south at dusk, and no fewer than seven stars of first magnitude or brighter will be taken in with a single view. Most are included within the Winter Hexagon, as proven within the chart above.

The Winter Hexagon’s Vivid Lights

Let’s take a fast tour, starting on the backside of the Hexagon with Sirius. At magnitude –1.four, Sirius dominates Canis Main and is the brightest star within the evening sky. It’s additionally one of many nearest. At a distance of solely eight.7 light-years, Sirius is the closest star we will see from mid-northern latitudes with out optical support.

Continuing clockwise, we attain Procyon (magnitude zero.four) in Canis Minor, then Pollux (magnitude 1.2). Pollux and close by Castor are the so-called Gemini Twins, although the 2 will not be precisely twins on the subject of brightness. Castor is only a bit too dim to qualify for membership within the first-magnitude membership.

Subsequent within the Hexagon, excessive overhead, is Auriga’s main mild, Capella. At magnitude zero.1, Capella is second solely to Sirius amongst good winter stars. Turning south, we come to Aldebaran (magnitude zero.9) in Taurus. Are you able to detect its golden hue? Aldebaran is just not as crimson as Betelgeuse, in Orion, however its colour must be fairly obvious.

The final cease on our tour is Rigel, additionally in Orion. There’s a pleasant symmetry to concluding with Rigel. We started with the closest star within the Hexagon, Sirius, and we finish with essentially the most distant. Rigel is roughly 100 occasions farther away than Sirius and but, at magnitude zero.2, solely a little bit fainter.

A star’s brightness, in fact, relies upon each on its distance and its intrinsic luminosity. Rigel is a blue supergiant shining with greater than 100,000 occasions the depth of our Solar. Certainly, if all the celebs within the Winter Hexagon have been on the similar distance from Earth, Rigel would greatest Sirius because the sky’s brightest star by an enormous margin.

Deep-Sky Delights

Sirius and M41

The brightest star within the evening sky is Sirius, in Canis Main. Close by is the stunning open cluster, M41.
Courtesy Gary Seronik

Inside the expansive confines of the Hexagon are a few of the season’s most interesting deep-sky treasures, together with the Orion Nebula, which I wrote about here. And naturally, close to the middle of the determine is Betelgeuse, the much talked about variable star that has not too long ago hit a brand new low and is, for the second, barely too faint to rely as first magnitude.

Telescope customers can even be acquainted with M36, M37, and M38 — the stunning trio of Messier open clusters nestled inside Auriga’s pentagon — in addition to M41, parked simply south of blazing beacon Sirius.

However among the many many deep-sky treasures obtainable within the Hexagon, I’d prefer to plead the case for a private favourite: Gemini’s high quality (however typically neglected) open cluster, M35. The 5.1-magnitude object is straightforward to search out, because it’s positioned simply above the westernmost foot of the Twins, marked by 2.9-magnitude Mu (μ) and three.Three-magnitude Eta (n) Geminorum.

M35 in Gemini

Open clusters M35 and NGC 2158 in Gemini.
Courtesy Gary Seronik

Tripod-mounted 10×50 binoculars are highly effective sufficient to point out a couple of particular person cluster members in M35, however this wealthy specimen actually comes into its personal in a telescope, which has the power to resolve many extra stars.

For those who’re up for a reasonable problem, see for those who can spot M35’s celestial neighbor, the eight.6-magnitude cluster NGC 2158. It’s a troublesome catch in binoculars, however even a small scope has no bother pulling in little NGC 2158 in case you have a fairly darkish sky. The 2 clusters are bodily related however look fairly completely different to us as a result of one is far nearer the Earth than the opposite. M35 is the nearer object—at roughly 2,800 light-years, it’s solely one-fifth the space of NGC 2158. Collectively the pair make a lovely deep-sky duo.

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