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Weekend Star Party: M2, Hickson 88 and the Pleiades
Weekend Star Party: M2, Hickson 88 and the Pleiades

Friday, October 25 - With the Moon gone from the early evening hours, let's choose tonight to have a look at the mighty M2. You'll find it located about three fingerwidths north-northeast of Beta Aquarii (RA 33.5 Dec 00 49).

At slightly dimmer than 6th magnitude, this outstanding globular cluster is just inside that region where it can't quite be viewed unaided, but even the smallest of binoculars will pick it out of a relatively starless field with ease. Holding a Class II designation, it was first discovered by Dominque Maraldi on September 11, 1746 and rediscovered independently by Charles Messier exactly 14 years later. At a distance of roughly 37,500 light-years, it is estimated to contain in the neighborhood of 150,000 stars.

M2 - Credit: Doug Williams, REU Program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Even a small telescope will reveal M2's rich and concentrated core region and slight elliptical shape. Not bad for a 13 billion year old group of stars! As aperture increases, some of the brightest stars will begin to resolve, and in larger telescopes it will approach total resolution. You might well note a dark area in the northeastern section, and several more located throughout the splendid field. Feast your eyes on one of the finest in the skies!

Saturday, October 26 - If you're up for a telescopic challenge, tonight is your night to look for this compact galaxy group. You'll find it less than half a degree southeast of stellar pair 4 and 5 Aquarii (RA 20 52 26.00 Dec -05 46 19.1).

Known as Hickson 88, this grouping of four faint spiral galaxies is estimated to be around 240 million light-years away and is by no means an easy object - yet the galactic cores can just be glimpsed with mid-sized scopes from a very dark site. Requiring around 12.5" of aperture to study, you'll find the brightest of these to be northernmost NGC 6978 and NGC 6977. While little detail can be seen in the average large backyard scope, NGC 6978 shows some evidence of being a barred spiral, while NGC 6977 shows the even appearance of a face-on. Further south, NGC 6976 is much smaller and considerably fainter. It is usually caught while averting and studying the neighborhood. The southernmost galaxy is NGC 6975, who's slender, edge-on appearance, makes it much harder to catch.

Hickson 88
Hickson 88 - Credit: Palomar Observatory Courtesy of Caltech

Although these four galaxies seem to be in close proximity to one another, no current data suggests any interaction between them. While such a faint galaxy grouping is not for everyone, it's a challenge worthy of seasoned astronomer with a large scope! Enjoy...

Sunday, October 27 - Are you looking for something spooky to do this weekend? Perhaps a telescope target and story that you can share with your trick-or-treaters when they visit? Then let's check out a celestial witch! Easily found from a modestly dark site with the unaided eye, the Pleiades can be spotted well above the northeastern horizon within a couple of hours after nightfall. To average skies, many of the 7 bright components will resolve easily without the use of optical aid, but to telescopes and binoculars, M45 (Right Ascension: 03:47.0 - Declination: +24:07) is stunning...

M45 - Credit: Tad Denton/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

First let's explore a bit of history. The recognition of the Pleiades dates back to antiquity and its stars are known by many names in many cultures. The Greeks and Romans referred to them as the "Starry Seven," the "Net of Stars," "The Seven Virgins," "The Daughters of Pleione," and even "The Children of Atlas. " The Egyptians referred to them as "The Stars of Athyr," the Germans as "Siebengestiren" (the Seven Stars), the Russians as "Baba" after Baba Yaga, the witch who flew through the skies on her fiery broom. The Japanese call them "Subaru," Norsemen saw them as packs of dogs and the Tonganese as "Matarii" (the Little Eyes). American Indians viewed the Pleiades as seven maidens placed high upon a tower to protect them from the claws of giant bears, and even Tolkien immortalized the star group in "The Hobbit" as "Remmirath." The Pleiades have even been mentioned in the Bible! So, you see, no matter where we look in our "starry" history, this cluster of seven bright stars has been part of it. But, let's have some pre-Halloween fun!

The date of the Pleiades culmination (its highest point in the sky) has been celebrated through its rich history by being marked with various festivals and ancient rites - but there is one particular rite that really fits this occasion! What could be spookier than to imagine a group of Druids celebrating the Pleiades' midnight "high" with Black Sabbath? This night of "unholy revelry" is still observed in the modern world as "All Hallow's Eve" or more commonly as Halloween. Although the actual date of the Pleiades midnight culmination is now on November 21 instead of October 31, why break with tradition? Thanks to its nebulous regions, M45 looks wonderfully like a "ghost" haunting the starry skies.

Treat yourself and your loved ones to the "scariest" object in the night. Binoculars give an incredible view of the entire region, revealing far more stars than are visible with the naked eye. Small telescopes at lowest power will enjoy M45′s rich, icy-blue stars and fog-like nebulosity. Larger telescopes and higher power reveal many pairs of double stars buried within its silver folds. No matter what you choose, the Pleiades definitely rock!

Until next week, keep looking up!

About Tammy Plotner - Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She's received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Date Taken: 10/21/2013
Author: Tammy Plotner
Category: Weekly

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