For astronomers living in Michigan, December isn’t really the best time for observing. The long winter has just arrived, and the sky is covered with thick blanket of clouds most of the time. And if the sky is ever clear, we have to deal with frigid conditions.
Yet for many of us, December is special time of the year. The sun is low in south, moving from Scorpius to Sagittarius, and days are short. Soon everything gets dressed with white stuff from the sky.
Maybe because it’s so grim, people use colorful lights to illuminate trees and their houses—which may cause some light pollution but we care less because the sky is mostly gloomy anyways.
December is also the holiday season: people take time off from the year’s hard work and get together with their families. Outside, the air is cold, but somehow it feels warm inside with all the familiar faces around you. Children are all excited because they expect to receive presents from Santa.
Oh, I must warn you about Christmas presents. If you happen to be a Santa for your family, be very careful what you give to your children. What a child receives as a Christmas gift may have significant impact on their life path. Telescopes are especially very dangerous. Here is a good example, a story about a poor kid whose life had been forever changed because of a present from Santa:
“For Christmas, 1966, Santa left a large silver-foil wrapped box under our tree in suburban Allen Park. It took up one whole side it seemed while my brothers’ and sisters’ had smaller packages.
How did he possibly get it down the chimney? I tore it open Christmas morning to reveal a new Tasco 4.5” Newtonian, wow! (I later learned it cost Santa around $400 from Hudson’s Northland store! That was a LOT of money in 1966.) Fearing that moisture and cold winter air might damage my new prize I would stay inside and aim through our large double pane picture window at whatever I could see. I read a story that Mars was in the eastern sky where I was looking, but it was with great disappointment I could see little detail other than a distorted orange colored point of light... or so I thought. Mars, it would turn out, was really good ol’ Arcturus—duh!
It would be a week or two before the real planet appeared to me, whew. I was hooked. Spring warmth eventually had me outside, recalling the Pleiades high in the west as the first deep sky object I would visit. How beautiful and sharp I thought compared to my indoor views, cool! Being near the eastern approach to Metro Airport however is what really honed my observing skills. I would get home from school and often spend an hour or more tracking jets on final approach, carefully recording the airline, type of aircraft, and time (Northwest did not have a monopoly then). Try tracking a moving aircraft with an ungainly equatorial mount.
The scope still resides here in my office at the University four decades later.”
(Norb Vance, Director of EMU’s Sherzer Observatory)
So don’t ever give your child a telescope if you want him or her to be a lawyer or a doctor. Or they may end up making a life career in this geeky field of astronomy.
Speaking of December, I, as a “lowbrow” astronomer, also feel this month is very special. Where I grew up in Japan, the weather was quite different. The winter days were typically clear but cold and windy. I still remember a day in my childhood when I was sledding at dusk and it was getting dark around, and I noticed the sky was filled with all the stars. Perhaps it was the first time when I noticed the beauty of the night sky. It was probably December, because I somehow have a Christmas tree somewhere in the same scene (yes, we do have Christmas trees over there.) Then in high school, a friend of mine had a department store 50mm refractor and we looked at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pleiades, etc. I got hooked and later got a 100mm reflector and picked up star gazing for a while. Then I quit it—As a youngster my interest had shifted to other things. I was totally absent from star gazing for about twenty years. Then a couple of years ago, it all of a sudden came back to me again. I joined this club, went to John Causland’s house (again it was this time of the year) to join a casual observing session, and boy, I got hooked again!
I believe some of you also have memorable star gazing stories around this time of the year. I wanted to know if others have any favorite objects they like to observe or associate with, particularly in holiday season.
To help me writing this article, I asked the lowbrow members to vote for their favorite deep sky objects for holiday season. I got a good number of responses with reasons why they like them (thanks to all who responded). I summed up the results and sorted them from the most popular one.
So here we go: The following is the list of favorite “deep sky” objects for the holiday season, chosen by the Lowbrows.
(Extracts of voters comments are shown in Italic):
“The Orion Nebula is probably the most appropriate Christmas time object since it sort of resembles a Nativity or a manger scene—at least it does to me. And the nebula really has given birth to the glowing Trapezium. The beauty is metaphorically and visually astounding.”
“The Orion Nebula because it looks like a celestial ‘gateway to heaven.’ ”
“These are the first two nebulas I was introduced to some 25 years ago through a Celestron 90mm “first scope” refractor. I have been hooked ever since.”
Without doubt, the great Orion’s nebula (M42+M43) is one of the most spectacular deep sky objects in the winter sky. It is easily found by naked eyes, as being the middle “star” of Orion’s sword. Through binoculars the nebulosity can easily be spotted. A small telescope reveals details of the nebula’s structure and four new born stars (Trapezium) inside. Larger aperture can detect up to six (or more?) stars in Trapezium under a good condition. In low or high power, it is truly great looking, especially under a dark sky. I am sure that Orion’s nebula had hooked many people into astronomy.
“Easily found, easily seen, remember them from when I was a child (Xmas is a nice family time so those remembrances are nice).”
“I guess, because they (here he is talking about both M42 and Pleiades) are naked eye objects that I’ve seen most of my life and have never seen through a telescope until just a couple of years ago. I’ve always been very curious about them. There have been many Christmas Eves on the way to the midnight church service where I’ve looked up and wondered what they are. The winter sky seems like an even smattering of stars until you run across these two objects. They almost appear as flaws or smudges like dead bugs on a windshield. But through a scope or binoculars on a clear winter night, they are absolutely amazing. The Pleiades is just dazzling to see through binoculars.”
Pleiades is one of the best objects for binoculars or naked eye observation. It is a bright cluster and can easily be found even under a light polluted sky. It is a good challenge to see how many stars in Pleiades you can recognize with naked eyes. Most people with good eyes can see six or seven, but some have seen more than ten!
Pleiades is also called “Seven Sisters”, the daughters of Atlas in ancient Greek myth. In Japan, Pleiades is called “Subaru”, meaning “gathering” or “unification” of stars (in old Japanese language).
“Stunningly beautiful in virtually any size scope.”
Though virtually visible year around, the double cluster gets votes because it gets high in the early evening sky in this season. The splash of stars you find in the eyepiece is just astounding. With careful observation you will notice difference in colors of stars. You may find quite a few red ones also. This is an ideal object for a child (or anyone), first night out with a new telescope.
“Beautiful in a wide field shot.”
This is another marvelous object in fall and winter sky. M31 is huge, the visual dimension is actually longer than five moons put together! In low power, you can see its companion galaxies M32 and NGC 250 in the same field of view. Under a black sky, you will be able to see the dust lanes even with a small scope. This galaxy is rushing towards us at 185 miles per second and will eventually collide into our galaxy.
“Break out your widest field eyepiece or your binoculars for this “cascade” of 25 10th to 7th magnitude stars that form a NW to SE line spanning 150 arc minutes that seem to pool into the small open cluster NGC 1502. If this one doesn’t bring a smile to your face then find a new hobby!”
Well, I cannot agree more. This elegant asterism appears to consist of two parts, upper and lower cascades and lower one flowing into NGC 1502. To find it, connect Beta and Eta Cassiopeia (two end stars of Cassiopeia’s “W” shape), and extending about the same distance downward (i.e., left of Capella) and look there with a pair of binocs.
“Stars in this large and bright cluster are arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree. The brightest star is at the base of the tree at the north end, with the tip of tree pointing south, making it upright in an inverting telescope. Very nice cluster!”
Not knowing NGC 2264 well, I had always thought that M103 was the best Christmas tree looking cluster. I had seen NGC 2264 only once before and didn’t remember how it looked. I was curious which one, M103 or NGC 2264, was a better Christmas tree mock-up, so one night I compared them one after another in the same scope. Well, for my surprise, I found that NGC 2264 was a lot larger and brighter! In NGC 2264, you can see the shape of a Christmas tree even in binocs, with a bright star being the trunk. Compared to that, M103 was certainly much smaller (Mark Deprest insulted it by calling it a “Charlie Brown Christmas tree”.) So I decided to vote for NGC 2264. But I’d like to give M103 a credit too: With larger scope in medium power, M103 stands out very well, with colorful stars inside, with a bright star at the top of the Christmas tree. Which one do you prefer?
“I always look for Orion’s belt and sword in the winter. It just stands out on cold, clear nights.”
“During the winter months each day I look forward to seeing it.”
Though not normally regarded as an “object” to observe, the constellation of Orion got votes here. Orion is probably the most distinct and well known constellation in the entire sky. It consists of many bright stars and lots of interesting objects. Orion certainly represents the winter sky, gracefully and prominently.
There are so many beautiful objects to observe in the winter sky. The following objects, though they got only one vote each, are all very nice. I sorted them in the order of the length of the attached comments.
“I was able to get both (M35 and NGC 2158) in the same field of view of my old Coulter 13-inch Dob. With M35 less than 3,000 light years away, and NGC 2158 being 16,000 light years away, the view was truly three dimensional. I highly recommend that object for viewing in a fast dob on a clear and steady night if you haven’t seen it. I think of this pair of open clusters when the weather turns cold.”
“I like colorful double stars and this is one of the best! The 4.8 magnitude primary is reddish orange and its 6.8 magnitude secondary is a beautiful sapphire blue, they have a fairly wide separation of 27 arc seconds. It’s less than two degrees due north of the “The Mexican Jumping Star Cluster” and it just seems to prove how truly beautiful nature can be.”
“I like this cluster for its apparent symmetry, being triangular in shape with the 4th magnitude Tau CMa at its center. This cluster is just “dog-gone pretty!”
“It’s a beautiful cluster, and with a good nebula filter it’s embedded within a wide ring of nebulosity. It looks like a Christmas wreath!”
“It is so grand in a large telescope, showing lots of stars embedded in the nebulosity.”
“It was one of the first winter objects I observed over 40 years ago.”
“A beautiful optical double yellow and blue.”
“A classic object.”
Here are other objects that got votes. Except for Capella, they are not really “deep sky” objects. But I listed them here because the reasons are quite interesting. (The same person picked all these objects can you guess who that would be?)
“My wife bought me my first scope for Christmas two years ago. I fiddled around with it for a bit, moving it randomly from star to star, and realizing that looking at singular stars through the telescope just made that singular star look brighter and gave it a little more color. Being somewhat disappointed, I then put in the highest power eyepiece I had at the time and pointed it at the brightest ‘star’ I could find. I tweaked the focus a bit and that luminous doughnut (I have a Mak) turned into a very sharp, clear, ringed planet. I was awestruck. I was so excited I had the urge to crawl through the telescope in order to get a closer look. I had seen many photos of Saturn before, but there is nothing like seeing it on a cold clear winter night. My fingers were almost numb from the cold that night, but it was well worth it.”
“For old Sol to be up during the day can herald a possible clear night to follow. We have so few clear days this time of the year, so it is nice to see the Sun. A few years ago we even had a partial solar eclipse on Christmas day. What a good reason to excuse yourself from a visit with the relatives to go out side and do some observation.”
“Another memorable night near the holiday season was when there was a lunar eclipse. A handful of Lowbrows showed up, and soon it started snowing. Not a little, but a lot. Great big chunks of wet snow. We still managed somehow to see the Earth’s shadow creep across the face of the Moon. We all agreed that we were true ‘lunatics’ on that evening.”
“My interest in observational astronomy was kindled by reading the then best seller, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkings. Having done a bit of reading about cosmology, Hawkings book actually made me go outside and look up at the night sky and think about some of the ideas he was discussing in his book. The bright star Capella up; and, was exactly the same number of light years away as my age at that time. The light I was seeing at that moment left the star when I was born. How neat! Space-time explained on a personal level.”
“I have been observing with telescopes since 1992 when I first joined the Lowbrows. I can honestly say that with November being the cloudiest time of the year and December being a close second, that observing around the Christmas season is a rare occurrence. All the shopping, travel, partying, visiting, partying, and partying adds to reasons for not observing during this time of year. But, observatin does happen... sometimes. I remember once when Doug Scobel and I when out to Peach Mountain on a night in December when, for the reasons above, nobody else showed up. It could have also been because there was a wind storm a brewing. What were we thinking? We commenced to do our observing right up against the side of the observatory, and still we had to fight to keep the scopes under control. We managed to eek out a limited list of objects before giving up for the night.”
Though rare in this season, there certainly will be some clear nights. If it is so, take your scope or binocs out, invite your family and friends, and explore and show them the night sky. It’s packed with jewels. I wish you all happy holidays and clear skies.