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Explore deep sky objects at Explorit

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March 24, 2011 |

By Vinita and Calvin Domier

Everyone is invited to Saturday’s meeting of the Davis Astronomy Club at Explorit Science Center, 3141 Fifth St., starting at 7:30 p.m. You don’t have to pay any dues to be a member of the Davis Astronomy Club. If you are interested in astronomy, you’re welcome to attend.

This month we will discuss deep sky objects. After the initial thrill of viewing the craters of the moon, the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through their small telescopes, many backyard astronomers want to see deep space objects like the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy and Crab Nebula.

“Deep sky objects” is a term used in astronomy to denote objects in the night sky other than solar system objects, single stars and multiple star systems. Most deep sky objects are not visible to the naked eye, but can be seen with a small telescope or good binoculars. There are three main types of deep sky objects:

* Star clusters are groups of stars that are bound together by gravity. Globular clusters are compact spherical groups of 10,000 to millions of old stars 10 to 30 light years across. Open clusters are loosely bound groups of a few hundred young stars about 30 light years across.

* Nebulae are interstellar clouds of dust and gases. Bright or diffuse nebulae are a) emission nebulae with glowing ionized gas clouds, or b) reflection nebulae lit by nearby stars’ lights. Dark nebulae can only be detected when they obscure other stars and nebulae. Planetary nebulae are the outer gaseous layers ejected from old dying stars.

* Galaxies contain 10 million to 1 trillion stars, interstellar gas and dust, and dark matter and dark energy, all orbiting a common center of gravity. The galaxies are categorized by their shapes: elliptical, spiral and irregular.

Charles Messier, an avid 18th century French comet hunter, put together a list of deep sky objects so astronomers would not confuse them with comets. His final 1791 list had 110 such objects, ranging from M1 to M110. These deep sky objects are now known as Messier objects. As Messier did his observing in Paris, his list did not include objects visible beyond -35 degrees south latitude.

The “New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars” is the most comprehensive catalog of 7,840 deep sky objects, known as NGC objects. It was initially compiled in 1880s by J.L.E. Dreyer using William Herschel’s observations and published in 1888. It was expanded with two Index Catalogues (IC I in 1896 and IC II in 1905) using John Herschel’s observations of deep sky objects in the Southern Hemisphere.

All the 110 Messier objects are known by their Messier number and also by their NGC number. Some DSOs also have names. For examples: Andromeda Galaxy is M31 and NGC 224, Orion Nebula is M42 and NGC 1976, Crab Nebula is M1 and NGC 1952, Beehive Cluster is M44 and NGC 2632, and Hercules Cluster is M13 and NGC 6205.

It is possible to see all 110 Messier objects (the relatively bright deep sky objects) in one night. Messier night sky viewing marathons are possible close to 25°N latitude near the spring equinox (late March or early April). The DSOs have to be viewed in prescribed order, starting in the west at sunset and finishing in the east at sunrise to accomplish this astronomical feat.

Telescope viewing will be available after the presentation, weather permitting. As the moon will be in last quarter phase, it will rise after midnight. This makes it ideal viewing conditions for DSOs. As Saturn is close to opposition (on April 3), it will rise at sunset and set at sunrise. It, too, will be ideal for telescope viewing.

* Also Saturday: What’s a buckyball? or a carbon nanotube? Come find out at NanoDays 2011 on Saturday at 3141 Fifth St. Visitors will be able to try hands-on activities about nanoscience and also explore the “Game On! The Science of Sports” exhibition.  The event runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 general or free for Explorit members.

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Explorit Science Center, 3141 Fifth St., hosts field trips, programs for groups and Astronomy Club meetings. It is also the hub for Explorit’s traveling programs that reach an 18-county region. Explorit is open to the public for special events and to groups by reservation. For more information, call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org

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