There are heaps of really cool things to look at in the May night sky and we’ll cover off a few of our favourite ones here. The best thing about May is that it is not too cold so stargazing is relatively comfortable for most people. The evenings are getting darker quicker so you can have a great session of stargazing and still get to bed for a reasonable nights sleep before going to work the next day.
We do a lot of public stargazing sessions with our 16″ reflecting telescopes and enjoy looking at a variety of stunning objects we also like to explain about those objects to our visitors so they know what they are looking at. Astronomy requires a bit of expectation management as we have got used to the amazing images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the fantastic colourful images from amateur astronomers that circulate social media. Unfortunately when people look in the eyepiece of a telescope they then expect to see a beautiful colourful sight of swirling gas clouds. When they get greeted with a gray fuzzy blob they feel a little disappointed.
First it takes a little training to see things in a telescope so we normally start with demonstrating the colour difference between stars to get people used to the subtle variations. Then we have a look at the easy to spot objects like NGC 4755 (the Jewel Box Cluster). This is a beautiful cluster with some variation in the colour of the stars and it looks great both in images and for real in the eyepiece. A lot of stargazing experiences will look at the Jewel Box Cluster because it’s bright and easy to find. Our large telescopes open up more of the universe to look at so we can find fainter cluster that are even better to view.
Cool Thing 1: Pearl Cluster – NGC 3766
NGC 3766, Pearl Cluster, is a slightly fainter open cluster than Jewel Box but stunning and in a big telescope it is in a rich field of stars with beautiful colours easily distinguished between them. This cluster is easy to find but is often missed due to its more popular neighbour. It’s very close to the popular astroimaging deep sky object IC2948 or Running Chicken Nebula.
Cool Thing 2: Quasar 3C 273
Another cool thing to look at in the May night sky is a quasar. The object is quite dim +12.85 Mag so you’ll need a larger telescope but it is well worth finding and having a look at. A quasar is an extremely bright and distant object associated with the energy given off from the gas around a super massive black hole. They are very distant objects and this one is 2.4 billion light years away. It was the first quasar discovered and is not too difficult to find, but you’ll need to be good at star hopping.
3C 273 is one of those objects that is not much to look at – it really only looks like a very dim star. To create that image of a really dim star on your retina requires photons to travel 2.4 billion light years. To look at that object you are looking back in time 2.4 billion years.
Cool Thing 3: 145 Canis Majoris
This pair of stars is sometimes called the Southern Albireo or Winter Albireo. They are a stunning pair of different colours, one being blue and one being orange. The two stars are unrelated to each other, just a chance alignment that makes them appear as an optical double. Named after a Northern Hemisphere pair of bright stars of similar colour the Southern Albireo is great to look at and easy to find.
Cool Thing 4: Bug Nebula – NGC 6302
Planetary Nebula are usually quite tricky to spot as they are small and not very bright. The bug Nebula is small but it is bright so quite easy to spot. It’s about 4000 light years away in the constellation Scorpius. The nebula is a star that is ejecting its outer layers but it is surrounded by a donut shaped disk of gas that is causing the brighter gas to extend in two quite distinct directions. This gives the nebula a very elongated shape – a bit like a bug.
Cool Thing 5: Topsy Turvy Galaxy – NGC 1313
This is a really interesting galaxy between the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and a cool thing to look at in the May night sky and pretty much any other time as well. The galaxy is about 12 million light years away and is half the size of our own Milky Way. It has the shape of a barred spiral and has a lot of star formation going on. In good conditions the texture of the galaxy can be seen as quite knotty which is some of the brighter star forming areas. It’s a relatively easy galaxy to find.
If you want to see these objects, then join us on a Star Safari in May!