M22 is a magnificent globular cluster located in the constellation of Sagittarius and one of the best objects of its type in the night sky. With a magnitude of +5.1, the cluster is visible to the naked eye under dark skies and also the brightest globular in the Messier catalogue. Only the two great southern globulars, Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) are more brilliant. Both of these are positioned far too south in the sky to have been seen by Messier. With an apparent diameter extending 32 arc minutes, M22 covers more sky than the Full Moon.
The main reason why M22 appears so large and bright is because it's close at only 10,400 light-years. It was probably the first globular to have been discovered - by Abraham Ihle in 1665 - although it has been suggested that Hevelius may have seen it earlier. M22 was included in Edmund Halley's list of 6 objects published in 1715 and then catalogued by Charles Messier on June 5, 1764. M22 is an easy object to locate as it's positioned 2.5 degrees northeast of the top star of the teapot asterism of Sagittarius, Kaus Borealis (λ Sag - mag. +2.8).
The globular is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August. From northern temperate locations it never rises particularly high above the southern horizon.
Comet Jacques (C/2014 E2), a newly discovered comet has now brightened to within small telescope range and should reach naked-eye brightness by the end of July. Based on the current light-curve, Jacques is predicted to peak at magnitude +4 and become a fine sight in the morning sky when seen from the Northern Hemisphere later this year.
When discovered on March 13, 2014 by Cristovao Jacques, Eduardo Pimentel and Joao Ribeiro de Barros, the comet was a feeble magnitude +14.7. It's currently heading towards perihelion on July 2nd when it will pass 0.66 AU (99 million kilometres or 61 million miles) from the Sun. Closest approach to Earth occurs on August 28th when Jacques passes 0.56 AU (84 million kilometres or 52 million miles) from our planet.
Location and star chart
Jacques is currently moving in a northwestern direction just east of beautiful Orion. The comet spends almost all of May weaving slowly through the faint constellation of Monoceros except on the 12th when it briefly cuts into neighbouring Canis Minor. It's predicted that Jacques will increase from magnitude +8.4 on May 1st to magnitude +6.9 by months end. This puts the comet within the range of small telescopes and large binoculars, although too faint to be seen with the naked eye.
For Northern Hemisphere observers, Jacques appears low down above the western horizon after sunset during the first half of the month. The comet is then quickly lost to the bright glare of the Sun before re-appearing in the morning sky at the end of July; hopefully bright enough to be visible to the naked eye.
From southern and equatorial latitudes, Jacques is well placed in the early evening sky during May. The comet is visible reasonable high up towards the west after sunset. It then passes perihelion on July 2nd after which it won't be visible from the Southern Hemisphere until early September.
The finder chart below shows the positions of Jacques from May 7, 2014 to June 3, 2014.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation east on May 25th. On this date, the closest planet to the Sun is positioned 23 degrees east of the Sun and hence visible as an evening star low down above the western horizon just after sunset. As is often the case with Mercury apparitions, one hemisphere of the Earth is favoured over the other. This time, observers at northern temperature latitudes have it slightly better than their southern counterparts with the added bonus that this also happens to be the north's most favourable evening apparition of the year.
For example, from latitude 52N (e.g. London, England) Mercury should be visible from about May 7th. The best time to search for the planet is during the period just before and after it reaches its highest point in the sky (May 25th). On this date 45 minutes after sunset, Mercury will be 10 degrees above the horizon and shine at magnitude +0.3. Before this, Mercury will be brighter but lower down.
Mercury fades from magnitude -1.7 to +1.3 during May. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury is visible from about the middle of May, appearing closer to the horizon than from locations further north.
Venus remains a superb early morning object. Although continuing to fade slightly from magnitude -4.1 to -4.0 during May, the planet is dazzling, an unmistakable beacon of light towards the east before sunrise.
While Mercury is better seen from the Northern Hemisphere this month, Venus is very much a Southern Hemisphere object. Observers from these locations continue to enjoy more than 3 hours of visibility before dawn, whereas for northern-based observers, Venus is visible for just 1 hour before sunrise.
On May 15th, Venus passes 1.3 degrees south of the much fainter Uranus. Uranus is at mag. +5.9 and the pair should be visible with binoculars or a wide field telescope, especially from southern latitudes. Later in the month (May 25th) the thin waning crescent Moon passes 2 degrees north of Venus.
Mars is now just past opposition but remains well paced for observation during May. The "Red Planet" is located in Virgo, visible as soon as it's dark enough and easily recognizable due to its colour and brilliance; the brightest object in that part of the sky.
Mars starts May moving slowly continuing its westerly retrograde motion just south of Porrima (γ Vir - mag. +2.7). On May 20th the planet reaches its second stationary point, marking the end of the Martian opposition period. Subsequently the planet resumes direct motion once again and heads eastwards. What's particularly noticeable during May is the brightness fading of Mars, from magnitude -1.2 to -0.5. The apparent size also decreases from 14.5 to 11.9 arc seconds. Despite the small size of Mars, even a 100mm (4-inch) telescope at high magnifications - under good seeing conditions - will show the Martian polar cap as well as other major surface features such as Syrtis Major and various dusty shadings.
On May 11th, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars.
Jupiter dominates the early evening sky and the first half of the night. The planet is now moving direct amongst the stars of Gemini and fades very slightly from magnitude -2.0 to -1.9 during May. Despite this, Jupiter remains brighter than both other nighttime planets on view, Mars and Saturn. It's apparent diameter decreases slightly from 35 to 33 arc seconds as the month progresses.
From northern temperate latitudes Jupiter sets at around midnight by months end, but much earlier for those located further south. On May 4th, the waxing crescent Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter forming a nice evening pairing.
Saturn reaches opposition on May 10th and is subsequently visible all night as it continues its slow retrograde motion through the faint constellation of Libra. The favourite planet of many astronomers is at it's best this month with an apparent diameter of almost 19 arc seconds, rings wide open, beautifully displayed with a tilt of 22 degrees. The apparent diameter of the planet including the rings spans some 42 arc seconds.
Through telescopes, Saturn's rings are a wonderful sight and visible even in the smallest of instruments, along with Titan, the largest and brightest moon of Saturn. Larger telescopes reveal subtle planet details and many of the planets other moons.
At opposition, Saturn shines at magnitude +0.1 and is positioned 8.90 AU or approximately 1331 million kilometres (827 million miles) from Earth. The full Moon passes 0.6 degrees south of Saturn on May 14th with an occultation visible from Australia and New Zealand.
M94 is a nice spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Canes Venatici. It's also known as the Cats Eye Galaxy or the Crocs Eye Galaxy due to its stunning eye-like resemblance. With an apparent magnitude of +8.5, it's a difficult binocular object requiring dark skies and good transparency; at best appearing as only a small faint hazy patch of light.
M94 is one of the nearest galaxies beyond our Local Group of Galaxies. It's located about 16 million light years distance and belongs to the M94 Group, a collection of between 16 and 24 galaxies lying within the Virgo Supercluster. The galaxy was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 22, 1781 and subsequently confirmed and cataloged two days later by Charles Messier.
The constellation of Canes Venatici is faint but the brightest star Cor Caroli (α CVn - mag. +2.9) can be quite easily found since it's due south of the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. The second brightest star in the constellation is Chara (β CVn - mag. +4.2), located just over 5 degrees northwest of Cor Caroli. M94 is 3 degrees east and a fraction south of Chara. Keep continuing eastwards and you will reach the fine Sunflower Galaxy (M63).
M28 is a mag. +7.2 globular cluster located among the rich Milky Way star fields of Sagittarius. The cluster is visible with binoculars, although unspectacular in appearance. However, telescopes fair better and on nights of good seeing and transparency, it's possible to resolve a few stars with just a medium size scope.
The globular was discovered by Charles Messier on July 27, 1764. It's located 18,000 light-years from Earth and spans 11 arc minutes of apparent sky, which corresponds to a relatively small spatial diameter of 60 light-years. In total, M28 contains about 50,000 stars and is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August. From northern temperate locations, it never rises particularly high above the southern horizon.
M28 is one of the easier globulars to locate as it's positioned less than a degree northwest of mag. +2.8 star Kaus Borealis (λ Sag). Visible in the same binocular field of view as M28 is M22, a much larger and brighter globular and one of the finest objects of its type in the night sky.
M21 is a compact open cluster in the constellation of Sagittarius, which is positioned less than one degree northeast of the Trifid Nebula (M20). It contains about 60 stars, mostly of them white but a sprinkling of blue giants, set in a tightly packed area covering 13 arc minutes. With an apparent mag. of +6.5, M21 is a nice sight in binoculars and small telescopes but compact enough that larger scopes also show it well, especially at low magnifications.
M21 was discovered - along with M20 - by Charles Messier on June 5, 1764. It's best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August.
M19 is a magnitude +7.2 globular cluster visible with binoculars that's located in the constellation of Ophiuchus. It's an intrinsically large object, which is highly oblate in appearance, loosely packed and partly resolvable using medium sized amateur telescopes. The cluster was discovered on June 5, 1764 by Charles Messier and first resolved into stars by William Herschel in 1784.
Finding M19 is easy as its positioned 8 degrees east of the brightest star in neighbouring Scorpius, Antares (α Sco; mag. +1.0). Located 4.5 degrees south of M19 is a slightly brighter Messier globular, M62 (mag. +6.8).
M19 is best seen from tropical and Southern Hemisphere latitudes during May, June and July. However, for northern temperate based observers it never rises particularly high above the southern horizon.
M18 is a small open cluster located among the rich Milky Way star fields of Sagittarius. With an apparent mag. of +7.5, it's easily visible with popular 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars appearing as a somewhat dim hazy patch of light. The cluster was one of Charles Messier's original discoveries, which he catalogued on June 3, 1764.
M18 can be found not far from the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. It's positioned 8.5 degrees north and a little west of Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8), the teapot's top star. The surrounding region of sky is a wonderfully rich area for astronomers that's filled to the brim with numerous open clusters, globular clusters and nebulae. Two prominent examples are the Omega Nebula (M17) and the sprawling Sagittarius Star Cloud (M24). They are positioned one degree north and two degrees south of M18 respectively, with all three objects visible in the same binocular field of view.
The 2014 annual Lyrids meteor shower peaks on April 22nd and promises to be a better event than last year when the 85% illuminated Moon significantly interfered. For this year's spectacle the Moon is at last quarter (50% illuminated) rises a few hours before sunrise and hence not a massive factor. It's best seen from mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere locations.
The Lyrids shower activity last from April 16th to April 26th. Although the peak period is short it's also well worth looking in particular on the day before and after. Usually the meteors are of magnitude +2, but there are occasional fireballs that streak through the sky casting shadows for a short time and leaving a trail of dust and debris as they disintegrate in the Earth's atmosphere.
The Lyrids radiant is located inside Hercules very near to the border with Lyra and only 6 degrees from the 5th brightest star in the sky, Vega (mag. 0.0). Normally the Lyrids are a reasonably strong shower and this year up to 20 meteors per hour can be expected. Contrast that with the year's best showers, the August Perseids and the December Geminids, both of which produce typical rates of 60 per hour.
Dwarf planet Ceres and Vesta the brightest asteroid both reach opposition in April and are currently positioned close together in Virgo, just northeast of Spica (α Vir) and Mars. Both objects are visible in binoculars as they travel quickly against the "fixed" background stars; their movements can even be tracked on a night-by-night basis.
On January 1, 1801, Italian Catholic priest and astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres, originally believing it to be a comet. This new object between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter was initially classified as a planet and subsequently given its own planetary symbol. However with further discoveries all in the same region of the Solar System, the general term asteroids were coined to describe them. Much later in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a new classification of dwarf planet of which Ceres is now a member. It has a diameter of 975 kilometres (610 miles) and can peak at apparent magnitude +6.7, beyond naked eye visibility but easy with binoculars.
Vesta was the fourth asteroid to be discovered on March 29, 1807 by German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. Despite being only the third largest body in the main asteroid belt - diameter 530 kilometres (330 miles) - Vesta is the brightest asteroid. It appears brighter than Ceres and the slightly larger Pallas since its approaches closer to Earth and has a much higher reflective surface. At favourable oppositions, the maximum apparent magnitude of Vesta is +5.1, putting it within naked eye visibility.
This year Vesta reaches opposition on April 13th (mag. +5.8) with Ceres reaching opposition on April 15th (mag. +6.9). The pair have not been this close together in the night sky - during an opposition period - for hundreds of years. During April they are positioned about 16 degrees northeast of Spica (α Vir - mag. +1.0). The much brighter red-orange Mars (mag. -1.5) starts the month just north of Spica but then quickly moves out westwards due its retrograde motion. Like Mars, Ceres and Vesta are also currently moving retrograde but since they are more distant they don't travel as fast against the constellation backdrop.
During April, Ceres is positioned 2.5 degrees northeast of Vesta with the latter being about 3 times brighter. Theoretically Vesta can be seen with the unaided eye, but this requires very dark skies. The two objects are so close together that they can be seen in the same binocular field of view.
At opposition, Vesta and Ceres are 1.232 AU (approx. 184.3 million kilometres or 114.5 million miles) and 1.644 AU (approx. 245.9 million kilometres or 152.8 million miles) distant from Earth respectively. Later on July 5th, Ceres and Vesta will be separated by just 10 arc minutes but by then they will have faded to magnitudes +7.4 and +6.2 respectively.
M14 is an eighth magnitude globular cluster located in the constellation Ophiuchus. It was discovery by Charles Messier on June 1, 1764, who described it as a "round nebula without stars". In 1783, William Herschel became the first person to resolve it into stars. At 30,300 light-years from Earth this is one of the more distant Messier globulars. However, since it's intrinsically bright the globular can be seen with binoculars, although at best appearing only as a faint out of focus "fuzzy star".
M14 is located in a rather barren area of sky and therefore not easy to find. The cluster is positioned 8 degrees south and a little west of giant orange star Cebalrai (β Oph - mag. +2.8). Eleven degrees west of M14 are brighter globulars M10 and M12.
The best time of the year to observe it is during the months of May, June and July.
Mercury's long period of visibility for observers in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere comes to an end in April. The planet remains visible in the morning twilight sky towards the east, but only for the first two weeks of the month.
The best time to look for Mercury is at the start of April, when it appears highest in the sky. The planets altitude then decreases slightly each morning until it's finally lost to the bright twilight sky. During this time, Mercury brightens from magnitude -0.2 to -0.9. For observers at northern temperate latitudes, Mercury remains unsuitably placed for observation this month.
On April 26th, the planet reaches superior conjunction.
Although now fading in brightness, Venus continues to be visible as a brilliant morning object before sunrise. The planet starts the month at magnitude -4.4 and ends it at magnitude -4.1. Even at its faintest Venus is unmistakable; the planet dazzles above the horizon and is so bright that it's often reported as a hovering UFO!!
During April, Venus is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere and equatorial regions. From these locations, it's visible for more than three hours before sunrise. However, from northern temperate latitudes the planet remains low down and visible for only about one hour or so before sunrise.
The phase of Venus increases from 54 to 66% during the month and on April 25th, the waning crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of the planet.
Mars reaches opposition in Virgo on April 8th and hence is visible all night. At magnitude -1.5, the planet is a wonderful red-orange beacon of light; positioned just a few degrees northwest of the brightest star in Virgo, blue giant Spica (α Vir - mag. +1.0). Not only is the "Red Planet" at its brightest for the year, but also has its largest apparent size, 15.2 arc seconds. Unfortunately, this is not a particularly favourable opposition. At the last great opposition in 2003, Mars reached magnitude -2.9 and displayed an apparent diameter of 25 arc seconds.
Mars can be a frustrating telescope object. When viewed through a 100mm (4-inch) telescope it appears small but under good seeing conditions it's possible to spot the polar cap as well as other major surface features such as Syrtis Major and various dusty shadings. Larger telescopes fair better with more subtle details visible.
On April 14, Mars is closest to Earth at 0.6176 AU (92.4 million kilometres or 57.4 million miles) distant and on the same day, the almost full Moon passes 3.5 degrees south of the planet.
Jupiter remains a beautiful early evening object during April. The "King of the Planets" is visible as soon as it's dark enough in the constellation of Gemini. Despite fading from magnitude -2.2 to -2.0 during the month, the planet is still brighter than Mars despite the latter reaching opposition in April.
With a current declination of 23 degrees north of the celestial equator, Jupiter favours observers located in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, from latitudes of northern Europe and North America, it remains visible until well after midnight at months end. However, from the Southern Hemisphere the visibility period is considerably less.
On April 6th, the first quarter Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn is now moving retrograde among the faint stars of the constellation of Libra. The stunning "Ringed Planet" is heading towards next month opposition and is visible from early evening, remaining so for the rest of the night. During the month, Saturn brightens slightly from magnitude +0.4 to +0.2 with it apparent size increasing marginally from 18 to 19 arc seconds.
To the naked eye Saturn appears yellowish. Through a telescope the planets rings are a beautiful sight, visible with just a small instrument and currently wide open (tilted at 21.7 degrees). A medium sized telescope of 150mm (6-inch) or 200mm (8-inch) aperture will show a wealth of details including subtle planet formations, divisions in the rings as well as up to half a dozen of Saturn's satellites.
On April 17th, the waxing crescent Moon passes 0.4 degrees south of Saturn and an occultation is visible from South America.
M8, also known as the Lagoon Nebula, is a giant spectacular emission nebula in Sagittarius that's one of the brightest and finest star forming regions in the entire sky. With an apparent magnitude of +6.0, it's faintly visible to the naked eye and a wonderful sight through all types of optical instrument.
The nebula was discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Hodierna sometime before 1654. French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil independently found it in 1747 before Charles Messier added the object to his catalogue on May 23, 1764. The distance to M8 is uncertain. It's currently estimated at 5,200 light-years although it might be as close as 4,100 light-years or as far away as 6,000 light-years.
When seen from our perspective this is an extremely large object. It covers 90 by 40 arc minutes of apparent sky, which is many times larger than the full Moon and comparable in size to another celebrated star forming region, the Great Orion Nebula (M42). To locate M8, start by finding the bright teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The top three stars of the teapot are Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8), Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7) and φ Sgr (mag. +3.2). Now imagine a line connecting φ Sgr to Kaus Borealis and then extend it in a westerly direction, curving slightly southwards, for about 6 degrees until arriving at M8. The Trifid Nebula (M20) is located 1.5 degrees north of M8.
The Lagoon Nebula is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August.
M108 is a nice edge on barred spiral galaxy located in Ursa Major that was discovered by Pierre Méchain on February 19, 1781. It's not one of the objects included by Messier in his final published catalogue version but was added much later by Owen Gingerich in 1953. This was based on analysis of notes written by Messier and Méchain that referenced M108 suggesting that the object was intended for inclusion in a later version. William Herschel independently rediscovered M108 on April 17, 1789.
Locating M108 is easy since it's positioned only 1.5 degrees southeast of bright Merak (β UMa - mag. +2.3) the southwest corner star of the bowl of the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. Located 50 arc minutes southeast of M108 is the planetary nebula "Owl Nebula" (M97) and both items fit easily in the same wide field telescope field of view.
M108 is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during the months of March, April and May. For observes located at latitudes greater than 35N, the galaxy is circumpolar and therefore never sets.
M107 is a loose eight-magnitude globular cluster located in Ophiuchus that's a difficult binocular object but much easier in small telescopes. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in April, 1782 and then independently re-discovered by William Herschel on May 12, 1793. Herschel was also the first person to resolve M107 into stars. This cluster is one of the additional catalogue items that weren't included in Messier's final version but added much later by Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947. She also added M105 and M106 since it seems probable that Méchain had also intended to include these items to a future edition of the catalogue.
The globular is located 20,900 light-years from Earth and spans 13 arc minutes of apparent sky, which corresponds to a spatial diameter of 80 light-years. It contains 100,000 stars and has an estimated age of 13.95 billion years, making it one of the oldest known globulars.
Locating M107 is relatively easy as its positioned 2.75 degrees southwest of zeta Oph (ζ Oph - mag. +2.5). This star is located 16 degrees north of Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) and can be also found by imagining a line connecting Yed Prior (δ Oph - mag. +2.7) with Yed Posterior (ε Oph - mag. +3.2) and extending it in a south-easterly direction for 9 degrees. The cluster is best observed during the months of May, June and July.
M12 is a magnitude +7.2 globular cluster in Ophiuchus that was discovered by Charles Messier on May 30, 1764. He was unable to resolve the cluster, describing it as "nebula without stars". It was William Herschel who first managed this in 1783. Through good binoculars, M12 appears as a faint hazy patch of light that's not well defined. Positioned nearby is the slightly brighter but similar looking globular M10. The two clusters are among the brightest of the seven Messier globulars located in Ophiuchus.
M12 is located in a barren area of sky that's devoid of bright stars and therefore finding it can require some patience. Start by locating Rasalhague (α Oph - mag +2.1) the brightest star in Ophiuchus. Join the stars of Ophiuchus in a curve heading westwards and southwards until arriving at two close together 3rd magnitude stars, Yed Prior (δ Oph - mag. +2.7) and Yed Posterior (ε Oph - mag. +3.2). M12 is located about 8 degrees northeast of the stars. Positioned 3.25 degrees southeast of M12 is M10, with the star 30 Oph (mag. +4.8) located one degree east of M10.
The best time of the year to observe M12 is during the months of May, June and July.
April this year is a special time for astronomers as Mars the intriguing "Red planet" reaches opposition on the eighth of the month. On this day, Mars rises in the east as the Sun sets in the west, remains visible all night long before setting in the west as the Sun rises once again in the east. During April, the planet is also at its brightest and has its largest apparent size for the year. With a magnitude of -1.5, Mars is unmistakable amongst the stars of Virgo. The planet dazzles with a deep red-orange hue; shining at about the same brightness as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
What makes a Mars opposition special is that they don't occur as often as the other outer planets. Generally speaking, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune reach opposition once per year. However, Mars takes roughly 2 years and 2 months or 780 days from one opposition to the next! The reason for this is due to orbital dynamics; Mars moves fast compared to the other outer planets and hence the Earth takes twice as long to catch up with it.
What to expect this year
The orbit of Mars is eccentric which means the difference in distance between its closest point to the Sun (perihelion) and its furthest (aphelion) is considerable. At perihelion Mars is 1.3815 AU (206.7 million kilometres or 128.4 million miles) from the Sun whereas at aphelion the distance increases to 1.666 AU (249.2 million kilometres or 154.9 million miles). This corresponds to an orbital eccentricity of 9.3%, compared to just 1.7% for the Earth. As a result, the brightness and apparent size of Mars at opposition greatly depend on the location of Mars in its orbit at that time.
Although better than the opposition of 2012, Mars in 2014 is closer to its aphelion orbital point than to its perihelion point. It presents an apparent disc of 15.2 arc seconds in diameter this year, which is slightly larger than the 13.9 arc seconds of 2012 but much less than the 25.1 arc seconds achieved at the historically close 2003 opposition. The next really great opposition of Mars will occur in 2018.
Mars always appears in the southern section of the sky during the best oppositions, favouring observers at southern latitudes. However, on this occasion the planet has a declination of -5 degrees and therefore is reasonably well placed for observers located at northern temperate latitudes as well. On April 14, closest approach to Earth occurs when 0.6176 AU (92.4 million kilometres or 57.4 million miles) separates the two planets.
M9 is a globular cluster located in the southern section of the large sprawling constellation of Ophiuchus. It was discovered by Charles Messier on May 28, 1764, who described it as a "nebula without star of 3 arc minutes in diameter". With an apparent magnitude of +8.4, it's one of the fainter objects of its type in Messier's catalogue. Since not particularly bright, M9 is a challenging object for binocular observers appearing at best as a slightly out of focus faint "star" that can be difficult to pick out against the surrounding Milky Way. The cluster is much easier to spot with larger 15x70 or 20x80 binoculars, but again not much detail is discernible.
M9 is located 25,800 light-years from Earth. At a distance of 5,500 light-years, it's one of the nearer globular clusters to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The globular lies adjacent to a prominent dark nebula called Barnard 64, which significantly dims the light of the cluster due to intervening interstellar dust.
To find M9 start by locating Sabik (η Oph - mag. +2.4) the second brightest star in Ophiuchus. About 3 degrees southeast of Sabik is M9, which is best seen during the months of May, June and July.
M96 is an intermediate spiral galaxy 35 million light-years distant in the constellation of Leo. At magnitude +9.6, it's the brightest member of the Leo I or M96 group of galaxies that also contains M95, M105 and at least another 21 fainter galaxies. The grouping is one of many that lie within the Virgo Supercluster. The three galaxies are amongst the fainter objects in Messiers catalogue but all are visible with large 15x70 or 20x80 binoculars from a dark site, appearing as faint smudges of light.
M96 is an unusual galaxy in the sense that it has asymmetric arms and a displaced core that were probably caused by gravitational pulling from other nearby galaxies. It was discovered, along with M95, by Pierre Méchain on March 20, 1781. Charles Messier including both items in his catalogue four days later. M105 was not included in the original Messier catalogue but added much later by Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947.
The galaxies are located in the southern middle section of the relatively large and bright constellation of Leo the Lion, which lies east of Cancer and to the west of Virgo. Leo contains one first magnitude star, Regulus (α Leo - mag. +1.4), which happens to be the brightest star in the surrounding region of sky. About 24 degrees east and two degrees north of Regulus is the third brightest star in Leo, Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1). Imagine a line connecting Regulus with Denebola with M95, M96 and M105 located just less than half way along this line. The northernmost member of the trio is M105 with M96 located 50 arc minutes south of M105 and M95 positioned 40 arc minutes west of M96.
They are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
M95 is a barred spiral galaxy about 36 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 20, 1781 - the same night he discovered M96 - and catalogued by Charles Messier four days later. With an apparent magnitude of +10.3 it's visible in small telescopes. Together with M96 and M105, M95 forms a trio of faint gravitationally bound galaxies grouped close together. Of these, M96 is the brightest and the largest. The group is known as the Leo I or M96 group of galaxies, which also contains at least 21 other fainter galaxies and is one of many groups that lie within the Virgo Supercluster.
Charles Messier included M95 and M96 in his catalogue on the March 24, 1781. M105 was not included in the original Messier catalogue but added much later by Helen B. Sawyer Hogg in 1947. The galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
M109 (NGC 3992) is a barred spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It's estimated to be located 83.5 Million light-years from Earth, making it the furthest object in Messier's catalogue. Despite its large distance it's relatively bright; with an apparent magnitude of +10.3 the galaxy is within the range of small to medium sized amateur telescopes.
M109 has a complicated history. In March 1781, Pierre Méchain passed three nebulae he recently found to Charles Messier for confirmation. The first one was to become M97 while the others were recorded by Messier as objects 98 and 99 in a rough draft. However, Messier never assigned positions for these items in the main catalogue and hence they were never included in the final version. Many years later in 1953, American astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich added draft objects 98 and 99 to the "official" Messier catalogue and they became items M108 and M109. The story is further complicated by recent analysis that suggest Méchain may have not originally observed NGC 3992 but instead nearby galaxy NGC 3953. If so, this implies that Messier in fact discovered NGC 3992 and not Méchain. Despite this, it's generally accepted that M109 is identified as NGC 3992.
Finding M109 is easy, it's located only 0.75 degrees to the southeast of Phecda (γ UMa - mag. +2.4) one of the stars of the Plough asterism of Ursa Major. The galaxy is best seen from northern temperate latitudes during the months of March, April and May. From the Southern Hemisphere it never rises very high above the northern horizon.
M23 is a pretty open cluster that's located in the rich starfields of the Sagittarius Milky Way. With an apparent magnitude of +6.9, it's beyond naked eye visibility but a nice binocular object and a glorious sight through small telescopes. This vast cloud of about 150 stars is located 2,150 light-years from Earth and has an actual diameter of about 20 light-years. With an estimated age of at least 220 million years old, it's one of the galaxy's oldest open clusters.
M23 was discovered by Charles Messier on June 20, 1764. It can be easily found just northwest of the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The three stars that form the top of the teapot are φ Sgr (mag. +3.2), Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8) and Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7). Positioned 6 degrees northwest of Kaus Borealis is μ Sgr (mag. +3.8). M23 can be found 4.5 degrees northwest of this star and approximately 2/5ths of the way along a line connecting μ Sgr with ξ Ser (mag. +3.5). Located 5 degrees east of M23 is M24, the very large Sagittarius Star Cloud.
M106, mag. +8.5, is a large spiral galaxy located in Canes Venatici that was discovered by Pierre Méchain in July 1781. He described the galaxy in little detail; referring to it only as a nebula close to star 3 CVn. William Herschel then rediscovered it on March 9, 1788. Since Herschel was using a better telescope than Méchain he was able to see much more detail and noted it as "very brilliant with a bright nucleus and faint milky branches north preceding and south following." Although not one of Messiers original catalogue entries, M106 was included, along with M105 and M107 in 1947 by Helen Sawyer Hogg. It seemed reasonable to assume that Méchain had already intended to add these objects to a future edition.
M106 is one of the brightest examples of a Seyfert type II galaxy and is therefore strong in X-rays and unusual emission lines, which are believed to result from sections of the galaxy falling into the supermassive black hole located at the centre. American astronomer Carl Seyfert first identified this class of object in 1943.
The galaxy is located towards the northwestern corner of Canes Venatici; a faint constellation with only one star Cor Caroli (α CVn - mag. +2.9) that's brighter than magnitude +4.0. However, locating M106 is not difficult as the Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major is positioned just to the north and can be used as a starting point. Once found, focus on Megrez (δ UMa - mag. +3.2) the faintest star of the Plough. Positioned 5.5 degrees south and slightly east of Megrez is 5 CVn (mag. +4.8). M106 is located just over 4 degrees south of 5 CVn with star 3 CVn (mag. +5.3) positioned along the line connecting the two.
M106 is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of March, April and May. From southern temperate latitudes it's a difficult object as it never rises very high above the northern horizon.
Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on March 14th (28 degrees) and as a result is well placed as an early morning object throughout March for observers located in the Southern Hemisphere and tropics. This also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year from the Southern Hemisphere.
Mercury's period of visibility during this particular apparition is considerable; it extends from the end of February until the middle of April. At the end of last month Mercury appeared as a faint tricky object low down above the eastern horizon just before sunrise. The situation quickly improves during March with the planet increasing from magnitude +0.8 on March 1st to magnitude +0.1 by March 14th (the date of greatest elongation west) when Mercury appears highest in the morning sky. For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago), Mercury will appear 17 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise. It should also be noted that once past greatest elongation west, Mercury continues to brighten as it begins to draw into the Sun. The planet doesn't reach maximum brightness (mag -1.0) until the very end of the visibility period, more than 4 weeks after greatest elongation west!
As March progresses, Mercury brightens from magnitude +0.8 to -0.2 with the phase of the planet increasing from 28 to 76 degrees. Dichotomy or half-phase occurs on March 11th, when the planet is 50 percent illuminated. On March 19th, Mercury reaches aphelion and is located 0.467 AU (approx. 69.9 million km or 43.4 million miles) from the Sun.
Unfortunately, from northern temperate latitudes the angle of the ecliptic is not favourable and the planet remains low down and unsuitably placed for observation during March.
Venus reaches greatest elongation west (47 degrees) on March 22nd and remains a brilliant object in the early morning skies during March. From the Southern Hemisphere the planet can be seen towards the east for approx. 3 hours before sunrise. Despite fading from magnitude -4.6 to -4.3 during March, unmistakable Venus shines like a dazzling beacon. This brightest of all planets can even be followed with the naked eye for a short time after the Sun has risen above the eastern horizon.
From northern temperate latitudes Venus is visible for less than two hours before sunrise, appearing low down above the east-southeast horizon. The illuminated phase of Venus increases from 37 to 54 percent during March with dichotomy or half-phase occurring on March 23rd.
On March 27th, the waning crescent Moon will pass 4 degrees north of Venus.
Mars is now a beautiful late evening object that's located in Virgo. The fourth planet from the Sun is named after the Roman god of war and appears to the naked eye striking red-orange in colour. With not long to go before opposition (April 8th), Mars brightens rapidly as the month progresses. It starts March at magnitude -0.5 just to the northeast of Spica (α Virgo - mag. +1.0) before ending the month at magnitude -1.3 and five degrees directly north of the star.
On March 1st, Mars reaches its first stationary point after which it begins retrograde motion. The planet continues to move this direction until May 21st when it reaches its second stationary point and following that direct motion is once more resumed.
As well as rapidly brightening this month, the apparent size of Mars also increases from 11.6 to 14.6 arc minutes. When viewed through a small telescope Mars appears small but under good seeing conditions it's possible to spot major surface features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. Don't be afraid to push up the magnification as high as possible to bring out those subtle details.
On March 19th, the waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars.
Jupiter is now two months past opposition and although currently fading in brightness and apparent size it remains a brilliant object in Gemini. The planet is visible shortly after sunset and remains so until after midnight for northern-based observers, although the period of visibility is considerably less for those located further south.
At the start of the month, Jupiter continues its retrograde motion until March 6th when it reaches its second stationary point. After this, direct motion is again resumed. This also represents the end of this year's opposition period. On March 1st, Jupiter shines at magnitude -2.4 with an apparent diameter of 42 arc minutes. At the end of the month the brightness has decreased to magnitude -2.2 and the apparent diameter to 39 arc minutes.
On March 10th, the waxing gibbous Moon (68% illuminated) passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn, mag +0.6, is located in Libra and also reaches a stationary point this month. Like Mars, the beautiful ringed planet reaches its first stationary point (on March 3rd), which signals the change in motion from direct to retrograde. As a result, Saturn will appear to move little against the "fixed" background stars this month. By the end of March, Saturn is rising before midnight for observers in northern temperate latitudes and a couple of hours earlier for those further south.
Of course the rings of Saturn are its most famous feature and even a small telescope will show them. Through medium and large aperture amateur scopes they are a fantastic breathtaking sight. In addition to the rings a handful of Saturn's moons are also visible. The largest and brightest moon Titan shines at eight magnitude and is visible with binoculars. In addition, a medium size scope will also show Rhea, Tethys, Dione, and Iapetus.
On March 21st, the waning gibbous Moon passes 0.2 degrees south of Saturn and an occultation is visible from the South Atlantic at 3:18 UT.
M20 is the famous Trifid Nebula, a bright colourful emission and reflection nebula that's located in the constellation of Sagittarius. At magnitude +6.3, it's visible with binoculars. This remarkable object not only contains an emission and reflection nebula but also a dark nebula and an embedded open cluster. When photographed or imaged it looks spectacular, with the emission nebula appearing red, the reflection nebula blue and numerous dark lanes mixed in between. The dark lanes appear to cut through the nebula splitting it into three prominent sections, hence the popular name Trifid, which means divided into three lobes.
Charles Messier discovered both M20 and M21 on June 5, 1764. He referred to M20 as an envelope of nebulosity. The surrounding area of sky is the richest part of the Milky Way. Here you are looking towards the direction of the galactic centre, hence the abundance of stars, open clusters, globular clusters and nebulae. This wonderful region of sky is perfect to scan with binoculars or small telescopes, especially at low magnifications.
To locate the Trifid, first focus on the bright familiar teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The top three stars of the teapot are Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8), Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7) and φ Sgr (mag. +3.2). Imagine a line connecting φ Sgr to Kaus Borealis and then extending it for just over 6 degrees to arrive at M20.
The Trifid is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August.
M54 is a globular cluster located in Sagittarius that’s a staggering 87,400 light years from Earth. It was discovered by Charles Messier on July 24, 1778 and was for many years thought to be part of the Milky Way but is now believed to belong to the nearby Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy. It owns the distinction of being the first extragalactic globular cluster ever discovered, even though it wasn't recognized as such for over 200 years. Despite its vast distance, M54 is visible in binoculars albeit faintly (mag. +7.9). The fact that it can be seen in binoculars at all from such a distance is incredible and is due to its large intrinsic size and high absolute brightness. With a diameter of over 300 light-years diameter, this globular is enormous and one of the largest known.
Finding M54 is easy as it lies within the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The starting point is to focus on the base of the teapot and image a line connecting Ascella (ζ Sgr - mag. +2.6) with Kaus Australis (ε Sgr - mag. +1.8). Positioned about 1.75 degrees along this line and slightly north is M54. With a declination of -30 degrees, the globular is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere during the months of June, July and August. From northern temperate latitudes, it’s a much more difficult target as it never rises very high above the southern horizon.
M66 is a superb bright intermediate spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Leo. It's the brightest of a trio of galaxies that form - along with M65 and NGC 3628 - the well known and popular "Leo Triplet" or "M66 group". All three objects can be observed with small telescopes in the same low power field of view. With the exception of the M81/M82 pair in Ursa Major, the Leo Triplet is arguably the most sought after galaxy grouping for amateur astronomers.
Charles Messier discovered both M66 (mag. +8.9) and M65 (mag. +9.6) on March 1, 1780. The third member of the triplet, NGC 3628, has a debatable apparent magnitude. Some texts record it as the brightest member of the three while others the faintest! For our purposes we estimate NGC 3628 to be brighter than M65 and almost as bright as M66. However, what is clear is that NGC 3628 suffers from low surface brightness and therefore is the most difficult member of the trio to spot. Messier missed it completely and it was not until April 8, 1784 when it was finally discovered by William Herschel.
To find the triplet, look to the eastern part of Leo. This zodiac constellation is relatively large and bright and somewhat looks like the Lion it represents. The brightest star in Leo and its only first magnitude star is Regulus (α Leo – mag +1.4). Positioned approximately 16 degrees northeast of Regulus is Chertan (θ Leo - mag. +3.3). Along with the Zosma (δ Leo - mag. +2.6) to the north and Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) to the east, Chertan forms a prominent right-angled triangle. Located 2 degrees south of Chertan is 73 Leo (mag. +5.3). M65 lies 0.75 degrees east of this star with M66 a further 0.33 degrees southeast of M65. Located 0.5 degrees north of the Messier pair is NGC 3628.
The galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.
Pallas, the second asteroid to be discovered reaches opposition on February 22, 2014. Peaking at magnitude +7.0, the asteroid will be readily visible in popular 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars for a number of weeks after opposition, slowly weaving its way through the constellations of Hydra and Sextans.
Pallas was discovered by German physician and astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers on March 28, 1802. It has a diameter of 544 kilometres (338 miles) making it the second largest body in the main asteroid belt. Along with Ceres the only other asteroid discovered at that time, Pallas was initially classified as a planet in its own right and subsequently given its own planetary symbol. Later, after more similar small objects - all in the region between Mars and Jupiter - had been discovered the general term asteroids was coined to describe them.
In 1807, Olbers also discovered Vesta the brightest of all asteroids.
Location and Star Chart
Against the background stars, Pallas is currently moving slowing in a northwestern direction. During February and March it spends most of the time in the constellation of Hydra, except from February 23rd to March 4th when it cuts through the corner of Sextans. During this time the brightness of the asteroid does not change significantly. At the start of February, Pallas shone at magnitude +7.3, increases to +7.0 for a few days either side of opposition on February 22nd before decreasing again to magnitude +7.6 at the end of March. With binoculars and a small telescopes the asteroid should be easy to spot and it's movement noticeable over the course of a few nights.
Although it's the largest constellation in the sky, Hydra contains only one notably bright star, Alphard (α Hya). At magnitude +2.0, Alphard is the same brightness as the North Pole star, Polaris (α UMi). On March 2nd, Pallas is positioned just over 3.5 degrees west of Alphard.
Pallas is visible just after sunset and remains so for the remainder of the evening. It's better placed from tropical regions where it appears high in the sky. During February and for most of March, Southern Hemisphere observers have it slightly better than their Northern counterparts. It's best to look for Pallas from a dark site away from light pollution when the Moon is absent from the sky.
The finder chart below show the positions of Pallas from February 3 to March 25, 2014.
M110 is a dwarf elliptical galaxy located in the constellation of Andromeda. It's one of many satellite galaxies orbiting M31, the famous and spectacular Andromeda galaxy. Of these, at least 14 are dwarf galaxies with M110 being the second brightest of them (after M32). The galaxy is classified as Hubble type E5 and designated as "peculiar" due to unusual dark structures that are probably due to dust clouds.
At magnitude +8.7, M110 is a very challenging binocular object. Although quite large - it covers 22 x 11 arc minutes of apparent sky - it suffers from a low surface brightness and hence even a small amount of light pollution can render it a difficult object to spot with small telescopes.
Surprisingly, Charles Messier never included M110 in his famous list. However he depicted it, together with M32 on a drawing of the Andromeda galaxy he made on the August 10, 1773. Caroline Herschel independently discovered the galaxy on August 27, 1783 and much later in 1967, Kenneth Glyn Jones suggested assigning the galaxy a Messier number. Although now commonly known as M110, it's still often referred to in many texts and charts by its New General Catalogue number, NGC 205.
To find M110, first locate the Andromeda Galaxy, which is positioned northeast of the famous "Great Square of Pegasus". Of the four stars of the square, only three of them actually belong to Pegasus. The northeast corner star and brightest of the four at magnitude 2.1, Alpheratz (α And) is part of neighbouring Andromeda. Located 7 degrees to the northeast of Alpheratz is δ And (mag. 3.3) and a further 8 degrees to the northeast of δ And is mag. 2.1, Mirach (β And). The Andromeda galaxy is a further 8 degrees to the northwest of Mirach at the end of a line connecting Mirach with μ And and ν And. M110 is located 36 arc minutes northwest of the centre of M31.
The galaxies are best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of September, October and November.
M10 is a fine globular cluster that's located in the constellation of Ophiuchus. One of the largest constellations, Ophiuchus straddles the celestial equator and contains a host of globular clusters of which Messier catalogued seven of them. The brightest and best of them is M10 (mag. +6.6), which can be spotted with binoculars, appearing like an out of focus fuzzy star.
Charles Messier discovered M10 on May 29, 1764, describing it as a "nebula without stars". Ten years later, German astronomer Johann Elert Bode noted it as a "very pale nebulous patch without stars". Both Messier and Bode used telescopes that suffered in quality and hence were unable to resolve the cluster. It was not until William Herschel using better and larger instruments was able to spot individual member stars. He described it as a "beautiful cluster of extremely compressed stars". The best time of the year to observe M10 is during the months of May, June and July.
Locating M10 is not the easiest task as the surrounding area of sky is devoid of bright stars. Start by locating the brightest star in Ophiuchus, Rasalhague (α Oph - mag +2.1). Join the stars of the constellation in a curve heading westwards and southwards until arriving at two close 3rd magnitude stars, Yed Prior (δ Oph - mag. +2.7) and Yed Posterior (ε Oph - mag. +3.2). M10 is located about 12 degrees east of Yed Prior with star 30 Oph (mag. +4.8) one degree east of M10.
M7 is a large magnificent naked eye open cluster located in the constellation of Scorpius. It's one of the brightest open clusters and has been known since ancient times. It was first recorded in 130 AD by Greek-Roman astronomer Ptolemy and in recognition of this early observation, M7 is often referred to as the Ptolemy Cluster. Italian astronomer Giovanni Batista Hodierna observed 30 stars sometime before 1654 and Charles Messier adding it to his catalogue in 1764.
With a combined magnitude of +3.3, M7 is the brightest and most obvious deep sky object in Scorpius. It's a giant group of 80 stars with an apparent diameter of 80 arc minutes, almost 3x that of the full Moon. To the naked eye, M7 appears as a very large hazy patch with its brightest stars just about resolvable. It's so bright that it's even noticeable under suburban skies. With a declination of -34.8 degrees, the cluster is the southernmost Messier object and therefore best seen from the Southern Hemisphere particularly during the months of June, July and August. From most northern temperate locations it appears low down, at best climbing just a few degrees above the horizon. From northern latitudes above 56 degrees it never even rises.
M7 is located in eastern Scorpius, close to the Sagittarius border. It's positioned 4.75 degrees northeast of the constellations second brightest star, lambda Sco (λ Sco - mag. +1.6). Also known as Shaula, λ Sco marks the end of the Scorpions tail and part of the stinger. The Butterfly Cluster (M6) is located 4 degrees northwest of M7.
M6 is a superb bright naked eye open cluster in the constellation of Scorpius that's also known as the Butterfly Cluster. The name was first coined by Robert Burnham who described it as a "charming group whose arrangement suggests the outline of a butterfly with open wings". At magnitude +4.2, it's one of the brightest open clusters in the Messier catalogue and a wonderful object for binocular and telescope owners. It covers 25 arc minutes of apparent sky and contains 80 stars. Located just a few degrees southeast of M6, in this wonderfully rich area of the Milky Way, is an even brighter and larger open cluster M7.
Despite being visible to the naked eye, it's commonly believed that the first person to record the position of M6 was Giovanni Battista Hodierna in 1654. However, Robert Burnham proposed that Ptolemy might also have seen M6 with the naked eye, while observing M7. Many years later, Charles Messier included both M6 and M7 in his catalogue on May 23, 1764.
M6 is located in eastern Scorpius. At the heart of the Scorpius is red supergiant star Antares (α Sco - mag. +1.0) the brightest star in the constellation and 16th brightest in the night time sky. Follow the stars from Antares, curving in a southerly direction, until arriving at lambda Sco (λ Sco - mag. +1.6). M6 is positioned 5 degrees north and 1.5 degrees east of this star.
M101 is a large face-on spiral galaxy located 22 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major. At mag. +7.9, it can be glimpsed in binoculars or small telescopes from dark sites but suffers from low surface brightness and in bad seeing conditions or light polluted areas, the galaxy can be difficult to spot even with a 200mm (8-inch) scope. It's best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of March, April and May.
M101 is also known as "The Pinwheel Galaxy" and was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 27, 1781. He described it as "nebula without star, very obscure and pretty large, 6' to 7' in diameter, between the left hand of Bootes and the tail of the great Bear." He communicated this to Charles Messier who verified its position and then included it in his catalogue as one of the final entries.
Locating the part of sky where M101 is positioned is easy since it's close to the handle of the bowl that forms the "Plough" or "Big Dipper" asterism of Ursa Major. The Pinwheel galaxy is located at one corner of an equatorial triangle formed with second magnitude stars Mizar (ζ UMa - mag. +2.2) and Alkaid (η UMa - mag. +1.8). M101 is 5.5 degrees east of Mizar (the celebrated naked eye double star) and 5.5 degrees northeast of Alkaid.
Mercury reached greatest elongation east on January 31st. On this day it was at magnitude -0.7, positioned 18 degrees from the Sun and visible towards the west just after sunset. For Northern Hemisphere observers, this is the most favourable evening apparition of the year and the planet remains visible into the first week of February. After this, it's more difficult to detect as it's lower down and quickly fades in brightness. From the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury is not well placed but observers may still be able to spot the planet extremely low down just after sunset at the beginning of the month.
The nearest planet to the Sun reaches inferior conjunction on February 15th. Towards the end of the month observers may be able to catch Mercury again, this time before sunrise low above the eastern horizon, although at magnitude +1.6 it will be tricky.
On February 1st, the very thin waxing crescent Moon passes 4 degrees north of Mercury in the evening sky. In the morning sky on February 27th, the very thin waning crescent Moon passes 3 degrees north of Mercury.
During January, Venus swapped from the evening to the morning sky and remains throughout February a dazzling morning object. During this time it's best seen from southern latitudes. For example, on February 1st from latitudes of 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Venus is 12 degrees above the eastern horizon, one hour before sunrise. At the end of the month this increases to 28 degrees.
It's not quite so good from northern latitudes. For example, from London, England (51.5N) Venus hovers just 8 or 9 degrees above the southeastern horizon, one hour before sunrise during February. From such latitudes, the relative position of Venus above the horizon hardly changes during the month.
Venus reaches maximum brilliance (mag. -4.7) on February 15th and later on the 26th, the waning crescent Moon passes 0.4 degrees north of Venus with an occultation visible from central Africa.
Mars is now well established in the morning skies as it heads towards opposition in April. The planet spends the month in Virgo, starting 5 degrees north of Spica (α Vir - mag +1.0), the constellation brightest star. It then continues it's eastwards direct motion against the fixed stars, although now moving much slower than in previous months.
The "Red planet" rises before midnight and telescopically it's becoming easier to spot the best features such as the North Pole cap, Syrtis Major and other dusty markings. With good seeing conditions it's possible to push up the telescope magnification as high as allowed to tease out surface markings.
On February 1st, Mars shines at magnitude +0.2 with an apparent diameter of 9 arc seconds. By the end of the month its brightness has improved to magnitude -0.5 and the apparent size to 11.5 arc seconds. The waning gibbous Moon passes 3 degrees south of Mars on February 20th.
Jupiter is a stunning beacon of light moving retrograde in the constellation of Gemini. Although, the giant planet is now past opposition (reached on January 5th) it's visible towards the east as soon as it's dark enough and remains visible for the majority of the night. The planet is located about 15 degrees southwest of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux and at magnitude -2.5, it's far brighter than any stars. Although it's apparent size is now decreasing, at the end of February it's still stands at a respectable 43 arc seconds.
The current declination of Jupiter favours Northern Hemisphere observers, but even from Southern Hemisphere latitudes where the planet appears much lower down, it's still unmistakable due to its brightness.
On February 11th, the waxing gibbous Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter.
Saturn visibility period increases during February as it continues to move direct through Libra. The "Ringed planet" starts the month rising a couple of hours after midnight, improving to just after midnight by months end. During this time its brightness and apparent size increase from mag. +0.7 to +0.6 and 16.5 to 17.3 arc seconds respectively. With a declination of -16 degrees, the planet is much better placed for those at southern or tropical latitudes. From northern temperate locations, it remains low down and does not climb as high above the horizon.
Currently Saturn's rings are wide open and a fantastic telescope sight. Only a small refractor is required to see them with larger scopes showing the rings in supreme glory along with subtle details on the planet's surface and many of its brighter moons.
On February 21st, the waning gibbous Moon passes 0.3 degrees south of Saturn. An occultation is visible from most of Australia and New Zealand.
Uranus, mag. +5.9, remains an early evening object during February. The distant planet is located in Pisces, close to the Cetus border and southeast of the Great Square of Pegasus. At the start of the month, Uranus sets about 4 hours after the Sun but by months end this reduces to less than 3 hours. The planet is easily visible with binoculars once it's dark enough.
On February 3rd, the waxing crescent Moon passes 3 degrees north of Uranus.
M82 is a superb irregular galaxy of high surface brightness that's visible with binoculars and located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It has an apparent magnitude of +8.4 and is separated by only 38 arc minutes from M81 an even brighter and equally - if not more - stunning galaxy. However, these two fine galaxies are very different objects indeed. M81 (mag. +6.9) when viewed from Earth appears almost face-on and is of the grand spiral deign; a galaxy that exhibits prominent near perfect and well defined spiral arms. On the other hand, M82 (mag. +8.4) is edge on, appearing long and thin and as a result is often referred to as the "Cigar" galaxy. Unlike the perfectly formed spiral shape of M81, M82 is irregular and classified as the prototype starburst galaxy in which stars are forming at exceptionally high rates.
These two objects are the largest members of the Ursa Major or M81 group of galaxies, which at a distance of 11.7 million light years is one of the closest groups of galaxies beyond our own Local Group. In space M81 and M82 are physically close, separated by only about 150,000 light years and when seen through binoculars and telescopes at low magnifications they form a striking pair that appear in the same optical field of view.
Both M81 and M82 were discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 31, 1774. Pierre Mechain then independently rediscovered both galaxies in August 1779. He reported his observations to Charles Messier who added them to his catalogue on February 9, 1781.
Finding M82 is not particularly difficult as the famous "Plough" asterism of Ursa Major can be used as the starting point. First focus on Dubhe (α UMa - mag. +1.8) the northwest corner star of the bowl of the Plough. The M81 / M82 pair is located 10 degrees northwest of this star with M82 positioned directly north of M81.
M81 or Bode's galaxy is a large bright spiral galaxy located 11.8 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ursa Major. With an apparent magnitude of +6.9 it's easily visible with binoculars, a fine target for small telescope owners and a wonderful sight in larger scopes. The galaxy is a striking example of a grand design spiral; a galaxy that exhibits prominent near perfect and well defined spiral arms.
In the same binocular and low magnification telescope field of view as M81 is M82, another prominent galaxy. At mag. +8.4, M82 is fainter (and smaller) than M81 and a very different type of galaxy. It's a starburst galaxy in which stars are forming at exceptionally high rates. Also known as the "Cigar" galaxy, M82 is the prototype object of its type and provides a striking compliment to the near perfect spiral shape of M81. Together the pair forms a popular visual and imaging target for amateur astronomers.
Both M81 and M82 were discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 31, 1774. Pierre Mechain then independently rediscovered both galaxies in August 1779. He reported his observations to Charles Messier who added them to his catalogue on February 9, 1781.
Finding M81 is not particularly difficult as the famous "Plough" asterism of Ursa Major can be used as the starting point. First focus on Dubhe (α UMa - mag. +1.8) the northwest corner star of the bowl of the Plough. The M81 / M82 pair is located 10 degrees northwest of this star with M82 positioned 38 arc minutes directly north of M81.
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