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The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a large and famous planetary nebula located in the faint zodiac constellation of Aquarius. Also known as Caldwell 63 it's one of the nearest objects of its type; a beautiful remnant of a dying star containing a double ring structure not unlike two coils of a spring, hence the popular name "The Helix Nebula".
Although the immediate area surrounding the Helix Nebula is devoid of any particular bright stars, the region can be easily located by star-hoping. NGC 7293 lies roughly halfway along an imaginary line connecting Fomalhaut (α PsA - mag. +1.2) the brightest star in the southerly constellation of Piscis Austrinus and ι Aqr (mag. +4.3). Just over one degree to the east of the Helix Nebula is υ Aqr. At magnitude +5.2 this star is visible to the naked eye under dark skies, simplifying the search for the Helix Nebula.
NGC 2392 is a 9th magnitude bipolar double shell planetary nebula located in the constellation of Gemini. Resembling a person's head surrounded by a parka hood, it's commonly known as the "Eskimo Nebula" or "Clown Face Nebula". William Herschel discovered it from his observatory in Slough on January 17, 1787, describing the planetary nebula as a 9th magnitude star with a bright centre surrounded by equally dispersed nebulosity.
Locating the Eskimo Nebula is relatively easy; it's positioned just east of centre of the bright zodiacal constellation of Gemini, "the Twins" and close to Wasat (δ Gem - mag. +3.5). The easiest way to find Gemini is by identifying its two brightest stars Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.58) and Pollux (β Gem - mag. +1.16). They are positioned east of the familiar "V" shaped asterism of Taurus and to the northeast of the bright prominent constellation of Orion.
Imagine a line extending from Pollux - the brighter of the twins - towards the southwest in the direction of Orions belt. Positioned just over 8 degrees along this line is Wasat and 2.3 degrees southeast of Wasat is NGC 2392. The planetary nebula is positioned next to a mag. +8.2 yellow white star. At first glance through a telescope the pair appears like a wide double star, separated by about 100 arc seconds.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 are two bright open clusters in the constellation of Perseus that are separated by only half a degree of apparent sky. Together they are commonly known as the "Double Cluster" and form a famous showpiece object that's easily visible to the naked eye and a wonderful sight in binoculars and telescopes. It appeals to all types and sizes of optical scopes. Both clusters have been known since antiquity and probably pre-historically. Greek astronomer Hipparchus first catalogued them around 130 B.C with early celestial cartographers naming them as "h Persei" (NGC 869) and "χ Persei" (NGC 884).
The Double Cluster is located in the far northwestern part of Perseus close to the border with Cassiopeia. With a declination of 57N it's circumpolar from many northern locations and therefore never sets. To locate the object draw an imaginary line from Mirfak (α Per - mag +1.8) in a northwesterly direction towards the centre of the famous "W" of Cassiopeia. The Double Cluster lies just over halfway along this line. It's listed as number 14 in the Caldwell catalogue.
NGC 2775 is a magnitude +10.5 spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Cancer, close to its border with Hydra. The galaxy is unusual in that it contains a very smooth nucleus with multiple spiral arms extending outwards from the central region. What makes the spiral arms interesting is their incredibly complex detail, tightly wound structures and active star formation. Amateur astronomers should also keep their eye on this galaxy; it's been host to 5 supernovae explosions in the past 30 years and you never know when the next one will go off!
To find NGC 2775 look for the head of Hydra "the Sea Serpent". The asterism of stars that forms the head are ω Hyd (mag. +5.0), ζ Hyd (mag. +3.1), ρ Hyd (mag. +4.4), ε Hyd (mag. +3.4), δ Hyd (mag. +4.1), σ Hyd (mag. +4.5) and η Hyd (mag. +4.3). None of the stars are particularly bright but all can be seen with the naked eye. The galaxy is positioned a few degrees east and slightly north of this grouping.
NGC 2775 was discovered by William Herschel in 1783 and is best seen during the months of February, March and April. The galaxy is located 55.5 million light-years from Earth and has an actual diameter of 70,000 light-years. It's estimated to contain 100 billion stars.
IC 2497 is a spiral galaxy located about 650 million light-years distant in the small northern constellation of Leo Minor. Although similar in size to the Milky Way galaxy it appears very small and faint due to its vast distance from us. At apparent magnitude +15.8, the galaxy is beyond the reach of most amateur backyard scopes and seemingly just one of the many thousands of faint galaxies populating the night sky. However a few years ago IC 2497 made international news not because of the galaxy itself but due to a new strangle object that was discovered next to it - Hanny's Voorwerp.
In 2007, Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel signed up to the newly created on-line citizen science project Galaxy Zoo. The project enlisted help from the public to classify vast numbers of galaxies based on their physical appearance. The original dataset used was obtained from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and contained almost 1 million galaxies. With so many galaxies it was thought that the analysis would take years but the organisers were in for a pleasant surprise - within 24 hours the website was receiving almost 70,000 classifications an hour and the site even crashing temporarily due to the intense traffic.
Mercury reached inferior conjunction on January 30th and consequently was too close to the Sun to be observable. However, since the planet moves fast it takes less than two weeks before it reappears as a morning object for observers at tropical and Southern Hemisphere latitudes. Mercury then climbs higher in the sky each subsequent morning until peaking on February 24th, when it reaches greatest elongation west (26.7 degrees from the Sun). From northern temperate latitudes, the angle of the ecliptic is not favourable and during this time the planet is unsuitably placed for observation.
As often is the case with Mercury apparitions, one hemisphere of the Earth is favoured over the other. On this occasion it's the Southern Hemisphere with the added bonus that this also happens to be the most favourable morning apparition of the year. With an extended period of visibility the opportunity to spot the illusive planet over the next few weeks is superb.
For example, from latitude 35S (approx. equal to Sydney, Cape Town and Santiago) Mercury (mag. +0.3) will appear 13 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sunrise on February 14th. The planets altitude continues to improve slightly each subsequent morning until February 24th when it peaks at 16 degrees above the horizon. Mercury shines at mag. 0.0 on this day.
The brightest comet that can be seen in the night sky at the moment is comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2). At the end of December it was a superb binocular/telescope sight, faintly visible to naked eye as it moved through the southern constellations of Columba and Lepus. The comet then continued to brighten until peaking at magnitude +3.9 during closest approach to the Earth on January 7th. On this day it was 0.469 AU (70.2 million km or 43.6 million miles) distant from our planet and although the bright Moon somewhat interfered, the comet was easily visible with binoculars and small scopes as a large hazy circular patch of light. When imaged or photographed it displayed a long thin wispy green tail that extended over 10 degrees in length.
Now fading Lovejoy remains excellently placed for observation from the Northern Hemisphere during February. As the month progresses it's expected to fade from magnitude +4.8 to +6.3. For the first part of February the comet should still be visible to the naked eye and will remain an easy binocular and small telescope target for quite sometime to come.
From southern latitudes the comet maybe glimpsed low down above the northern horizon at the start of February. However, for these observers it isn't long before it disappears from view completely. On January 30, Lovejoy reaches perihelion (closest point to the Sun) at 1.2908 AU equivalent to 193.1 million kilometres or 120 million miles.
Jupiter the Solar System's largest planet has been well placed for observation for a few months now as it moves retrograde amongst the stars of Leo. Since the end of last year the planet was visible in early evening, appearing as a spectacular dazzling object. On February 6th, Jupiter is at its best for 2015 when the giant planet reaches opposition. On this day, it will rise in the east as the Sun sets and then set in west as the Sun re-rises on the opposite side of the sky. With a magnitude of -2.6, the "King of the planets" is unmistakable and far brighter than any nighttime star.
Jupiter stars the month in western Leo before crossing the constellation boundary into Cancer on February 4th where it remains for the rest of the month. Positioned 12 degrees southeast of Jupiter is Regulus (α Leo - mag. +1.4) the brightest star in Leo with the Gemini twin stars of Castor (α Gem - mag. +1.6) and Pollux (β Gem - mag. +1.2) located 25 degrees northwest of Jupiter. Although all three stars are bright, Jupiter far outshines them being about 35x brighter than Pollux and 40x brighter than Castor and Regulus.
The current northern declination of Jupiter slightly favours Northern Hemisphere observers, but even from southern latitudes where the planet appears lower down it's still unmistakable due to its brightness.
NGC 4236 is a tenth magnitude barred spiral galaxy in Draco that's visible through small telescopes, although best seen with larger instruments. The galaxy was discovered by German born British astronomer William Herschel on April 6, 1793 and is a member of the Ursa Major or M81 group of galaxies that contains at least 34 galaxies, including spectacular M81 (Bode's galaxy) and M82 (Cigar galaxy).
NGC 4236 is located in the far northern constellation of Draco about 15 degrees north of the seven stars that form the famous "Plough" or "Big Dipper" asterism of Ursa Major. The galaxy is positioned two-thirds of the way along an imaginary line connecting stars lambda Dra (λ Dra - mag. +3.8) and kappa Dra (κ Dra - mag. +3.9). Star HD 106574 (mag +5.7) is 0.75 degrees directly north of NGC 4236.
Due to its high northerly declination, NGC 4236 is a Northern Hemisphere object. The best months to look for it are March, April or May although from most northern locations it's visible all year round and never sets. It can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere but only from latitudes north of 20 degrees south and even then appears low down above the northern horizon at best.