By Mike P. Usher
Tonight Capricornus, the goat, rides fairly high in the southeastern sky. It is usually visualized as a hybrid half goat – half fish creature; it’s also extremely old – it has endured essentially unchanged for over 3,000 years. Likely this is because of its great importance (to an agricultural society) as being the site of the winter solstice in the early bronze age. Nowadays the winter solstice occurs in nearby Sagittarius.
Capricornus is supposed to be the second dimmest of the zodiacal constellations after Cancer, but I don’t find it difficult to pick out in a dark sky site; certainly it’s easier than Hercules which we talked about last time. There is only one binocular object of note in the constellation – M30, a 7.5 magnitude globular cluster. Of course, being a zodiacal constellation it’s frequently the host of planets.
Speaking of planets, I might have exaggerated last month when I said there would be no planets visible until autumn; there are two in the sky right now although they are so dim as to elude the unaided eye. In particular Neptune is never visible to the naked eye under any circumstances, but it is easily visible in binoculars. Seeing Neptune in binoculars is easy, but identifying it among the multitude of 8th magnitude stars around it is not. There is no disk visible which would normally be a dead giveaway to its planetary nature; the planet is some 2,700,000,000 miles away after all! If you are interested in trying to find it, drop me an e-mail and I will respond with a chart. Neptune is currently in Aquarius, the water bearer, only a couple of degrees from where it was first discovered 165 years ago (it takes 164 years to go around the Sun!)
Aquarius is another dim zodiacal constellation a bit brighter than Capricornus, but I have always found it a bit more difficult to make out, perhaps because it is more spread out. Aquarius is usually depicted as a young man pouring a jug of water. In mythology the floods of the Nile would begin when Aquarius would dip his jar in the river. There is one deep sky object for binoculars in Aquarius – M2, at 6.5 magnitude it’s fairly bright for a globular cluster.
See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets the second Tuesday each month during the summer at 7:00PM in the Books-A-Million, at the Mercato, Naples.