Tonight we are going to change our viewing time from our usual 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. until late summer. There are two reasons for this: 1) The longer days of summer mean it is not fully dark at 9 p.m. and 2) the rapidly approaching rainy season means early evening clouds blot out the stars. By 11 p.m. there is at least a chance of clearing, although it’s not usually totally clear until after midnight. The chart tonight is a close up of the southern sky showing due south up to only 30 degrees above the horizon.
Did you think you would have to travel to Argentina to see the Southern Cross? Not so! Theoretically you can see the whole cross, (official name is Crux), right here on Marco, although you have to work fairly hard at it. The main problem is the southernmost star of the cross, Acrux. It does rise above the horizon, but just barely. Only about one-half of a degree at the highest point which occurs at 10:00 p.m. You will certainly need binoculars, a completely flat horizon i.e. the Gulf, and a little bit of altitude helps get your eye above the horizon murk. Possibly use one of the hills on the island, if you can get a clear southern view, or perhaps the top of a condo. I’ve even been told a stepladder helps! Incidentally, Crux is the smallest of all of the constellations – your palm held at arm’s length could cover all of it.
Also in the deep south is the star named Rigel Kent, much better known by it’s Bayer catalog designation as Alpha Centauri, the closest naked eye visible star to the Sun. It’s the third brightest star in the heavens when it is high in the sky; but you will still have trouble spotting Alpha Centauri without binoculars as it too is very close to the horizon, but not as bad as Acrux. Try looking for it in an hour or two when it is at its highest.
Easier and more interesting to spot is Omega Centauri, the largest globular star cluster visible from Earth. Greater in apparent diameter than the full Moon it contains about one million stars. It is so different from other globular clusters there is a debate that it might actually be the remaining core of an absorbed dwarf galaxy. Faintly visible to the naked eye it appears dimmer than its given magnitude of 3.7 as it is more “spread out” than a star. Through binoculars Omega Centauri looks like a ball of cotton, a large telescope will resolve the cluster into individual stars. Omega Centauri is abbreviated on the accompanying chart as ? Cen. See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets every second Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. at the Norris Center, Cambier Park, Naples.