Tonight find the handle of the Big Dipper; now mentally extend the arc of the handle and you will find the bright orange star Arcturus. It’s a magnitude -0.04 star and the brightest one north of the celestial equator. It’s the brightest star in the constellation Bootes (both o’s must be pronounced as separate syllables), who is supposed to be a hunter following the Great Bear, Ursa Major.
Now continue the arc from Arcturus and you will end up at the 1st magnitude star Spica, the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation of Virgo. In mythology Virgo is associated with the harvest, perhaps because in antiquity the Sun was located in the constellation in late summer and early autumn.
In the dark empty triangle between Virgo, Coma Berenices and the tail of Leo lies a well hidden prize – this is the location of the Virgo Supercluster of Galaxies, of which our galaxy is an outlying member. Several of these galaxies are visible in binoculars as distant fuzz-balls; a large telescope will reveal hundreds.
They tend to lie 40 to 60 million light years away and are the farthest things from Earth that you can glimpse with binoculars. Take a look in a few hours when Virgo is higher and the Moon has set. While we are in Virgo, be sure to visit Saturn which currently lies just above Spica.
Saturn can be both a joy and a disappointment to stargazers, on one hand it might be one of the finest object in the sky to look at, but on the other hand you can see little of it without a telescope. Saturn may be famous for it’s rings, but they are beyond the reach of 7×50 binoculars. Even a modest telescope of about 30 power will reveal the rings; if you have access to one it’s well worth the effort. You can however see Saturn’s largest satellite Titan with binoculars as an +8.8 magnitude star just above the planet. Check it out every night and you can easily follow it as it orbits Saturn once every 16 days.
See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets every second Tuesday at 7:00PM at the Norris Center, Cambier Park, Naples.