Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Coathanger

The last couple of nights have had some clear skies in Michigan, and since I can't sleep (thinking about the imminent second daughter coming any day now) I have been doing a lot of stargazing lately. I was reminded of the amazing creativity and power of God as I brought out a new simple tool to help me stargaze, a pair of binoculars.

The first time I saw in an astronomy book a picture of a family using binoculars to look at the stars, I thought "Wow -- how desperate!"  I had major skepticism on how well they could really help the view. But as I tried them this week (and my binoculars are by no means that spectacular -- they're small) I must admit being amazed at how much more I could see. Yes, it made things slightly bigger -- mine were 7x -- but more impressive to me was that you can see more stars!

The Coathanger
Nothing made that more evident then when I discovered a new constellation (new to me that is) called the Coathanger. I was just wandering around looking at the stars (actually, following one of satellites that I couldn't see with the naked eye) when I ran into a tight grouping of stars, technically an "open cluster" that I instantly recognized as "The Coathanger" that I had coincidentally read about that morning. Typically constellations don't look anything like they're supposed to for me, but this one most definitely did.

Technically, the recognizable shape of stars called the Coathanger is an asterism, as opposed to a constellation which is really just a chunk of the sky. As another example, the big dipper is another asterism, that is located in the constellation Ursa Major.  What made the Coathanger so impressive to me, was the fact that I cannot see it at all, without my binoculars. Click here for more information on Brocchi's Cluster, or Collinder 399, which is the catalog name for the cluster containing the asterism of the Coathanger.

If you'd like to find the Coathanger yourself, Here's a map of the stars that are visible in the evenings of midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere. If you need to look up different latitudes or months, try this more general link

Before we find the Coathanger, let me set the stage for you. If you have the map in front of you, it might help as I describe what you can see. To the northwest you should see the Big Dipper. I recommend you start by looking at the Big Dipper through your binoculars, and practice moving from star to star to get a feel for how big the binoculars are, and how many more stars you can see than you're familiar with.  For my set, each major star in the 7-8 that make up the dipper required me to move about one field of view in my binoculars, and it took some time before I could confidently move from star to star, so don't be surprised if it's a little difficult at first.

To the right of the big dipper, in the northeast, you'll find the "W" which is in the constellation Cassiopeia.

Behind you, in the south along the horizon, you should be able to find Scorpius, which is in my opinion a fairly obvious constellation that looks like a scorpion. Just behind it, to the left, you might be able to spot "the teapot" in Sagittarius.
Sky Map provided by
Looking east, this snippet covers from
about 45 degrees up to directly overhead.
Now turn towards the east, and then look straight above you. The point directly above you is called the zenith and the bright star Vega is pretty close to the zenith during the summer evening hours. You should come back and look at the stars around Vega in Lyra, as there are some beautiful and obvious double stars there that pop out with a binoculars, but try to locate the other constellations as shown in the snippet of the map above.  Below and to the left you should see what I call the "Northern Cross" which is in the constellation Cygnus, a swan flying south over the Milkyway river.  Below and to the right is a less obvious constellation of stars called Aquila, an eagle who is also flying south.

I find the Coathanger most easily by finding the three right stars in Aquila's tail, (the middle one is the brightest, and is named Altair) and following that line up about two binoculars widths (10 or so degrees). You should be able to see CR399 labeled on the portion of the map above. CR 399 is actually a little wider than a full binocular width for me, and coat hanger is slightly left of the line. If you see it, you'll know, because the line of stars marking the hanger part is so perfectly straight that it jumps right out at you.

Let me know if you spot it!  Also, be sure to say high to Jolly Mon and the Dolphin, my favorite constellation (Delphinus) while your looking in his neighborhood, and have fun checking out the skies!

1 comment:

  1. When you showed this to me the other night, it was the coolest thing in astronomy I've seen in awhile. And thanks for not telling me exactly what I was looking for -- that perfect line of stars jumped right out at me! :)


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