Astronomy for RVers
By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Last week we found our first Deep Sky Object (DSO), Messier 31 (M31) or the Andromeda Galaxy. This week let’s go the opposite direction from Polaris and find a new constellation, one new guide star, and a fantastic object for small telescopes or binoculars, M3. Messier 3 is a bright globular cluster in the constellation Canes Venatici.
A couple of notes are in order here. First, Canes Venatici is a very dim constellation and we will not be using it to locate M3. This might seem a little silly since M3 is in that constellation, but I am going to use guide stars that are much brighter and easier to find even in light-polluted skies. Second, M3 is a summertime object and it is getting a little late in the year to spot this puppy. I looked it up when I wrote this, September 22, and from my location in the deep south of New Mexico, it rises at 2:30 p.m. and sets at around 3:00 a.m. This means that when this gets published, M3 will be pretty low in the west by the time it is dark enough to spot it. Keep this in mind when you are out hunting for this object.
As I mentioned in my last article, this is the object that sent me to the road of the night sky and made me the amateur astronomer I am today. Way back in 2003 I had just bought my first “real” telescope. It was a 6” Newtonian on a German equatorial mount (GEM) with slow motion controls. I had set it up in the back yard several nights in a row, wrestling with all the strange knobs and screws, looking up technobabble words like “declination” and “spherical aberration” when I ran across them in my manual. I was fumbling in the dark with flashlights, paper printouts and a planisphere for hours on end. With all that effort I had yet to find anything I hadn’t already seen, like the Moon and Jupiter, through my binoculars.
It was maddeningly frustrating and I was just about to give up for the night when I decided to run through my setup procedure one last time and give it a final shot. As I turned my slow motion control knob carefully looking for the stars laid out in the directions I had printed out, from the right side came a grayish smear that was clearly something different. I centered the object in the eyepiece and it caught my breath. I remember the first thing I did once I got it focused was look up at the sky with my naked eye in a kind of disbelief. Was it really there? In the eyepiece was a swarm of thousands of stars so densely packed as to look like bees around the nest. Using averted vision technique I had read about, I was able to make individual stars pop out of the swarm and glitter in the eyepiece. It was an amazing experience – one I will never forget – and I was hooked.
OK, so enough of a stroll down memory lane. Let’s get down to the business of actually finding this object. I told you above we will be using a new guide star, so let’s find Arcturus. To find Arcturus first find Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), as we did in Part 1 of this series. Now, in your mind, trace the arch of the handle of the dipper and extend it until you run into a very bright yellow star. An easy way to remember this is “the arch to Arcturus.” Nnow you can find another important guide star when orienting yourself in the night sky. From here if you look back towards the north from Arcturus you may be able to pick out Cor Caroli, the brightest star in Canes Venatici. Like I said earlier, this is a fairly faint constellation so don’t be disappointed if you can’t see it with the naked eye; you will be able to find it in your binoculars. So, now you have two points to sweep between, and about halfway between these two spots you will find M3.
Once you get this object centered, take your time, breathe deeply, wait for your eyes to become fully dark adapted, and use averted vision to fully enjoy this beautiful object. Wait, what? You don’t know what “averted vision” is? No worries, that will be the topic for our next discussion.
Till then, keep looking up, and clear skies.
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)