As I’ve already said, there’s just an allure (at least for me) to pre-dawn stargazing. It’s preternaturally quiet (no conveneint store runs, soyou can pretty much set up along a county road, if you don’t have access to a clearing. No need to keep an eye on the clock. You don’t have to worry about having lost track of the time: when it starts to get light, you pack it in and go home.
But the main reason for me to get out of bed early is those “out of season”constellations (the very same ones that adorn the evening sky, six months later!). If you can discipline yourself, you can catch two entirely different “i-max” shows, evening and morning. If you’re one of those extrememly fortunate observers with a dark site in your back yard, you can wrap up an evening session, drape a grill cover over the telescope, take it inside…get a few hours of sleep, and get right back out to enjoy the pre-dawn parade.
Late September/early October is one of those “sweet” times of the year: Sagittarius and Scorpio are holding court, right after dusk…then mighty Orion and Canis Major rule, just before dawn. It’s truly the best of both worlds (again, late March/early April those two panoramas swap places, evening and morning).
Let’stake a pre-dawn gander at Orion. It’s one of those unmistakable constellations that jumps out at an observer: this winter constellation (meaning it’s well-positioned shortly after dusk, February evenings) is in pretty much the same spot, the wee hours ofthe morning right now. Orion boasts the greatest number of bright stars in any constellation. Three of its stars have proper names:Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel, forming three of the four stars constituting its rectangle. But perhaps the most striking feature of this denizen is the three bright “belt” stars in the center of the hunter.
Look closely at the trio. Do you see a faint hazy patch, just below the left belt star? If you have a telescope, turn it that way. That’s the Orion Nebula, one of only two nebulae visible to the unaided eye (the other being the Lagoon Nebula, alluded to in an earlier post, in the “teapot” constellation of Sagittarius).
The Orion Nebula, or M42, is easily the most breathtaking one in the Northern Hemisphere sky. It is visually striking, incredibly detailed. Of course the larger the telescope, the more detail you’ll see…but this is one for every amateur astronomer. You can spend hours absorbing the intricacies of this gem. It’s a stellar “nursery” of hot, young stars.
If you’ve found one of those pristine dark sites from which to observe, you might notice that the same “gossamer curtain” of Milky Way wends its way through the neighboring constellation, Canis Major (A.K.A. the Big Dog). We’reliterally gazing out at the opposite direction of our host galaxy (the center, again, runs through Sagittarius). Impossible to miss is the very bright star Sirius (also known as the Dog Star). Although this constellation hosts nothing so spectacular as the huge nebula in Orion, it is worth sweeping through with a rich-field telescope, or better still, binoculars. There is a plethora of small globular clusters, open clusters, and interesting asterisms. A large pair mounbted on a lightweight tripod will afford you many hours of observing delight in this region.
Next time we’ll take a look at the types of telescopes available. Aren’t you itching to buy one yet?