David Levy's Skyward for January 2022

Imagination and the Astronomical League.

“A Dragon Lives forever, but not so girls and boys.”

Three quarters of a century ago, during the Second World War, the famous Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, along with Charles Federer, founding editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine, launched an association of astronomy clubs across the United States.  It is called the Astronomical League, and it thrives to this day with more than 100 astronomy clubs.  Unlike the national Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the League is designed to be a more loosely structured organization.  According to Carroll Lorg, its current president, one of its most critical and central goals is to inspire the next generation to enjoy the night sky. If that goal should fail, the possibility exists that there may be no Astronomy for future generations.

As part of this vital goal, the Junior Astronomical League, a new subset of the Astronomical League, is now meeting every second Sunday over zoom.  But there is something more.  My next book will be devoted to those young stargazers.  It actually began as a typewritten saga I wrote in 1958 when I was ten years old, and of all the 40 plus books I have written, this is Wendee’s favorite.   I am now completing a second edition of this book, in which a small group of children go on a stargazing adventure with Clipper, a magic beagle, and with Eureka, an enchanted reflector telescope.  They go past the Moon and planets, the stars, the distant superclusters of galaxies, and even the great voids in distant empty space.

In its final chapter, this book explores the theme articulated in the last verse of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s eminent song “Puff.”   ”A dragon lives forever, but not so girls and boys.”  The children, now grown, go to university.  When they complete their college education, the young woman, adept at math and physics, becomes an astronomer, but the young man goes on to become a lawyer.  He marries, has children who are now grown themselves, and unhappily gets a divorce.  To recover he decides to take a vacation trip to Arizona. Driving his rented car one evening, he pulls off the road, gets out of his car, and looks at the stars. As childhood memories flood back, a second car pulls off.  The young woman astronomer gets out of her car.  The two cannot believe they are reuniting, and they catch up for hours.  Then there is a break in their conversation.  As the couple looks up silently at the stars, the magic beagle, and the telescope, appear and take shape.  In that one ultimate celestial adventure, the  magic of the night has returned.


Observers' Challenge – January 2022

by Glenn Chaple

NGC 1501 – Planetary Nebula in Camelopardalis  (Magnitude 11.5, Size 52”)

            There are two major reasons why this month’s Observer’s Challenge, the planetary nebula NGC 1501, is largely unobserved. First of all, it’s located in the extremely faint circumpolar constellation Camelopardalis. Star-hoppers will have a rough time navigating around a constellation that lacks stars brighter than 4th magnitude. A second reason has to do with its published magnitude- 13.0 in a number of web sources and observing handbooks. That’s faint enough to scare away anyone observing with a small-aperture scope! But 13.0 is its photographic magnitude. Its visual magnitude is a more accomodating 11.5.

Although NGC 1501 can be viewed with small-aperture scopes under dark-sky conditions, its mottled appearance requires larger instruments. The 14.5-magnitude central star will challenge an 8-inch telescope. Embedded in the surrounding nebulosity like a pearl in a shell, it gives NGC 1501 its nick-name, the Oyster Nebula.

If you own a GoTo scope, you can get to the Oyster by punching in its 2000.0 celestial coordinates: RA 04h 06m 59.4s, DEC +60° 55’ 14.4”. Star-hoppers can begin at nearby Kemble’s Cascade- a remarkable asterism consisting of a 2½ degree-long near-straight chain of some 20 magnitude 7 to 10 stars punctuated near the middle by a 5th magnitude star.

To find the Cascade, make a low-power (25-30X) search of the area marked by a line drawn from beta (β) to epsilon (ε) Cassiopeiae and extended an equal distance beyond (refer to finder Chart A). Once you’ve found it, keep the low power eyepiece in place and take a moment to admire this stunning stellar arrangement. At its southernmost end, you’ll spot a tiny sprinkling of stars. This is the open cluster NGC 1502. A switch to a higher magnification (60-75X will reveal several dozen stars of 9th magnitude and fainter surrounding a pretty double star (Struve 485, magnitudes 6.9 and 6.9, separation 18 arc-seconds).

If you had gone directly to NGC 1502 via GoTo technology, you would have missed an amazing asterism, a neat little star cluster, and an attractive double star. Your final leg of the star-hop takes you 1.4 degrees south of NGC 1502 (refer to Chart B). Once the Oyster comes into view, you’ll want to switch to the highest magnification your telescope and the seeing conditions will allow.

My first encounter with NGC 1501 was via a 3-inch f/10 reflector (Edmund Scientific’s Space Conqueror) on the evening of February 2, 1986. According to the notes I wrote in my logbook it was “very faint, but definitely seen. Visible at 60X.” A sketch made with 120X shows the roundish form I saw. I was surprised to see this planetary at all, as my source gave a magnitude of 13.3, and I estimated it to be more like 11.0.

NGC 1501 was discovered by William Herschel on August 27, 1787. Its estimated distance is around 5000 light years, which translates to an actual dimension of 1.3 light years.         

The purpose of the Observer’s Challenge is to encourage the pursuit of visual observing. It is open to anyone who is interested. If you’d like to contribute notes, drawings, or photographs, we’d be happy to include them in our monthly summary. Submit your observing notes, sketches, and/or images to Roger Ivester (rogerivester@me.com). To find out more about the Observer’s Challenge, log on to rogerivester.com/category/observers-challenge-reports-complete,

David Levy's Skyward for December 2021

David H. Levy

Daffy Duck

Agreed, this seems like an awfully daffy title for an astronomy article. But there is method to the madness, and there is a story.  During the late summer of 2019 there was a star party in southeast Arizona that featured a dark sky and five perfect back-to-back nights  As I spent hour after hour hunting for comets, I came across the sprawling North America Nebula in the northern sky constellation of Cygnus the swan. But this time something different appeared. It was a strange structure, the outline of a dark nebula bordered by a slightly brighter cloud.  The whole feature was rather subtle, so that sometimes it was there, and then it faded so that sometimes it wasn’t. I spent some time trying to determine a name for it. It looked like the head of a duck.  I couldn’t call it the wild duck nebula, as there is a cluster with that name.  And Donald Duck is a bit confusing. So how about calling it the Daffy Duck nebula?  

Thus, the structure is named after Daffy Duck. It is No. 403 in my catalog of interesting things found during my more than 56 years of comet hunting. I believe it is a small dark construction at the northern tip of the North America Nebula, about where Hudson Bay is not accurately located.  It could have been where the Gulf of Mexico is, but that area is virtually impossible to spot visually, even under a dark sky.  Like the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, it is very difficult to spot and it is best viewed only in a photograph.  The accompanying picture shows it at its top, a little to the left of center.  The accompanying photograph was taken using the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are more than four hundred other celestial objects that have come my way over the years.  Beginning with NGC 1931 which I spotted in January 1966, many of these are already well-known deep sky objects in the night.  But a few are interesting groupings of stars, called asterisms, that no one has pointed out before.  One of my favorites is a structure of faint stars I call “Wendee’s Ring.”

These always welcome objects in the sky are fun to observe and they enhance my enjoyment of my hours under the stars.  When I can see Daffy Duck, it reminds me of the happy hours I spent as a child at Beaver Lake, an artificial pond near the top of Mt. Royal in Montreal, that hosts dozens of mallard ducks. On clear, moonless nights now, I offer a cosmic hello to Daffy Duck and the many objects in the night sky I have come to treasure as good friends.

David Levy's Skyward for November 2021

David H. Levy

Galaxies, just for the sake of argument

A few weeks ago, I received a message from Cameron Gillis, an amateur astronomer who wrote that he liked galaxies.  Just for fun, I decided to take the opposite approach, a philosophical reversal.  If he likes galaxies, then I hate them.  As we prepared for our meeting I began to explain the various reasons why I hate them.  When, for example, I am observing with a telescope and the Andromeda galaxy enters my field of view, I quickly leave the telescope and ride my bicycle to the end of our driveway and back.    The more I stretch the story the greater the laughter becomes.  I especially get annoyed by the dark Hydrogen-II regions that stretch across  its hideous girth.  The cluster of galaxies in the Virgo cluster, particularly Messiers 84 and 86, are so bland that I sometimes have to leave the telescope altogether!    

The worst galaxy is our own. When I look up at the evening sky, the Milky Way obstructs my view as it straddles the night from Cassiopeia all the way down to Sagittarius. The stars are so thick that I can hardly see black sky between them.  Except of course, when I come across Baade’s window.  This area of sky  rattles me because there,  some darkness appears.  Discovered by Walter Baade, this window allows us to see almost to the center of our galaxy.  It is an awful sight. The majesty of the night is nowhere more apparent than when I am viewing the center of our galaxy, in Scorpius and in Sagittarius, through my telescope.  It is wondrous. So wondrous that I still hate it. Because it wastes my time when I am mesmerized by it, the emotion of viewing the galaxy from my backyard is so strong that it strengthens my heart and pierces my soul.

The worst part of seeing our own galaxy on a clear autumn night is that the dark lanes of hydrogen dust straddle its length. Dark areas are called giant molecular clouds. They are not lit by nearby stars; they just are there.  In the far distant future, they will generate new systems of stars and planets like our Earth.  They are called giant molecular clouds or Hydrogen  (H II) regions.

In distant external galaxies, dark clouds like these can straddle their whole length. The Andromeda galaxy has several of these H II regions that one can observe through a small telescope if one looks carefully enough.

Deep in the southern sky, but still visible from most of North America, lies Caroline Herschel’s galaxy.  It is No. 253 in the NGC, the New General Catalogue.  Under a bright sky it is hardly anything, but from a dark site it resembles a long resting caterpillar. It has a most prominent dark hydrogen lane running across its length.

Along with  globular star clusters, those round conglomerations of hundreds of thousands of stars that orbit the outskirts of galaxies, including our own, galaxies are the oldest structures in  the Universe. The oldest ones started to build within half a million years of the Big Bang, when the Universe was in its infancy.

So much for hating galaxies. When I say that I hate them, I write merely for the sake of argument and humor.  Galaxies are almost like people, each one different, each one with its special characteristics. One way of looking at them is to compare their gigantic sizes with our puny selves. But there is another way.  Small as we may be, each of us is unique. Galaxies are huge, but aside from their differing shapes, they are still much alike. But in all this Universe, among all these galaxies, there is just one, only one, of each of us.  Our ideas, our personalities, are precious.


August 13 GAAC Meeting Program Note

Observing the universe relies to a great degree on our ability to model starlight, and thereby predict underlying stellar properties, such as mass and chemical composition.

At our 8:00 pm, Friday August 13 GAAC meeting, Center for Astrophysics Dr. Seth Gossage will continue the thread begun by our July speaker, Dr. Ioana Zelko, asking how we can know what we are looking at. What can the light we detect tell us about the object, so very far away, that produced it?

Light can reveal more about a star than just stellar mass and chemistry. Dr. Gossage will also, and in particular, review next generation stellar models built to explore the effects of stellar rotation. Stars spin, and this is also a fundamental stellar property (alongside mass and chemical composition), which helps determine the evolutionary course of a star, and its light output for the entirety of its lifetime.

Our August 13 meeting will be held again at our old home, the Lanesville Community Center at 8 Vulcan Street in Lanesville. We hope you can be there in person. For those who can not make it, the meeting will also be streamed on the GAAC Facebook page.

GAAC at the Lanesville Community Center, Friday July 9, 8:00 pm

GAAC will return to in-person meetings at the Lanesville Community Center on July 9. There's great ventilation at the LCC, and we're confident that the timing is right. Come and spend a summer evening with all your old astronomy friends, make some new ones, and catch a terrific presentation. It will be great to see everyone again. There will be pie.

Our guest speaker on the 9th will be Ioana Alexandra Zelko, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on a question you may well have considered yourself: how is what we see affected by what we're looking through? Her talk is titled "Dust and the CMB Spectral Distortions Measurements."

Here's what it's about. Over the past 30 years, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) has profoundly influenced our understanding of the history of our universe, and ushered in an era of precision cosmology. The spectral distortions of the CMB can reveal a lot about exotic physics in the early universe, but we're still not sure how foreground dust is affecting our measurements, or the new physics that the CMB is generating.

We need to know what we're looking through. The proposed PIXIE mission, for Primordial Inflation Explorer, would detect and characterize the signature of primordial inflation, and would, of necessity, distinguish cosmological signals from nearer astrophysical foregrounds based on their different frequency spectra. Ioana will discuss her work on foreground dust and the CMB, and take us through current and future research on the topic.

Skyward for August 2021

David Levy's Skyward: Faint Fuzzies


The night before last, a comet named Palomar (actually known as C (for comet)/ 2020 T2 Palomar) was gliding near one of the most beautiful clusters of stars in the entire sky.   It was parading about at about magnitude 11, which means that for my oldish eyes, it would be too faint to see.  In fact, just a few weeks ago I spotted a second comet, named ATLAS.  That comet, at ninth magnitude, was so diffuse that I barely spotted it. So I was not going to try for this other comet.

However, this other comet was named Palomar after one of my favorite observatories!  The mighty 200-inch telescope was opened in 1948, just a couple of weeks before I was born, and the big telescope has been sighting stars for more than 70 years. In 1994, I was allowed to sit in the prime focus cage, that beautiful place where light from what the telescope is seeing comes to a perfect focus.  So sighting a comet with that hallowed name would be special.  

The comet was discovered by Dmitry A. Duev on images taken using Palomar’s Oschin Schmidt telescope last October.   As the comet was brightening slowly, I  learned that on Friday evening, May 14, the comet was planning to glide past Messier 3, one of the brightest globular star clusters in the whole sky.

That was just too much to resist.   Clusters of stars are scattered all over the sky, and our own galaxy has more than a hundred of them.  Globular clusters consist of hundreds of thousands of stars.   Messier 3 was discovered by Charles Messier, the famous Parisian discoverer of comets; it consists of some half a million stars and is more than 32,000 light years away.  At about 11.4 billion years old, it is also one of the oldest things in the universe.

With the onset of darkness that Friday evening, I set up my telescope in my backyard observatory and pointed it toward Messier 3.  The exquisite star cluster made its appearance. Then I nudged the telescope just a little bit to a nearby field of stars.   Suddenly I spotted  a faint fuzzy spot precisely where Comet Palomar was supposed to be. As I looked around, a meteor scratched the sky to the north.  It was a bright and unusual member of the May Ophiuchid meteor shower, a bonus on this unforgettable night.

Comet Palomar is the 219th comet I have seen during my lifetime.    Most of these comets have also been faint, barely visible spots of haze.  But some have been wondrous.  My first comet, Ikeya-Seki, was the great comet of 1965.  Whether a comet is a faint fuzzy of a magnificent comet with a long tail, they are always welcome visitors to the Earth’s region of the solar system, each one signing, as comet finder Leslie Peltier loved to write, “its sweeping flourish in the guest book of the Sun.”

Photo Credit: David H. Levy. This is the dome for the 18-inch telescope, which Gene and Carolkyn Shoemaker and I used to  discover tall of the Shoemaker-Levy comets, including the one that collided with Jupiter in 1994. 

Skyward for January 2021

A Great Conjunction, and the Christmas Star

By David H. Levy.

Said the night wind to the little lamb:
"Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite"

                   Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, 1962

 In the words of this beautiful Christmas carol,written during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, we are reminded of Christmas, the biblical Book of Matthew, and the Star of Bethlehem.  Famous as it is, this story appears but once in the Gospel according to Matthew::

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,

 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”

 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 

When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy;  and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

For more than two thousand years, people have tried to attach some astronomical meaning to the star.  From books and planetarium shows, I have gathered several; possible interpretations:

  1. The star was Halley’s comet.  Unlikely, because Halley’s comet returned in October of the year 11 BCE.
  2. An exploding star; a nova or a supernova.  Although we have no evidence of such an event in those years, there could have been one. 
  3. A planetary conjunction. The Moon did pass close to Venus in the eastern sky (the location in the east appears twice in the biblical account).  My personal favorite is a conjunction between Jupiter and Venus, on June 17, 2 BCE.  However, 4this conjunction happened after the death of King Herod in 4 BCE, and it would have led the Magi in the wrong direction.

However, there was a Great Conjunction in 6 BCE. (Great conjunctions involve only Jupiter and Saturn and take place roughly every twenty years.)  A subset of this series involved the Moon passing close to Jupiter on April 17,  6 BCE.  True to the biblical account, Jupiter was in the east over Israel at this time, and King Herod was still living.

One thing I like about the planetary conjunction theory is that astrologers in those ancient days4, more than the general population, paid attention  to these events.  One possible translation of “wise men” is “astrologers”, people versed in how the stars and planets influence humanity.  They would have paid attention to planetary conjunctions more than the general population.

  1. It could have been a miracle.  In my own life, I consider every night out under the stars as a miracle, so why not?

Whatever the Christmas star was,  we got to see it again as a ”Great Conjunction” on Monday, December 21st.  It is the closest that Jupiter and Saturn have been close to each other since 1623, that long-ago year that also saw the first publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.  On that day in 1623, the conjunction took placed in daylight, so no one would have paid attention to it.  But the one in 2020 was visible in the early evening!  Therefore, millions of people were definitely paying attention to it, and it reminds us of the Star of Bethlehem.  Whatever it was, we shall never know.  But for those of us who were able to gaze in wonder at this fabulous event, it acted to increase the nightly miracle of the magnificent sky.

         Even in our postmodern age, the chance close alignment of the sdolar system’s two biggest planets is not a big scientific event.  However, it is a big astrological happening.  While no true scientist follows astrology these days, two thousand years ago the night sky was all about astrology.  And were it not for ancient astrology, we would not enjoy today’s comprehension of the night sky.  Even in 1623, the last time Jupiter and Saturn were this close, most people were more interested in astrology.   I quote from Shakespeare, who was did not follow judicial in astrology.  The two opening lines of Sonnet 14 state clearly that

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck,

And yet methinks I have astronomy…

I believe that Shakespeare used astrology a lot in his plays because he knew his audience followed it.  And now at the close of 2020, we have that rare opportunity to reflect on an astrological event, the joining together of two planets, a simple event that helps us to go outside, look towards the southwest, and revel in the beauty of  the night sky.

Photo Credit: Dr. Tim Hunter