The family dog and I have been enjoying (or enduring) nightly walks this winter, usually when I get home from an evening meeting or before I go to bed. We live in a curious neighborhood a bit over a mile west of Campustown (the churches and bars and restaurants of the students’ business district). We don’t have true dark skies, but on a good night, and when I remember my glasses, I can see down to nearly fourth magnitude. (An average human can see down to magnitude six in rural skies–that gets you the Milky Way. Yummy.)
Our side street branches south of the old US 30, the “main” street that runs east-west through both the gown and town portions of Ames. There’s lots of glare as I look to the north skies. But less light pollution gazing south.
As you walk on our street, there are two blocks of paved road and houses–we live in this section. Then the pavement disappears and you walk/drive on gravel for a block. Then the houses end on one side of the street and the blacktop reappears. Then the street ends and one choice is a cul-de-sac on the eventual right, for which there is no exit other than the way you came in. Left, the other option, is a paved street with no houses that ends near a utility building of the middle school. When the weather is pleasant, the young miss hoofs it to school along this route. That’s the usual route for the late night walks.
The partial development means we have a number of rabbits in the neighborhood. My wife thinks one colony lives under our shed. She was concerned when we had our heavy snow and cold snap last month, but I’ve seen tracks running from the shed to the side of our house the past two weeks. The dog seems interested in sniffing out these possibilities.
When the dog and I are walking late on clear nights, we’re treated to the classic views of the winter sky: Orion the hunter high and prominent, his two dogs, Taurus the bull, Gemini the twins, and Auriga the charioteer. Each of these constellations has a bright star that forms the asterism known as the Winter Hexagon.
I confess the hexagon isn’t so useful for me. When I was a kid, I could easily identify the six constellations, and city lights where I lived weren’t so bright that the companion stars of the hexagon weren’t identifiable as distinct constellations.
One constellation I missed as a boy is Lepus the Hare. Lepus is faint, but just below the polygon. On hazy nights I can’t see its two brightest stars. But last month on one of those sub-zero nights, I saw four stars in an off-kilter rectangle just south of bright blue Rigel in Orion. In the hexagon depiction above left, you might pick out those stars, plus a few more that make up Lepus. They’re just south of the hunter, straigh down from his belt. Here’s the wikipedia chart:
I didn’t know there was a globular star cluster in Lepus. M79 is pretty faint (magnitude 8.54), and you’ll need magnification aid to see it. Winter nights are not usually conducive to quiet (and non-walking) stargazing with a telescope. But I see an easy way to aim binoculars or a small telescope: take those two brightest Lepus stars and continue south a bit farther than their apparent distance. It should be easy to spot M79 in a decent telescope. Binocs might not get you there. Here’s a big-telescope image of the cluster, 41,000 light years away:
Sort of like a rabbit hole, I’d say.
Last Thursday my dog teased out some elusive scent in the snowbank, as a rabbit stood in some nearby brush. Then it darted away. I looked back to the sky, and it mirrored a man and a dog in a dark empty field. The elusive sky rabbit: one, maybe two stars, were visible. I rubbed my eyes and I wasn’t sure I even saw that one star. It was late at night, and I second-guessed whether or not I even saw a rabbit in the brush to begin with. It’s getting cold, I thought; time to go home.