Winter Deep Sky Objects
Many objects we can see in Autumn, will still be with us in Winter, just arriving earlier and setting earlier. Even the Pleiades and other objects are visible early in the evening before the days lengthen. In addition, we now get introduced to new deep sky objects that range from the constellations of Leo, Cancer, Gemini and Monceros.
Orion is a constellation that is rich in interesting deep sky objects and it is present in both the Autumn and Winter night skies. We will start our exploration of the Winter night sky with this constellation.
Orion is visible in Autumn and Winter and we included the Great Orion Nebula in our Autumn roundup. Orion is embedded in a huge molecular cloud or spur attached to one of the Milky Way’s arms and is home to many other interesting objects. These include M78 Casper the Friendly Ghost, the Flame and Horsehead nebulae, the Witches Head Nebula, and Barnard’s loop.
The Flame and Horsehead Nebulae
Image: (c) Terry Tucker AAS
Moving East from Orion we arrive at the constellation of Monoceros home to the Rosette Nebula and the seasonal Christmas Tree cluster.
The Rosette Nebula and Satellite Cluster
Image: (c) Terry Tucker AAS
Assorted star clusters
We could endlessly continue to find nebulae to look at in this area, like the Jellyfish Nebula or the Monkey’s Head nebula in Gemini, or the Seagull nebula near Sirius, but they are difficult to see especially in Bortle 3 or 4 skies, (1 being the best). However, get relatively low power binoculars and some wonderful star clusters come into view.
Below is another screen shot from Stellarium. Notice that the thinning Milky Way passes through this area, but if you can actually see it you have exceptional skies, and it makes it easier to see all of these clusters, marked as rings of yellow beads.
In Winter the rotating star field allows us to view through the edge of the Milky Way. In this area of the sky we begin to see lots of clusters of stars.
It is not possible to list them all here, but M44, known as the Beehive Cluster, in the centre of Cancer is one of the standout ones. It seems just like a bunch of insects buzzing around a central point. It is also a cluster where it is easier to pick out colours of stars visually with optical enhancement.
The Shoe Buckle Cluster in Gemini has the Jellyfish and Monkey’s head nebulae nearby.
Many of the brighter clusters already mentioned are shown here, as well as many more of medium brightness worth investigating. All are easily visible with binoculars, or even photographed with a few second exposures with ISOs of 400 and above, or using a low light/night/dusk setting on a mobile phone.
Also modern mobile phones are becoming more able to capture the objects we mentioned in groups of 2 or 3, especially the clusters, which litter the sky here.
It is worth experimenting with a firm support and different focal lengths and exposure times to get the best views of clusters or groups of clusters. Most problems with seeing or imaging clusters is down to a lack of transparency, caused by thin cloud, high atmospheric winds or light pollution.