February 2017
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sky Tonight—January 22, Faint, fuzzy object near Sirius is a star cluster

Courtesy of EarthSky
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A reader wrote, “On November 4, I went to study the constellation Orion, but first I had to see the star Sirius and there was a glimmer below Sirius and upon looking, it seemed to be a very nice comet. Has anyone else seen this? I am a newby … (and) would like someone to verify if they see this. I am quite up and excited.”

It was not a comet, but very likely was a lovely star cluster called M41. So, the identification with a comet was wrong, but it is a reasonable mistake. The nuclei of comets look like fuzzy patches, much like M41 in a small telescope.

The confusion with a comet and this cluster is not a new one. In the late 1700s, Charles Messier gave this object the number 41 on his list of “objects to avoid.” He was a comet hunter who wanted others to realize that this object, which looks like a comet, really is not.

There are over 100 of the so-called ‘Messier objects’ or “M-objects” known today. Today’s amateur astronomers consider them among the most prized objects to be viewed through binoculars and small telescopes. Here is a list of M-objects. Advanced amateurs can observe them all, and can earn a Messier certificate from the Astronomical League.

Throughout the winter season, look for this faint fuzzy object near the bright star Sirius – M41 – a star cluster masquerading as a comet.

Written by Larry Sessions

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