Cosmic candy wishes on Valentine’s Day

May you be touched by cosmic love on Valentine's Day. Photo illustration: Bob King

Happy’s Valentine’s Day! I hope you’re feeling a cosmic connection with friends, lovers, family and of course the stars. The moon is past last quarter phase and rises well after midnight very near the bright red star Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion. Check it out if you’re up at dawn tomorrow morning.

The moon and Antares tomorrow morning. Maps made with Stellarium

And if you have telescope and want to get in that Valentine’s mood, I heartily recommend looking up the Rosette Nebula in the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. This stunning gas cloud is a pink rose in full bloom complete with anthers (a star cluster at its center) and multiple petals of nebulosity. From a dark sky, you can even see it in binoculars as a packet of stars wrapped in a ball of faint mist.

The beautiful Rosette Nebula and its associated star cluster NGC 2244 at center are a celestial highlight in the constellation Monoceros east of Orion. Credit: Mike Salway

At 5,200 light years from Earth, the Rosette spans 130 light years across. Long time exposure photographs highlight the lovely pink glow of hydrogen gas excited to fluorescence by the cluster of young stars in its core. Scattered throughout the bloom are small dark blobs within which new stars and planets are forming. Like the Orion Nebula, the Rosette is a stellar nursery extraordinaire, where clumps of denser gas within the nebula collapse under the force of gravity to form brand new stars.

Use this map to guide you to the Rosette Nebula and cluster. You can make a triangle with Betelgeuse and Alhena in Gemini or point your scope about one-third the way between Betelgeuse and bright Procyon.

To find the Rosette, start with Orion and use the map above to star-step your way to the east toward Procyon. Look for a bright, rectangular cluster of stars. That’s NGC 2244 in the nebula’s center. The faint, mottled cloudy patches around the cluster form the Rosette. Although visible in binoculars from a dark sky, a 6-inch or larger telescope gives the best view.

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