Leaping across the Milky Way between the two dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor is Monoceros, the unicorn. It is a true ghost of a figure, composed entirely of stars dimmer than fourth magnitude, and you will need the darkest of nights to trace its faint outline. Monoceros is a relatively modern constellation, added in 1612 to fill in the large space between Orion's two hunting dogs.
None of the stars in Monoceros are bright enough to warrant names, but straddling the rich star fields of the Milky way as it does, the constellation is full of beautiful star clusters, and spectacular nebulae.
By the nose of the unicorn resides one of the most beautiful nebulae in the sky, NGC 2237, the Rosette Nebula. Like the Great Orion Nebula (M42) right next door in Orion, the Rosette Nebula is a birthplace of stars. It is a vast emission nebula, an immense cloud of gas and dust over 100 light years across, 5000 light years away. NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, orbiting 86,500 miles (139,000 km) above us, captured the stunning image below, showing the nebula in all its glory. The star cluster in the center of the nebula is NGC 2244.
By the tip of the Unicorn's horn is another emission nebula, NGC 2264, which contains both the Christmas Tree Cluster, and the Cone Nebula. In the photo below, captured by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, the Cone Nebula rises up from the bottom left of the image, with the inverted Christmas Tree is just above it. The star near the tip of the Cone Nebula is the top of the tree, and the blazing star at the very top center of the image is the base of the tree.
In 2002, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbiting 353 miles (569 km) above us, gave us an extraordinary close-up look at the Cone Nebula.
A very distant red supergiant star named V838 Mon emitted a mysterious, powerful flash of light in 2002. The light illuminated the dust surrounding the star to produce what scientists call a light echo, captured in stunning detail by the Hubble Space Telescope below.
There have been no less than fifteen stars with planetary systems discovered so far in Monoceros, but unfortunately none of these stars is bright enough to see with your naked eye. One star, however, even though its magnitude of 11.7 puts it well out of visual reach without a telescope, deserves very special attention. It is the first star known to have a solid rocky planet approximately the same size as Earth in orbit around it. This is the first definitive proof that there are extrasolar planets similar to Earth, and a giant leap forward in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The reason this relatively small planet was discovered was because it just happens to transit (pass directly in front of) its parent star, allowing much to be learned about it from the spectroscopic changes it causes in the star's light. The star hosting this Earth-like planet is only slightly smaller and cooler than our Sun. It used to be called TYC 4799-1733-1 but was renamed Corot 7 after the space telescope that discovered the planet. The planet is named Corot 7-b.
For more information, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COROT-7b.
|Winter: Orion Canis Major Canis Minor Monoceros Lepus Eridanus Taurus Auriga Camelopardalis Lynx Gemini Cancer|
|Spring: Hydra Sextans Crater Corvus Leo Leo Minor Ursa Major Ursa Minor Canes Venatici Coma Berenices Virgo Bootes|
|Summer: Draco Corona Borealis Hercules Ophiuchus Serpens Libra Scorpius Sagittarius Scutum Aquila Sagitta Vulpecula Lyra Cygnus|
|Autumn: Andromeda Perseus Pegasus Cassiopeia Cephus Cetus Lacerta Delphinus Equuleus Capricornus Aquarius Pisces Aries Triangulum|
|Southern Skies: Centaurus Crux Lupus Corona Australis Piscis Australis Sculptor Tucana Fornax Dorado Columba Puppis Carina Vela|