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February 22, 2010

Some of the most prominent stars in the night blaze across the southern sky on these late winter evenings.

In mid evening, look high in the south for Orion, the hunter. Find Orion's Belt -- a short line of three bright stars. There's a bright orange star to its upper left, and an equally bright blue-white star to its lower right.

The belt points down toward Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. And far to the left of the Belt is Procyon. These stars are the brightest of Canis Major and Canis Minor -- the big and little dogs.

The space between these sparklers is bereft of bright stars. But it contains several interesting deep-sky objects -- objects that are visible only through telescopes.

These objects are part of the constellation Monoceros, the unicorn. You need a dark sky to see its stars, and a great imagination to see them linking up to make a unicorn.

Perhaps the most famous object in Monoceros is the Rosette Nebula, a vast cloud of gas and dust that encircles a cluster of young stars. Through a telescope, the nebula looks like a faint smudge of light. But in long-exposure photographs, it looks like a beautiful orange or pink rose.

Another well-known object is the Cone Nebula -- the outline of cold, dark gas and dust against a background of glowing gas. Like the Rosette, it's best appreciated through photographs. The unicorn closely guards its treasures against prying eyes.

More about the Cone Nebula tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2003, 2009

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