Autumn Stargazing is Underway!
Get out and enjoy the absolute beauty of the autumn night sky! We’re entering the prime time of stargazing season. The nights are longer and with less humidity and the skies are generally more transparent. Dress warm and find out how awesome it is to lie back on a lawn chair and take in the show. The dark skies of the countryside are best, but it’s even a great show if you have to put up with light pollution, unless it's way out of hand.
Just about all summer long we’ve had three bright planets dominate the low southern sky; Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Unfortunately all three
planets are dimming as they’re moving farther and farther away from the Earth. Of course the Earth’s orbit also plays into this as well. If you want check out with a telescope Jupiter do it as soon as you can, even before the end evening twilight because it sets in the western horizon shortly after the end of evening twilight. It’ll be fuzzy image though since it’s so close to the horizon. Saturn and Mars are a little more appealing through telescopes. You should be able to make out the ring system of Saturn and some dark blotches on Mars which are part of its extensive valleys. Both planets will also be a little fuzzy because they’re also pretty close to the horizon.
Even though have left us many stars of summer hanging on in the western sky after evening twilight. You can still easily see the Summer Triangle high above the western horizon with the three bright stars from three separate constellations. The brightest shiner is Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. In second place for brilliance is Altair in Aquila the Eagle. The third brightest nuclear fusion furnace is Deneb in another bird constellation, Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus is also known by a lot of stargazers as the “Northern Cross”, because at first glance that’s what it really looks like. Deneb is at the top of the cross and below you can see three dimmer stars that make up the crosspiece of the cross. Roll your eyes a little ways below the crosspiece and look for an equally bright star at the foot of the cross. That's Albireo.
You definitely want to check out Albireo with binoculars or a small telescope. You'll like what you see here. Albireo is actually a double star. One star is gold and the other is blue and you can really see these colors. The two stars look like they are right next to each other but they’re thought by many astronomers to be separated by about light-year, the equivalent of about six trillion miles. Most astronomers don't know for sure but Albireo may be a binary system. The two stars may be orbiting each other in a period of around 100,000 years.
The Big Dipper is upright and riding low in the northwestern sky. In fact, it’s getting so low that it’s hard to see if you have a high tree line. The Big Dipper is the most famous star pattern there is, but it’s technically not a constellation. The Big Dipper is actually the rear end and the tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. It’s also the brightest part of the Big Bear.
One of the pieces of star lore that I love involves the Big Bear and the nearby constellation Bootes, the hunting farmer. By this time of the year Bootes is only partially visible above the northwest horizon, but this farmer Bootes has been hunting down the Big Bear all summer long. He’s finally laid some pretty good shots into the beast and that’s why it’s falling so low in our sky. The Big Bear is bleeding and as the blood falls on the trees and bushes it causes them to turn red. Forget about the leaves losing their chlorophyll. This is how we actually get our fall colors...wink-wink, nod-nod.
Over in the eastern skies is the grand constellation Pegasus, the winged horse. Look for a giant diamond of stars on the rise in the east. Just to the upper left of Pegasus is the Andromeda Galaxy, the next door neighbor to our Milky Way, nearly 2.5 million light years away, with just one light year spanning nearly six trillion miles!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org