Come with me outside these cool, crisp autumn week and watch the stars come out. With the sunsetting around 7pm and darkness gripping the landscape by 8 pm, there is plenty of time in the night to stargaze.
Looking above the southern horizon is a bright star, seemingly all alone. In fact, Fomalhaut is nicknamed the “lonely one” as it is the brightest star in the area, even more so when Jupiter isn’t around. Located in the constellation called The Southern Fish, Fomalhaut has a system of planets circling it, like our Sun.
Looking high overhead from the 6-8 pm hours, you will see there is plenty of summer left in these early autumn nights.
The Milky Way still spans overhead from its center in the south to the edges of its long, spiral arm in the north. And spanning the Milky Way is an “asterism” called the Summer Triangle.
And asterism is a group of stars that form a pattern that is not defined as a constellation. The seven stars of the Big Dipper, no scrapping the northern horizon, are the most famous of all asterisms.
The Summer Triangle is comprised of three bright stars—Deneb in the north, Vega in the middle, and Altair in the south. As the night wears on, these stars move to the west, eventually setting around 11pm to midnight.
Deneb is the tail star of Cygnus the Swan, which looks like a giant cross in the middle of the Milky Way. Vega is blue-white and the brightest of the three, and it is the neck of Lyra the Harp. Four stars in a parallelogram shape make up the mythical lyre. The star Altair is the southernmost of the Summer Triangle, and it is part of a group of stars that make up a smaller cross in the sky.
Directly south at the 7 pm hour is the heart of the Milky Way where Sagittarius the Archer dwells. Its asterism is that of a teapot, complete with spout, top and handle. But you must look quick, as Sagittarius will quickly set below the horizon by 9 pm.
That leaves us to look northward to a favorite stargazing target during the autumn—Cassiopeia the Queen.
Thought of as the Queen of Egypt, Cassiopeia’s throne is made up of the five bright stars making a giant “W” in the night’s northern skies. This is the very tip of one of our Milky Way’s gigantic spiral arms of millions of stars.
Below Cassiopeia is a loose group of stars that make up the Greek hero, Perseus. Scanning a pair of binoculars around this section of the sky will show several star clusters and a plethora of stars that escape our naked eyes.
As the night wears on, we turn our attention back to the east and begin seeing new constellations that have risen higher.
The great winged horse, Pegasus, is flying high, its body denoted by four equally-bright stars making a giant square. The horse is flying upside down, his head to the south and tail to the north.
But that horse’s tail is really the flowing dress of Cassiopeia’s daughter, princess Andromeda, the celebrated “chained maiden” of mythology. Her head is the star Alpheratz, shared with the body of Pegasus. There are two rows of stars that flow off the body of Pegasus making up Andromeda’s dress. Above the second pair of stars is the farthest object seen to the naked eye—the Andromeda Galaxy.
Looking like a hazy, gray patch of light, the Andromeda Galaxy is twice the size of the Full Moon, and it is more than 2 million Light Years away. That means the light we see hitting our eyes tonight left the galaxy more than 2 million years ago.
Using binoculars will help find the Andromeda Galaxy, and only photography reveals the individual starry nature of this huge galaxy that is headed to a crash collision with our Milky Way, maybe a billion years from now.
But don’t worry, even when Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies interact, our night sky will change only a little as stars are so far apart that any humans alive would still see many of the familiar constellations.
And that’s something to ponder as you look at the night sky—that everything is moving at a tremendous speed.
All the stars we see are in our own Milky Way Galaxy, and they are moving at incredible speeds in the range of 30,000 mile per hour. Yet, in the million or so years that humans have been looking up, very little has changed.
These are the same stars that all living people have looked at and wondered about. No one owns the original, the stars are there for you to seize as your own, any clear night, any time. So, go out and investigate on your own, and just maybe you’ll keep looking up.