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September 22, 2013

Spaced-Out Challenge: The Fall Sky

The Autumnal Equinox is upon us, as of 4:44pm EST. The warm nights of summer yield to chillier ones as we race towards winter, and as the seasons change, so do the skies above.
Think of this week's edition as a beginner's guide to autumn skies. We will look at the very brightest stars visible from the most light-polluted locales, a few easy-to-spot shapes, and a few starhops to guide you through the dim Celestial Seas that dominate the nights of Fall.
So lets begin!

The Fall Sky: Evenings


Full-screen version of the Fall Evening Guide here

Tip: read through the guide and try your way around paragraph by paragraph. You may be surprised how easy it is to navigate through these dimmer skies.
The brightest, most light-pollution "resistant" stars are labeled on each chart, acting as your guideposts around the unfamiliar sky. The Summer Triangle is still plainly visible, though gradually moving West, yet another harbinger of the winter ahead.
Move your eye from Altair, the southernmost star in the Triangle, towards the large Great Square of bright stars to it's east, but take a moment to enjoy the bright star Enif, Pegasus' nose. The faint constellation Equuleus just a few degrees to its west can be eyeballed from a dark site, but are a challenge from most light-polluted areas. Continuing onwards to the Great Square, we launch ourselves into a great Greek adventure.
Alpheratz, the northeastern most star in the square, actually marks the Head of Andromeda, chained to a rock awaiting nomming by a great Sea Monster (remember that bit). Her back and hind leg are the arcing bright stars Mirach and Almaak, and this bright row of three stars aims directly at her hero, Perseus. Mirfalk and Algol (a variable star) are the most prominent stars in this slayer of Medusa.
Moving your eyeball northwards, you'll meet the vain queen who caused all the mess for her poor daughter, Queen Cassiopeia. To her west, the "children's drawing of a house", her long-suffering husband King Cepheus. Back to vain Cassiopeia, the middle peak of her W aims roughly at Polaris. Continuing roughly the same distance through the North Star, you might catch the Big Dipper skimming across the northern horizon (not included on this image for sizing reasons).
Return to the Great Square. Starting at Scheat (the NW most star in it) and pass through Alpheratz (the NE most) and continue about twice their distance apart, and you'll notice a bright star in a dim arc towards the south: Hamal, the brightest star in the zodiac constellation Aries.
Hamal will serve you well to hop to our next star and large (but overall very dim) constellation. Gaze back north at the middle bright star in the arc of Andromeda, Mirach. Now, direct your eyes back south and east through Hamal and continue south-east, and you will find the semi-bright star Menkar, one of only two +2 magnitude stars in the large constellation Cetus the Whale. Remember the creature eyeing to nom Andromeda? Here he is, in all his dim glory. At the whale's nose is the only other regularly "bright" star in it: Diphada. To it's west and south, the lonely bright star Formalahut.
This region of the sky is dominated by large, dim constellations associated with aquatic life: the Whale, the Fish (Pisces, stretching between Pegasus and Cetus), the Southern Fish (Piscis Austrinus), the Crane, (Grus, for residents of the Southern United States), the Water Bearer (Aquarius), and the Sea Goat (Capricornus). These constellations are readily visible in the countryside but are more elusive for urban astronomers. Still, if you can block out stray light (perhaps by building the excellent light shields mentioned in an earlier edition), you may be surprised to see these denizens of the Celestial Sea.
If you live in the southern U.S., see if you can spot bright Alnair, which pinpoints the breast of the Crane. Odds are, if it is visible, the dimmer constellations to it's north will be a bit easier to tease out, as they will rise higher out of the atmospheric haze of your horizon.
Rising in the East, the first bright members of the Winter Hexagon appear: bright white Capella (of Auriga) more towards the north, and red-orange Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull a bit to Capella's south. About halfway between rising Aldebaran and high-in-the-sky Algol you will notice a small tight cluster of six or seven stars, the Pleiades, one of the finest deep-sky object you can spot with binoculars, light pollution be damned:


image credit:NASA/ESA/AURA/Caltech

Using fewer than two dozen stars, you've already found your way around over a dozen constellations and one beautiful deep sky object. When visiting a dark site, the sheer number of stars may at first leave you lost, but remember your brightest stars from back home. They're still there, still brighter than their "new" companions, and will light your way around.

The Fall Sky: Pre-Dawn

The relatively dim nights of fall brighten considerably just before dawn, as the large, blazing constellations of winter are in full view. There are a lot more stars labeled here, but the more the merrier- it sure beats squinting!


Larger version of the Fall Pre-Dawn Sky here

We immediately notice a large hexagon of bright stars: blazing Sirius, the brightest in the sky, to our south, blue-white Rigel to it's west, red-orange Aldebaran blazes a bit further to Rigel's northwest, bright Capella high overhead to Aldebaran's north, Pollux to Capella's east (Pollux' twin Castor shines just a tad dimmer to it's northwest), and finally bright Procyon finishes the hexagon between Pollux and Sirius. (note: Planet Jupiter this year is hanging out inside Gemini, just south of Pollux, so don't let it trip you up.)
Within the Hexagon lies perhaps the brightest and most recognizable constellation in our skies, the Great Hunter himself, Orion:


image credit: National Geographic

Rigel forms Orion's left knee, Saiph forms his right, blazing red/orange supergiant Betelgeuse forms his right shoulder, Bellatrix, his left, and the stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka form his infamous belt. Dangling between Orion's legs lies his sword, the brightest star of which is i Orionis. You will likely notice a fuzzy patch in his sword: the Great Nebula in Orion.
Every great hunter needs companions, and Orion has his loyal hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor. Canis Minor is the smaller of the two, with just bright Procyon and a dimmer companion due west outlining it. Canis Major is more spectacular: bright Sirius outlines the dog's chest, with a triangular set of 3 dimmer stars to its northeast forming his head. His rump is marked by the bright stars Wezen and Adhara, and his front paw by Mirzam. For residents living in the southern quarter of the CONUS, try to catch bright Canopus skimming your southern horizon due south of Canis Major.
East and north of the Great Hunter, we find the mighty bull Taurus, his red eye Aldebaran blazing furiously, with the nymphs (Pleiades) protected from Orion's ravenous appetite by riding his back. The brighter "horn" star, Alnath, is "shared" with the Charioteer constellation, Auriga. Slightly dimmer star Menkalinan marks the northern border of the Charioteer. This region of the sky is rich in clusters, which we will focus on in a later addition.
The blazing stars Castor and Pollux marks the heads of Gemini the twins. A series of dimmer stars outline their stick figured form, with slightly brighter Alhena marking the easternmost twin's left foot. Between it and Sirius lies the very dim constellation of Monoceros the unicorn.
You'll notice the fall constellations Pegasus and Cassiopeia have drifted to the West, just as our Summer Triangle had earlier in the evening. As Cassiopeia sinks, Ursa Major, with the infamous Big Dipper within, rises again from the northeastern horizon and almost seems to "spill" onto the Winter Hexagon. The brightest six stars of the Dipper: Alkaid, Mizar and Alioth as its handle, and Phad, Perak and Dubhe rounding out the bowl, will move higher overhead as the mornings progress.
Dropping south and skimming the eastern horizon, Leo the Lion has returned with blazing Regulus within his proud breast signaling that even the harsh winter ahead will yield again to a distant spring. Currently, rust-red Mars hangs nearby. South of Regulus, the sole bright star in the large, winding serpent Hydra, Alphard, blazes in solitary, and finishes off our guide to the morning sky for Fall.

Spaced-Out Challenge for the Week: How Dark Are Your Skies?
Any clear, moonless evening this week after sunset, go outside and look straight up. You will spot the familiar Summer Triangle hanging high overhead. The easternmost star, Deneb, marks the tail of the beautiful swan Cygnus. It's core stars make up the familiar "Northern Cross" shape. Shield your eyes from stray lights, let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and about 20 minutes later, start comparing the below chart to what you see:


image credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope

If you can make out the dusty Milky Way, finding all the fainter constellations previously discussed will be no problem. If you can only sight blazing Deneb, you probably live on the Las Vegas Strip or Times Square. How many can you really see? Compare it to the newest Light Pollution Atlas/Google Map just released Friday. You might be shocked how great or poor your skies actually are. Let me know your findings in next week's thread.

The master index with links to the Buyer's Guide, observing under light polluted skies, and all previous Spaced-Out Challenges can be found here. Until next time, clear skies to you and keep looking up!

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posted by CAC at 06:13 PM

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