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  800 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville, TN 37203

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September 2017

After Sunset

Look low in the northwest for the Big Dipper. As famous as the Dipper is, it’s not always easily visible from our latitude in Tennessee. In the spring and summer, the Dipper is easy to find shortly after sunset. As we approach autumn, it gradually appears lower to the northern horizon.

The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. The Big Dipper is a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially known to observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bear is the official constellation here, but you’ll need to stay up late and find dark skies to see it all.

Use the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is also officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

As the Big Dipper appears lower in the northwestern sky night by night, Cassiopeia the Queen appears higher in the northeast. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

Look for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Despite the name, the Summer Triangle stars are a great sight for autumn skies and may be the first stars you’ll see as the sky begins to darken. The three stars are part of three separate constellations: Cygnus the SwanAquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp. The Summer Triangle is so named because it’s up all night during the summer, from sunset to sunrise. In the autumn, it’s already high overhead by sunset, and will be lower in the west by midnight.

Low in the southwest you may find the bright red star Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion, and just above it the even brighter planet Saturn. A backyard telescope will easily reveal the rings of Saturn, but binoculars will only show the planet as looking slightly oval in shape. Look for a crescent Moon next to Saturn on September 26.

Under very dark skies, look for the Milky Way stretching from Scorpius through the Summer Triangle, Cassiopeia and on toward the northeast horizon.

Look to the east to for Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess. Under dark skies, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Try binoculars if you can’t see it with your unaided eyes. That faint smudge in the sky is a massive galaxy composed of hundreds of billions of stars, two million light years away from us.

Stay Up Late

As midnight approaches, the Big Dipper plunges towards the northern horizon and Cassiopeia rises higher. Pegasus and Andromeda rise higher, and the Milky Way magnificently stretches overhead.

A lone bright star shines low in the south. Fomalhaut lies in the constellation Piscis Austrinis the Southern Fish. Scientific studies of Fomalhaut show it to be surrounded by a disk of debris left over from the star’s formation - debris that may lead to planet formation. The star made headlines in 2008 when a massive planet was discovered orbiting the star, but more recent observations cast doubt on whether the object really is a planet. It may instead be a neutron star much further away, unassociated with the Fomalhaut system. Expect astronomers to continue studying this star very closely!

A Look Ahead

As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the early winter evening sky.

Just before dawn, our autumn constellations are low in the west.Winter constellation Orion the HunterTaurus the Bull, and Gemini the Twins are easily found in the east. Venus is now rising well before the Sun, and can be found just above the bright star Regulus, in Leo the Lion.

If you like a challenge, find an extremely clear horizon to the east without trees, buildings, hills, or other obstacles in the way. You might catch a close conjunction of Mars and Mercury in the early mornings between the 15th and 17th of September. Look just below Venus. This pair of planets rises about 5:15 am, and the sky will begin to brighten before 6 am, so you won’t have a lot of time to look. Over the next few days, Mercury will dip back into the Sun’s glare, but Mars will rise earlier each morning, becoming easier to spot.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be, and help you plan your observing.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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