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  800 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville, TN 37203

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Star Charts

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October 2017

After Sunset

For much of the year, we use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. However, the Big Dipper is harder to find in the autumn. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude in Tennessee.

Another group of stars can help us find our way. Look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. When the Big Dipper is low to the horizon, Cassiopeia is high in the north. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

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 officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Low in the southwest you may find the constellation Sagittarius and just to its right, the 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 slim crescent Moon near Saturn on September 23. Both Sagittarius and Saturn set early in the evening.

Look high overhead 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.

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.

Skywatchers under exceptionally dark skies on moonless nights may see the Milky Way stretching from Sagittarius through the Summer Triangle, and towards Cassiopeia and the northeast horizon.

Stay Up Late

As midnight approaches, the Big Dipper is near its lowest point, while Cassiopeia is at its highest. Pegasus and Andromeda rise higher, and the Milky Way magnificently stretches overhead. To the east, famous winter constellations Orion the HunterTaurus the Bull, and Gemini the Twins are rising.

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 winter evening sky.

Just before dawn, our autumn constellations are low in the west. Venus is now a “morning star,” rising before the Sun, and can be found just beneath Leo the Lion. Keen-eyed observers might see an extremely close pairing of Venus and much fainter Mars on the morning of October 5. From then on, Venus will rise later and later each morning until it’s lost in the glow of sunrise in November. Venus will reappear as an “evening star” in the spring.

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.

Pegasus the Flying Horse

Pegasus might not look much like a horse, but under dark skies you might see his hockey-stick shaped neck and head, and a faint pair of front legs. As you face south, Pegasus appears to be flying upside-down! You might see another group of stars that looks like his hind legs, but these are actually stars of the constellation Andromeda. Where is the rest of the horse? An ancient story says that he is rising from the sea after his birth.

The constellations Pegasus, Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Cetus all take part in an ancient and complicated mythological tale, and are all seen in the autumn night sky.

Time for a Change

At 2:00 am on Sunday morning, November 5, most of the United States will be asleep as we “fall back” from Daylight Saving to Standard Time. Before you go to bed, don’t forget to set your clocks back one hour. This is also a good time to replace the batteries in your smoke detectors to improve safety in your home.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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