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Star Charts

October 2019

 

DOWNLOADABLE STAR CHART

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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.

In the southwest is the bright planet Jupiter. If you have binoculars, you may be able to see the giant planet’s four largest moons. Watch Jupiter’s moons over several nights to watch them orbit around their parent planet. If you have trouble steadying your binoculars on Jupiter, try leaning them up against the side of a building or another steady surface.

A small telescope not only shows the moons of Jupiter, but also its cloud bands. Jupiter has stripes! Look for the Moon next to Jupiter on October 3. Jupiter sets below the horizon by 10pm early in the month, and by 8:30pm as November begins.

You’ll also be able to see Saturn in the south near Sagittarius the Archer. The Moon appears near Saturn on October 5.

Look high in the south for the three stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Each of these stars is part of its own constellation. The constellations Cygnus the SwanAquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp are more easily seen under dark skies.

Rising in the west is the asterism called the Great Square of Pegasus. Three of these four stars are part of autumn constellation Pegasus the Flying Horse. The remaining star marks the head of Andromeda the Princess.

A Look Ahead

As 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 night sky.

In the hours before dawn, the Summer Triangle is high the west. Scorpius and Jupiter have set. Autumn constellations such as Pegasus and Andromeda are high in the west. A host of bright winter constellations has risen, centered around Orion the Hunter.

Compare the locations of the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia from where you saw them in the early evening. These two star pictures stay on opposite sides of Polaris so that as one is high in the sky, the other dips low to the northern horizon. If you’d been out around midnight, portions of the Big Dipper would be below the horizon, but Cassiopeia would have been high up and easy to find.

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

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights. You can begin by looking for the fainter stars of the season’s constellations. Pegasus, Andromeda, and the three constellations of the Summer Triangle all become easier to explore.

Early autumn evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from Sagittarius through the Summer Triangle and on towards Cassiopeia in the northeast. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

Near Andromeda, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. This massive spiral galaxy is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, but to find it it requires crisp, dark skies and a little patience. Binoculars or a small telescope can improve the view, but don’t expect to see more than a faint, fuzzy, oval blob. If you don’t feel impressed, just remind yourself you’re looking at the collected light of possibly one trillion stars, all at a distance of 2 million light years away. Now that’s impressive!

The Ring Nebula, or M-57, is a faint, round patch of light in Lyra. Not visible to the unaided eye, M-57 is called a planetary nebula. This somewhat misleading name refers to the fact that in a telescope, planetary nebulae can look round, like a planet. A planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gas expelled from a star near the end of its life. Our own Sun may form a similar nebula when it runs out of fuel billions of years in the future.

Don’t have a telescope? Don’t know where to find dark skies? The next free public star party hosted by the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society is scheduled for Friday, October 4 from 7:30 to 9:30 at Bells Bend Outdoor Center. Come observe the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy and more, through telescopes provided by BSAS members.

Visit the BSAS web site at bsasnashville.com for details. If the weather is bad, the star party will be canceled. Make sure to check their web site for updates before making the trip to a star party, especially if the weather is iffy. On the BSAS web site you’ll also find driving directions and a list of future events.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
615-862-5160
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