Star Charts

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Star Charts

September 2020

After Sunset

As skies begin to darken after sunset, look high overhead for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. These may be the first stars you see. Each of these stars is part of its own constellation. Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp are more easily seen under dark skies.

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. It’s a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially used by 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 dark skies to see its fainter stars.

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.

Rising in the east is planet Mars, looking very bright as it nears opposition in mid-October. A planet is at opposition when it’s opposite the Sun in our sky. That also means that the planet is making its closest approach to Earth. Mars will look bright, and a little bigger than usual in telescopes. It’s also the reason we’ve seen spacecraft from three different countires all lift off to Mars this summer - the trip is relatively short right now!

In the south are two bright planets, Jupiter and Saturn. If you have binoculars, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Watch them 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!

Saturn is just to the left of Jupiter. At best, binoculars will show Saturn as appearing slightly oval in shape. A small telescope reveals the reason: those beautiful rings.

Look for the Moon next to Jupiter on September 24th and next to Saturn on the 25th.

Both Jupiter and Saturn are just above the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, which looks a lot more like a teapot to modern eyes.

As Earth and the other planets orbit around the Sun, the planets we see appear to move across the constellations over time. Some planets, like Mercury, Venus, and Mars, move relatively quickly. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, being further from the Sun, move far more slowly. These two planets will now be in our early evening sky through the rest of the year, and we have a great opportunity to track their motions. They will appear to grow closer to each other over the next several months, and by mid-December, they will appear extemely close together, from our vantage here on Earth. Their closest approach will be on December 21, and you’ll be able to go out in the early evening to catch this incredible sight.

Early Morning

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 autumn night sky.

In the hours before dawn, Scorpius, Jupiter, and Saturn have already set. Meanwhile, autumn constellations such as Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess are high in the west. Mars is now high in the southwest, in Pisces the Fish. Winter constellations Orion the Hunter and Taurus the Bull are high in the southeast.

Trying to find Polaris in the morning? You’ll have a challenge on your hands if you look first for the Big Dipper — it and the rest of Ursa Major are now hiding near or below the northern horizon. Instead, locate W-shaped Cassiopeia high in the sky. The central peak of the W forms an arrow that points you in the direction of Polaris.

Just before dawn look for brilliant “morning star” Venus. Its bright clouds reflect sunlight to our eyes making it stand out even as the sky begins to brighten at dawn. Look for a thin crescent Moon near Venus on the morning of September 14.

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.

Late summer 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.

As you look towards Sagittarius and its neighbor Scorpius the Scorpion, you are looking in the direction of the dense center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scan with binoculars or a telescope in this area to find many faint star clusters and nebulae throughout this part of the sky.

Look high in the west for the constellation Hercules and the globular cluster known as the Hercules Cluster, or M-13. Using binoculars, you may be able to spot a round-shaped glow. If that blurry glow doesn’t seem impressive, just remember that it’s a collection of around 300,000 stars, at a distance of over 22,000 light years, at an age of over 11 billion years old.