It’s time for a sky tour
By Vernon Whetstone
What indeed is up? We haven’t done a sky tour for a while, I think it is time for one. Okay, let’s start looking west about an hour after local sunset.
The first thing we see is the large constellation Pegasus sinking toward the horizon. As a reminder, Pegasus looks like a giant diamond standing up on one corner.
Pegasus is an autumn constellation, so, with the advent of spring just a couple of weeks away it is time for the old boy to retire and rest for a few months. Sadly, one thing he is taking with him, I am sorry to see go, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.
To find the galaxy look for the bright star on the top of the diamond, that is Alpheratz. Running straight up are two rows of stars, that is the Andromeda constellation. Go up on those lines and count to two stars, extend a line from those two stars going right and about the same distance as those two stars are apart you will find the galaxy—if you have a very dark-sky location.
M31 is as far as a person can see—about 2.5 million light years—without any optical aid. Keep in mind that a light year is about six trillion miles. If your location is very dark you will see a very faint smudge of light. That is the galaxy. Use a pair of binoculars and it will be a slightly larger smudge of light.
Do not expect to see anything that looks like photographs of Andromeda, that is only possible with very large telescopes and hours of photographic time to gather the light. We will just have to settle for the faint smudge, but it is our faint smudge when we find it. Also a telescope will be helpful, but you will have a larger, although possibly, brighter smudge.
On March 2, be outside about an hour after local sunset looking just above the western horizon for a very slight crescent moon which will be just below the outer gas-giant planet Uranus. Binoculars, and a dark sky are essential. They won’t be in the same field of view so put the moon at the six o’clock position and look up about one field of view for a faint, blue-greenish dot. That is Uranus.
Now, looking very high due south, again about an hour after sunset, and our old friend Orion will be waiting for us. The bright stars of his hourglass figure are very prominent and hard to miss. Of course, the main attraction in Orion is M42, or the Great Orion Nebula.
Put your binoculars on the sword or three stars hanging below his belt and notice that the middle object is not a star at all but giant gaseous star-forming cloud. In even a small telescope the Orion Nebula is an astounding sight.
To Orion’s lower left is the very bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere’s sky. To the upper right is the fierce, charging, Taurus, the Bull with reddish Aldebaran in the “V” shape of the bull’s face—or horns if you prefer. The “V” is the Hyades star cluster, a nice binocular target of its own.
On the evening of March 7, the moon will pay Aldebaran a visit, and on March 9, the moon visits Jupiter.
Looking a little further right find the nice little cluster of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. With just the eyes you may see all seven, a binocular view shows a lot more.
SKYWATCH: New moon, Saturday, March 1. Remember, a new moon means no moon. We can’t see it because it is between Earth and the Sun with all the light on the opposite side and all we have is the unlit side (I won’t say “dark side” because there is no such thing as a “dark side of the moon.”) As with February, there will be two new moons in March.
NEXT WEEK: More of our tour of the night sky and more astronomical blathering.