Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.
Upstate NY Stargazing in September: Cassini's end and morning planet delights
Updated: Sep. 01, 2017, 3:07 p.m. | Published: Sep. 01, 2017, 2:07 p.m.
By Damian Allis | Contributing writer
The Great American Eclipse for 2017 has come and gone without major reported inconvenience to the cities that ended up hosting large groups. This is good news for Western and Upstate New York, as we will be participants in the observation of totality on April 8, 2024 and have to contend with potential crowds on top of whatever weather early April brings that year. In the meantime, if you still have your eclipse glasses, you can give others an opportunity to enjoy upcoming total eclipses in South America and Asia in 2019. Consider donating your glasses to the great outreach organization Astronomers Without Borders – see the link for all the details.
The summer is set to give way to autumn on September 22nd, and some amateur astronomers have been counting down the minutes of daylight lost in favor of additional early observing time. September itself will be a busy month for both backyard astronomy and space science missions, with our closest planetary neighbors set to put on an elegant dance before sunrise all month just as one of NASA's great planetary missions ends its remarkably productive 20-year run on the morning of the 15th.
Lectures And Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York
New York has a number of astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Announced sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided for September so you can plan accordingly. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session, as some groups will also schedule weather-alternate dates. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees.
Astronomy Events Calendar
|Adirondack Public Observatory||Tupper Lake||Public Observing||Sept. 1||7:00 – 10:30 PM||email, website|
|Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley Observatory||Schenectady||Senior Science Day||Sept. 4||3:00 – 4:00 PM||email, website|
|Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley Observatory||Schenectady||Night Sky Adventure||Sept. 19||7:00 – 8:30 PM||email, website|
|Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley Observatory||Schenectady||AAAA Meeting||Sept. 21||7:30 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley Observatory||Schenectady||Octagon Barn Star Party||Sept. 29||8:00 – 10:00 PM||email, website|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Observing At The Strasenburgh||Sept. 2||9:00 – 10:30 PM||Jim S., 585-703-9876|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Member Meeting||Sept. 8||7:30 – 9:30 PM||email, website|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Observing At The Strasenburgh||Sept. 9||9:00 – 10:30 PM||Jim S., 585-703-9876|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Farash Center Open House||Sept. 16||9:00 AM – 4:00 PM||email, website|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Observing At The Strasenburgh||Sept. 16||9:00 – 10:30 PM||Jim S., 585-703-9876|
|Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of Science||Rochester||Observing At The Strasenburgh||Sept. 23||9:00 – 10:30 PM||Jim S., 585-703-9876|
|Baltimore Woods||Marcellus||Goodbye Summer Skies||Sept. 15||7:30 – 9:30 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Friday Night Lecture & Observing||Sept. 1||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||KAS Monthly Meeting||Sept. 6||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Friday Night Lecture & Observing||Sept. 8||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Friday Night Lecture & Observing||Sept. 15||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Friday Night Lecture & Observing||Sept. 22||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Friday Night Lecture & Observing||Sept. 29||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Kopernik Observatory & Science Center||Vestal||Moonlight Cafe Fundraiser||Sept. 30||7:00 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society||Waterville||Meeting||Sept. 13||7:30 – 9:00 PM||email, website|
|Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society||Waterville||Star Gazing||Sept. 23||8:00 – 11:00 PM||email, website|
|Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society||Waterville||Fall Fest Solar Observing||Sept. 30||12:00 – 3:00 PM||email, website|
|Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society||Waterville||Public Stargazing @ Waterville Library||Aug. 26/27||8:30 – 11:30 PM||email, website|
|Full Moon||Third Quarter:||New Moon||New:|
|Sept. 6, 3:02 AM||Sept. 13, 2:24 AM||Sept. 20, 1:29 AM||Sept. 27, 10:53 PM|
The Moon's increasing brightness as Full Moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the Moon is a wonderful binocular object. The labeled image identifies features easily found with low-power binoculars.
Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.
Evening Skies: The two most prominent shapes in the sky are the Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle, with the steam from the Sagittarius Teapot now engulfing the planet Saturn. The body of Scorpius, easily identified by the bright red-orange star Antares and now residing below Saturn in the nighttime sky, hooks down and back up around the southern tree line at our latitude in a shape that nearly every civilization has recorded as being a celestial scorpion. Like the Teapot, the Scorpion tail is between us and the galactic center – a scan with binoculars will reveal a number of objects that do not come into focus like their surrounding stars.
The Big Dipper is a bright and easy guide for finding Polaris, the north star. From its handle, you can "arc" down to bright star Arcturus, competing with Jupiter in brightness in this part of the sky. Jupiter, which stands out soon after sunset, is close to the bright star Spica in Virgo and to the southwest of bright Arcturus in Bootes. Saturn is also visible soon after dusk, rising soon after the bright orange star Antares in Scorpius.
Morning Skies: Venus has left the crowded best-of-winter constellations and is heading towards Mars and Mercury in the pre-sunrise sky, passing through Cancer the Crab and into Leo the Lion. The bowtie shape that makes up the torso of Orion just cleared the horizon after 4:00 a.m. in early August and now rises before 1 a.m. at month's end. With the clearing of Canis Major about the horizon at month's end, the best-of-winter constellations will all be visible in the pre-dawn sky, providing a sneak preview of the nights to come.
Mercury, Venus, and Mars:These three planets race ahead of the morning sun this month, offering us exceptional observing and imaging opportunities until close to month's end. Fleeting Mercury appears to race back towards the sun after September 20th, making the early month the prime time to see these three bright objects just under the mane and torso of Leo the Lion. The play-by-play of notable events is detailed below, with each event visible by 6:00 a.m. Binoculars will make each even more interesting, but be sure to put them away before sunrise:
Sept. 5: Mars will meet up with the bright star Regulus.
Sept. 10: Mercury will get its closest to Regulus.
Sept. 16: Mercury and Mars reach their closest, appearing as a binary star in binoculars.
Sept. 17: Mercury will begin rising after Mars.
Sept. 18: A sliver of a crescent moon is placed between Venus and the Mercury/Mars pair.
Sept. 23rd/24: Venus, Mars, and Mercury will be almost perfectly aligned and roughly equally spaced. If a meme about the biblical significance of the 23rd hits your social media feed, be ready to reply with the numbers 1827, 1483, 1293, and 1056.
Looking forward a bit, Venus and Mars will be at their closest on October 5th and excellent binocular targets from the 1st to the 9th next month.
Jupiter: Jupiter, low and to the southwest, is now competing with the bright, high-west star Arcturus for the title of brightest object in the neighborhood. Jupiter is setting earlier every night and will not be with us for easy observing by the end of September. If you don't catch it this month, you'll likely have to wait until December, at which point Jupiter becomes a bright morning object. You'll be able to find Jupiter quickly after sunset on the 21st and 22nd thanks to the moon, which will be at its direct right (21st) and then upper-left (22nd). Low power binoculars are excellent for spying the four bright Galilean moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – and several online guides will even map their orbits for you.
Saturn: Still on the western edge of the brightest part of the Milky Way, Saturn is going to spend the next 16 months making its way to the eastern edge above the teapot of Sagittarius, all the while giving us an excellent observing target until next autumn. Those who have kept track of the double-double of Jupiter and Spica in the west and Antares and Saturn in the south will now have just this second southern double to contend with by month's end. Saturn will meet with the moon on the 26th, making for a hint of a question mark in the nighttime sky.
Saturn will gain a little bit of weight this month, and news agencies will hopefully report the process in fine detail as we say goodbye to the Cassini Probe after 20 eventful years. The Cassini Mission, named for the Italian astronomer for whom the space between the largest rings – the Cassini Division – is named, ends in fiery form on the 15th when it hits the Saturnian atmosphere at about 70,000 mph. The reason for this dramatic, planned end is simple – NASA scientists do not want to risk an uncontrollable probe eventually reaching Titan or Enceladus, two of Saturn's moons that have enough of the key ingredients for life to possibly exist there. By crashing Cassini into Saturn, we guarantee that any potential lifeforms from Earth that might have survived on the probe itself do not have a chance to take root on one of the moons, meaning anything we might find later is truly native to the local environment and not, inadvertently, our fault.
ISS And Other Bright Satellites
Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.
The month is divided into two ISS blocks. From the 4th to the 21st, observers will be treated to some very bright flyovers in the 4:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m. range. From the 24th to the 29th, evening observers are treated to several exceptionally bright views. A number of less prominent flyovers are also predicted for the month and I encourage you to visit spotthestation.nasa.gov to see when some of these dimmer flyovers will occur.
|Date||Brightness||Approx. Start||Start Direct.||Approx. End||End Direct.|
|4-Sep||extremely||5:25 AM||SW||5:30 AM||E/NE|
|5-Sep||extremely||4:35 AM||SE||4:38 AM||E/NE|
|6-Sep||extremely||5:18 AM||W||5:22 AM||NE|
|7-Sep||extremely||4:28 AM||NE||4:30 AM||NE|
|7-Sep||very||6:01 AM||W/NW||6:06 AM||NE|
|8-Sep||very||5:10 AM||W/NW||5:14 AM||NE|
|9-Sep||very||4:20 AM||N/NE||4:22 AM||NE|
|16-Sep||extremely||6:14 AM||NW||6:20 AM||E/SE|
|17-Sep||very||5:22 AM||NW||5:28 AM||E|
|18-Sep||very||4:32 AM||N/NE||4:35 AM||E|
|18-Sep||extremely||6:06 AM||W/NW||6:12 AM||SE|
|19-Sep||extremely||5:15 AM||W/NW||5:20 AM||SE|
|20-Sep||very||5:59 AM||W||6:03 AM||S|
|21-Sep||very||5:09 AM||S/SE||5:11 AM||S/SE|
|24-Sep||very||8:44 PM||SW||8:46 PM||S/SW|
|25-Sep||very||7:52 PM||S/SW||7:56 PM||E/SE|
|26-Sep||extremely||8:35 PM||W/SW||8:39 PM||N|
|27-Sep||extremely||7:43 PM||SW||7:49 PM||E/NE|
|28-Sep||very||8:27 PM||W||8:31 PM||N/NE|
|29-Sep||extremely||7:34 PM||W/SW||7:41 PM||NE|
Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to shifts – for accurate daily predictions, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov.
Learn A Constellation: Draco The Dragon
We return to our constellation survey with one of the original 48 constellations of antiquity. Sandwiched between the bowls of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper lies the long tail of Draco. This month, you might have an easier time remembering the brightest stars in this grouping by thinking not of a dragon, but instead of its distant cousin the snake – in the pre-midnight September skies, Draco looks like a backwards "S", with the Little Dipper half-surrounded by the bottom curve. Draco's head ends in a bright, four-starred asterism known as "The Lozenge," with its brightest star Eltanin making for a dim corner of a triangle with the Summer Triangle's Vega and Deneb.
Like dragons themselves, the stars of Draco once played a more significant role in human history and mythology than they do today. Due to the slow wobbling of Earth's rotation axis, the north star some 5,000 years ago was not Polaris in Ursa Minor, but instead Thuban, the third star of Draco's tail. In fact, the north-facing sides of the Egyptian pyramids were oriented to provide a view of Thuban – an example of how major astronomical phenomena may happen slowly on the timescales of individual people, but have already undergone notable changes in the still-short timeline of recorded history.
The curving shape itself is easy to follow if you start from the space between the bowls of the two dippers – Draco's tail stars are all the brightest stars along the curve. The head of Draco ends just east of the keystone of Hercules – a fitting location, as Draco also ended as one of Hercules' twelve labors. As you stare at the gap between the head and the tail curve in Draco, you're looking out into the densest part of what might be the largest known structure in the universe. The Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is composed of billions of galaxies spread across what might be 10 billion light years – a structure so gravitationally massive that it must have formed very early in the history of the universe itself.
Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador. If you know of any other NY astronomy events or clubs to promote, please contact the author.