Upstate New York Stargazing – September, 2016

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.

Stargazing in Upstate NY in September: Look for more subtle objects on autumn nights

A composite of three images from Ionia, NY during the Perseid Meteor Shower. Image courtesy of Nick Lamendola, member of the Astronomy Section of the Rochester Academy of Science.

Updated: Mar. 21, 2019, 5:20 p.m. | Published: Sep. 06, 2016, 4:57 p.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis | Contributing writer

Syracuse, N.Y. — August was an impressive month for local observational astronomers. We were treated to a Jupiter/Venus conjunction, pleasant early-evening alignments of the Moon and several planets, a number of bright International Space Station flyovers, and the always predictable and generally (but not always) impressive Perseid Meteor Shower – all this against the backdrop of our Milky Way Galaxy, which stands tall and at its brightest to our South near midnight during the summer months.

While the night sky is always impressive, September will not see the flurry of planetary activity August brought, there are no impressive meteor showers to stay awake for, and even our pre-midnight ISS flyovers are on hiatus until the very end of the month. With the start of the school year upon us, nature has given young observers a chance to reset their clocks for early mornings, and given many astronomy clubs a chance to refresh their knowledge of the autumn skies before some start up their school year outreach activities.

On the bright side (no pun intended), it's getting darker earlier, meaning the hours of productive observing are on the increase! This makes September a great time for some to head out to a dark patch with a star chart, binoculars, and a red light flashlight. We're going to start introducing some of the more subtle observables with this month's guide in an attempt to coax you out to a dark, wide open space.

Your First Steps Outside:

The view looking south at 10 p.m. on Sept. 15 (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of September).

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing between 9 p.m. and midnight throughout September 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.

Jupiter is effectively off our observing list with its pre-sunset setting below the western horizon, and won't be visible again in the pre-midnight skies until early February, when it pops up in our eastern sky. With luck, Jupiter will still stay prominent in our news feeds, as NASA's Juno probe continues to map and measure the Solar System's largest planet.

Jupiter's late-August companion Venus is very low on the horizon at sunset for the first part of this month, also becoming a difficult catch without a low tree line. If you see a very bright pinpoint of light low on the southwest-west horizon close to sunset this month, you can assume with high confidence that it's Venus.

Saturn remains prominent, but sets below the horizon by 10 p.m. just after mid-month, making Mars our prime planetary observing target for all of September. Mars will fly through the densest part of the Milky Way this month and still be visible for all of October.

The Summer Triangle, our highlight in the August observing article, is still prominent in the nighttime sky. As autumn arrives, we get to spend less time straining our necks to look straight up, and can now use a pair of binoculars and scan high and westward to look for interesting objects within and around the triangle. Before we begin to explore the northern sky in more detail in future articles, we're going to spend a little more time in the Summer Triangle itself, as it is a great opportunity to get some introductory and easy-to-find deep sky object observing in with only a decent pair of binoculars.

The Big Dipper

The view looking north at 10 p.m. on September 15, highlighting the two dippers, brightest named stars, and Cassiopeia.

The Big Dipper is low on the northern horizon during September observing hours. Its handle extends out to the West and its bowl rests near-flat and nearly due-north, balanced as if its bowl were filled to the brim with the last small scoop of the original celestial seasonings from the Little Dipper, which itself sits directly above the Big Dipper during our observing window. If you look high and to the northeast, you may see a prominent and jagged "3" in the sky. This constellation, Cassiopeia, will be a big part of an upcoming article, as we hone our deep sky observing skills to find our largest galactic neighbor.

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:


Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, 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-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete. September flyovers for our standard observing window (sunset to midnight) are off the table until month's end. That said, if you're an *early* morning person, there are many flyovers throughout September, with the 10 brightest predictions listed below. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com

Satellite fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
9/6very5:26 AMS/SW5:31 AME/NE
9/8extremely5:18 AMW/SW5:22 AMNE
9/9very4:27 AME4:30 AME/NE
9/10very5:10 AMW/NW5:14 AMNE
9/18very6:11 AMNW6:17 AME
9/20extremely6:02 AMW/NW6:08 AME/SE
9/21very5:11 AMN/NW5:15 AME/SE
9/22very5:54 AMW/NW5:59 AMS/SE
9/23extremely5:04 AMSE5:07 AMSE
9/24moderately5:47 AMSW5:49 AMS
9/27moderately7:48 PMS/SE7:48 PMSE
9/28very8:29 PMSW8:31 PMS
9/29very7:37 PMS/SW7:41 PME
9/29moderately9:13 PMW9:14 PMW
9/30extremely8:20 PMW/SW8:24 PMNE

The Moon

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:
Sept. 1Sept. 9Sept. 16Sept. 23

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.

Many astronomy clubs worldwide are now planning their events for the International Observe The Moon Night, which happens on Saturday night, October 8th. If the skies remain clear, the Technology Alliance of Central New York (tacny.org) and CNY Observers (cnyo.org) will be hosting a special lecture and observing session at The MOST in Armory Square, downtown Syracuse.

Viewing the planets

We've one prominent inferior planet (one between us and the Sun) and one superior planet (one beyond Earth's orbit) in the sky this month, and both are bright and to our south in early September. Those with some observing experience or good automated GOTO telescopes may even want to try for the dwarf planet Ceres or the gas giants Neptune and Uranus.

Saturn: Saturn remains at the western border of the constellation Ophiuchus and will slowly make its way east until settling into Sagittarius in 2018. Mars will be drifting away from Saturn this month, with Saturn setting earlier and earlier as the month progresses. Saturn will be below the horizon around 10 p.m. at the end of September, but observers will still have plenty of time to catch it in the early evening sky until the end of October. In good binoculars, Saturn and its rings appear as a small oval. With big binoculars or a small telescope, you should be able to distinguish between the planet and its rings, and maybe even see the dark Cassini Division within the rings.

Mars: Mars remains unmissable this month, glowing bright red-orange in the south-southwest sky. Mars will spend its last night in the constellation Scorpius on September 1st, then will join Saturn within the borders that define the constellation Ophiuchus until the night of September 22nd. The border between Ophiuchus and Sagittarius is a busy one – just two nights later on the 24th, Mars will be equidistant between the galactic center, which lies just on the Sagittarius side, and the Lagoon Nebula, a massive interstellar gas cloud roughly 5,000 light years away. During the final week of September, Mars will move even closer to the Lagoon Nebula while crossing into the galactic thicket – a region of interstellar dust between us and the core that blackens out some of the region around the galactic core.

Use Mars to spot the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula in late-September. The green circles mark the field of view for 10×50 binoculars.

If you've spent many a cloudy night staring at images from the Hubble Space Telescope but have never seen a deep sky object with your own two eyes, Mars will avail you a golden – well, orange-reddish – opportunity this month to find two. Starting on the night of September 19th, anyone with a pair of 10×50 binoculars will be able to put Mars, the Lagoon Nebula, and the Trifid Nebula into the same field of view. If you've a pair of 7×35's, you can start a day earlier – with a pair of 12×50's, subtract a day from both sides of the range. From September 19th to October 6th, Mars will move close to those two nebula, hitting closest approach just below the Lagoon Nebula on the 28th-29th. If you're a member of any astronomy or astrophotography groups on Facebook, expect some fantastic images of this grouping in early October. The series of images above show you where to place Mars with respect to the other two in your binoculars. For a number of reasons, ranging from the relative brightness of Mars to the sensitivity of our own vision to faint objects under low-light conditions, I will warn in advance that the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae will not be particularly impressive sights. You will, hopefully, be able to identify two dim, fuzzy splotches (I can almost hear the astronomical hate email being typed) in the correct locations. With luck, seeing these two for the first time will entice you to seek out a local astronomy club during one of their public viewing sessions – the Lagoon Nebula in particular is an absolute jewel to behold in a quality telescope.

Learn A Constellation: Lyra The Harp

Finding Lyra the Harp is easy once you've found the Summer Triangle. In 10×50 binoculars, splitting the double-double into two bright stars should be easy, while finding the faint Ring Nebula may be a challenge for new observers.

When items of astronomical interest are only as large as the very tip of a pen when held at arm's length, even small constellations can hold a wealth of observables. Lyra the Harp is a summertime favorite among amateur astronomers because it contains a number of impressive sights in a small, easy to find package.

The search starts easily – once you've found the Summer Triangle, tipped high and slightly to the west, the brightest star will be the west-most point. This star, Vega, is our marker for Lyra, and is bright enough to be visible very soon after sunset. The rest of the constellation is equally easy to find – Vega is the brightest star in a small and bright triangle, while the triangle star to Vega's south marks the corner of a perfectly placed parallelogram oriented to the south. For the constellation, that's it – but certainly not all.

With any decent pair of low-power binoculars or even a small telescope, the second-brightest star of the Vega-triangle will separate into two stars – one of the more famous double stars in the nighttime sky. Under excellent skies, some may even be able to see this single star as a closely-spaced pair without any magnification. With a high power telescope, observers can see that each of these two stars is itself a double star. Observers even refer to this astronomical eye candy as the "Double-Double."

The Double-Double is a busy piece of celestial real estate. The two pairs of stars are gravitationally bound to one another, meaning their positions appear to change (albeit slowly) over time as the two pairs orbit one another. The whole complex of stars is about 160 light years from Earth, just over 6 times the distance between ourselves and bright Vega.

As a test of your vision and your binoculars, I now direct you to the southmost part of the parallelogram. Through binoculars, you may be able to discern a dim, slightly fuzzy star almost exactly between the two corner stars. In a telescope and under dark skies, you may even be able to discern a shape – it should appear as an out-of-focus doughnut.

This otherwise unassuming object is referred to as the Ring Nebula, an object you might also see labeled as Messier 57 (or M57 – we'll cover the meaning of "Messier" in a future article). The reason for the "ring" shape is one of timing – as the star at the center of the Ring Nebula passed between a Red Giant stage and final White Dwarf stage, a ball of ionized gas was ejected out in all directions. Now imagine the ionized gas as being the rubber of a balloon. As you inflate the balloon – our proxy for the force that ejected the gas around the star – it starts as a mostly spherical ball of rubber you can't see through. As you continue to inflate it, eventually you can begin to see through the middle of the balloon but not the edges – the balloon is being stretched out symmetrically, but there's more rubber to try to look through around the edge. Soon after the ionized gas began to race away from the central star, the "Ring Nebula" would have looked like the "Ball Nebula." Right now, we see a faint ring – and excellent telescopes and clear skies can even reveal the central white dwarf star in the middle. Eventually, the gas will thin away and the nebula will all but disappear to observers on Earth.

The Ring Nebula as observed using the Hubble Space Telescope.

What makes the Ring Nebula a special sight to some observers is that the star that formed the Ring Nebula was similar to our own Sun, giving we observers an opportunity to see what our own Sun and surroundings may look like in 5 billion years, when the Sun is expected to undergo the same dramatic transition into a Red Giant before collapsing into a white dwarf and expelling a shell of gas out in all directions.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Sagittarius

As first appeared in the July 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

The Constellations, for all of their mythological, mystical, and ceremonial significance throughout human history, are also the bases for much of the scientific discovery (the Zodiac was a calendar long before it was ever used to identify the other kind of dates, and the backdrop of the unchanging Heavens served as the guide against which the motions of the planets were first tracked) that fueled our understanding of the universe before Edwin Hubble first exposed its true vastness by identifying the "Andromeda Nebula" as, in fact, a galaxy far outside of the Milky Way. The constellations have also served in a far more pragmatic capacity throughout human history as seasonal sign posts, simply marking times and locations for those on land and sea. Perhaps the most famous example of this in American History is the use of the Big Dipper as the marker by freed slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad. The song "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" is not simply a series of verses, but is instead a set of instructions, with the "Drinkin' Gourd" being the Big Dipper, the most easily recognizable asterism in the Northern Hemisphere (amateur astronomer or not) and pointer (by drawing an arrow from Merak to Dubhe) to the North Star Polaris, itself the most famous star of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor), an otherwise somewhat unimpressive constellation (certainly not as prominent in the North as the Big Dipper or the Cassiopeia "W" and, therefore, not as useful a sign post).

The Little Dipper is not the most prominent constellation in the Night Sky, but it serves as an important terrestrial marker because it includes Polaris among its member stars. Just as the Big Dipper is a prominent asterism that directs you to the Little Dipper, the Summer constellation Scorpius (which has been recognized specifically as a scorpion by many cultures for several millennia) can draw you to a slightly less prominent constellation to its West that is a sign post to a far more impressive marker than Polaris.

Sagittarius is an astronomy instructor's dream constellation, as it wraps up a number of interesting topics of discussion in one easy-to-find location. To begin, the Centaur, a half-human/half-horse hybrid, is the perfect bridge between the fantastical world of mythology in all of its seeming ridiculousness and, well, the shining example of what might even be ridiculously possible as scientists learn more about DNA and biological engineering (as of this past May, we now can make monkeys that glow in the dark. That's right, in the dark).

Second, Sagittarius provides its viewer another shining example of the difference between a constellation and an asterism. A constellation is, simply, a specific grouping of stars that everyone has agreed are, in fact, assigned to that particular constellation. This circular definition was finally laid flat by the International Astronomical Union in its defining of Constellation Boundaries, solidifying star groupings that go as far back as antiquity and as far forward as 1763 (the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere was not limited to the land and the sea). An asterism is, simply, a convenient grouping of stars that are NOT one of the 88 Official Constellations, with some asterisms being only fragments of a full Constellation (such as the Big Dipper, the most famous asterism in the Constellation Ursa Major) and some asterisms composed of parts of multiple Constellations (such as the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). At our latitude (Syracuse and Tully), we cannot even see the entire Constellation of Sagittarius, but have an excellent view during the Summer of one of the most modern of conveniences in the form of a Tea Pot (see below). We may seem a little ridiculous pointing out the tea pot, short and stout, with its handle (on the left or to the West) and its spout (on the right or to the East) at Darling Hill on a dark night, but you will not forget this asterism after it jumps out at you the first time. An important thing to remember is that any grouping of stars in the sky that helps YOU find what you are looking for is as significant an asterism as one you might find in any book. If an otherwise unlabeled grouping jumps out at you that helps you find your place in the Night Sky, put those informal naming rights to good use.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

Third, the billowing steam from the spout of this tea pot marks a most important location to all 100 billion or more stars in our galaxy. The small darkened oval in the picture above marks the exact location of the center of the Milky Way galaxy (the tiny, fuzzy spec at its middle), meaning we are looking into the most dense region of the galaxy when we set our gazes at this region. Unfortunately, the city lights from Cortland wash the density of the Milky Way band at our South when we observe in Tully, although the full band of the Milky Way is prominent above us during the Summer.

Images from ircamera.as.arizona.edu.

Fourth, because we are looking into the heart of the Milky Way when we see the spout of the tea pot (as the image at right tries to show), we are looking into the densest region of stars we can see from Earth. As a result, this tea pot marks the location of a variety of Messier Objects and fainter nebulae far more numerous than even the largest variety pack the other Celestial Seasonings (pardon the tea pun) has to offer. The Trifid Nebula (M20), Lagoon Nebula (M8), Sagittarius Cluster (M22), Omega Nebula (M17), Black Swan Nebula (M18), M25, M23, M55, M54, M70, M28, M21, and M75 all reside within the Sagittarius boundary, while M6, M7, M16, and a host of other deep sky objects surround its borders in neighboring Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Serpens Cauda.

When we observe during the Summer, I often recommend to new visitors with binoculars to simply point to the South, aim for the tea pot, and slowly scan. If your binoculars or telescope are anywhere near focused, you are guaranteed to find something within your field of view.

Mildly thirsty just thinking about it,
Damian

www.syracuse-astro.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiac
www.match.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planets
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Hubble
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_Galaxy
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_History
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Follow_the_Drinkin%27_Gourd
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Ursae_Majoris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubhe
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polaris
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Dipper
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassiopeia_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centaur
www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/27/glowing-baby-monkeys-marm_n_208296.html
www.engr.wisc.edu/wiscengr/feb02/monkey.shtml
www.examiner.com/x-9343-Denver-Health-Examiner~y2009m5d29-Monkeys-that-glow-in-the-dark
www.iau.org
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_constellations
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asterism_(astronomy)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_Triangle
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deneb
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vega
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_20
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_8
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_22
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_17
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_18
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_25
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_23
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_55
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_54
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_70
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_28
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_21
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_75
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_6
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_7
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_16
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorpius
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiuchus
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpens_Cauda