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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Upstate New York Stargazing – August, 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 August: See the Milky Way, Perseid meteor shower

The Milky Way center is visible this month in Upstate New York. Photo by Patrick Manley of Kopernik Astronomical Society in Vestal.

Updated: Mar. 21, 2019, 5:26 p.m. | Published: Aug. 01, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis | Contributing writer

Syracuse, N.Y. — In August, the core of our Milky Way galaxy rises soon after sunset and is visible in the south-southwest sky for pre-midnight observers. At first sight, you might mistake our fair galaxy as a cloud band moving slowly to the west. This cloud band is not made of tiny water droplets, but instead the light from the estimated 300 billion stars that are too far away for us to resolve as pinpoints of light.

Unlike Upstate New York cloud cover, which occasionally goes away, this Milky Way cloud band has been a constant in our nighttime sky since the Solar System's formation nearly 5 billion years ago, and will remain the most constant feature in our sky well beyond the time when the Sun exhausts it fuel 5 billion years from now.

The sky may still be a little too bright before 10 p.m. to see the cloudiness, or nebulosity, if you're near city lights or if you have a bright city to your south. Depending on your lighting, you may more easily see our local galactic arm extending above you and to the northeast, which is also mistakable for a cloud band at first viewing. If you have the chance, find a dark location with a clear view to the south, then stare and wonder at the tens of billions of stars directly between us and the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's center.

August also marks the return of the Perseids, one of the most consistent – and consistently impressive – meteor showers of the year. The quality of this show will be diminished for some of us, as the moon is between first-quarter and full during peak Perseid nights. If you're interested in the best predicted sights of shooting stars, you should shoot for a nap on the early evening of Aug. 11. If you don't mind the lost productivity on the 12th, the moon will drop below the western horizon soon after midnight, after which the darker sky will make even the dim streaks stand out to dark-adapted eyes. If you're a weekend astro-warrior, the nights of the 12th and 13th should still yield some great sights.

Your First Steps Outside:

The crescent Moon, Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus on Aug. 6.

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

This is the view through binoculars on Aug. 27 of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction through binoculars.

Jupiter, which has been brilliant in our pre-midnight sky since January, finally sets to the west in the late-evening. You'll need a low, clear horizon to catch it at all by the end of August, but its grouping with Venus and Mercury at this time will be worth it. The loss of Jupiter at night makes Mars all the more pronounced. Mars continues to slowly glide between the red-orange star Antares and Saturn, crossing the imaginary line between them on Aug. 23/24.

Prominent in the nighttime sky right now is the aptly-named Summer Triangle. The three stars of this asterism are among the brightest in the nighttime sky, making it one of the very first objects you'll be able to see after sunset. Vertices are pointed roughly north, west, and south right now and are each the most prominent stars in their similarly prominent constellations – once you find this triangle, try star-hopping your way through each mythological character.

* The brightest of these corners is the star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. At 25 light years away, it rounds out the top-five closest stars to us (sixth if you count the sun). Those who read the book or saw the movie "Contact" will know Vega as the "actual" star in the story.

* The southern vertex is the star Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Altair is not as visibly bright as Vega despite being eight light years closer to us, ranking in as the 12th brightest star in our sky overall. As it happens, we also know that Altair and Jupiter share a similar shape – both are being squeezed at the poles, bulging at their equators like slightly compressed water balloons.

* The north-pointing vertex is an absolute scorcher. Deneb marks the tail of the constellation Cygnus the Swan, known by some as the "Northern Cross" both for its shape and because, in December skies, it stands prominent on the northwest horizon. We don't know the distance to Deneb with great accuracy, but we estimate it as being (very) roughly 2,500 light years away. To be that far away yet still as bright as it is, you know it is literally burning the midnight oil – estimates place it between 50,000 and 250,000 times that of our own sun. It's not only blindingly bright, it's also wondrously wide. If we replaced the sun with Deneb, we'd be observing Deneb from the inside.

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. The first two weeks of August are full of flyovers, with all 26 bright, pre-midnight flyovers for Upstate NY listed below. In many cases, there are two flyovers each night before midnight, each separated by about 90 minutes – the amount of time it takes for the ISS to go once around the Earth. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

DayBrightnessApproximate Start TimeDirectionApproximate End TimeDirection
8/1very9:01 PMW9:07 PMNE
8/1medium10:39 PMNW10:43 PMNE
8/2bright11:22 PMNW11:25 PMN/NE
8/2bright9:45 PMW/NW9:50 PMNE
8/3bright8:52 PMW/NW8:57 PMNE
8/3bright10:29 PMNW10:34 PMNE
8/4very11:13 PMNW11:15 PMN
8/4bright9:36 PMNW9:41 PMNE
8/5very10:19 PMNW10:23 PMNE
8/5medium11:55 PMNW11:56 PMNW
8/6very11:02 PMNW11:04 PMN/NW
8/6bright9:26 PMNW9:31 PMNE
8/7very10:09 PMNW10:13 PMNE
8/7medium11:45 PMW/NW11:46 PMW/NW
8/8very10:52 PMW/NW10:54 PMNW
8/8very9:16 PMNW9:21 PME/NE
8/9extremely9:59 PMNW10:03 PME/NE
8/10very9:06 PMNW9:12 PME
8/10very10:42 PMW/NW10:44 PMW
8/11extremely9:49 PMW/NW9:53 PMSE
8/12extremely8:56 PMNW9:02 PME/SE
8/12bright10:33 PMW10:34 PMW/SW
8/13extremely9:39 PMW/NW9:43 PMS
8/14extremely8:46 PMW/NW8:52 PMSE
8/15bright9:30 PMW9:34 PMS
8/16very8:36 PMW/NW8:42 PMS.SE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

New:First-Quarter:Full:Third-Quarter
August 2ndAugust 10thAugust 18thAugust 25th

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, 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.

Planets:

Provided you know where to look and how to find them, you can catch glimpses of all eight planets this month before midnight. Those with exceptional telescopes and observing skills might even be able to take a peak at distant Pluto to fill out their punch card for the original nine. We'll highlight the brightest five below.

The view looking south at 10 p.m. Aug. 15. Except for the changing moon position, this view is accurate for all of August.

Mars: Mars is the unmissable planet this month, glowing bright red-orange in the south-southwest sky. It'll even be directly underneath the Moon on August 11th if you need another observing marker. Mars has just left the constellation Libra the Scales and will move from the claws to the jaws of Scorpius this month. August 23rd/24th will make for the very pleasant bright-orange pairing of Mars (above) and the star Antares (below) under the watchful gaze of Saturn (above both).

Saturn: Saturn remains at the western border of the constellation Ophiuchus and will slowly make its way east until settling into Sagittarius in 2018. If you can see Mars, Saturn is the bright star just above and to the left of it. 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.

Jupiter: Jupiter sets early this month to the west, gone completely by 10 p.m. early on and soon after sunset by month's end. Those with a high elevation and low tree line are in for a real treat on Aug. 27 when Venus, Jupiter, and all four of Jupiters largest moons put on a very close approach. Aug. 27 also marks the next pass of the NASA probe Juno around Jupiter. If all goes well, expect another remarkable image to make its way around social media on Aug. 28.

Venus: Venus is exceptionally bright and low on the western horizon this month, but sets before 9 p.m. each night. Jupiter and Venus are going to make a remarkably close pairing in the sky on Aug. 27 – well worth a look just after sunset. Those with low-power binoculars should be able to fit Jupiter and Venus into the same field of view, catching sights of all four Galilean moons as well. Astronomers refer to this close passing of one planet by another as a conjunction. While this bright conjunction on the 27th will be impressive, you may appreciate it even more by going outside on the 26th and 28th as well to see just how far Venus appears to move with respect to the Jovian reference point.

Mercury: Mercury glows dimmer than Jupiter and Venus, but is still bright enough to stand out after sunset. Your best chance to find it easily might be soon after sunset on Aug. 5 and 6, when a double-double pairing of the moon with Jupiter and Mercury with Venus occurs close to the western horizon.

Perseid Meteor Shower (Peak nights are Aug. 11 and 12, with up to 150 meteors per hour)

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. In the case of the Perseids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be just off the head of Perseus, which rises from the northeast just after 9 p.m. this month. The meteor shower itself is provided to us by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last made its dramatic pass in 1992 and which will return again to replenish the debris field in 2126.

How to observe: Perseus marks the position of the meteor shower radiant, meaning the meteors themselves will seem to shoot roughly from the northeast to the southwest. To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed northeast – meteors will then appear to fly right over you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between midnight and 4 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see Perseid meteors a week before and after the Aug. 11/12 peak.

Learn A Constellation: Sagittarius

The constellation Sagittarius marks the center of the Milky Way.

As long as you're staring south to see the Milky Way center, your eyes are already in the right direction for Scorpius' neighbor to the east. Not all of the stars in the constellation Sagittarius are prominent without decently dark skies, but one feature will jump right out at you that will make finding the rest much easier.

Find Mars and use that as your marker for Scorpius, sliding down the tail from Antares and looping up to end on the bright tail star Shaula. Looking to the east, the first prominent star you'll see is Kaus Australis. From that star, make a triangle out of the two slightly dimmer stars above it ("1"). To the east of this triangle, you'll run into a prominent sideways trapezoid ("2"). Now, imagine a line connecting Kaus Australis with the bottom-most star of the trapezoid ("3"). Go half-way along that line and look up to a final bright star ("4"). That whole structure will, hopefully, jump out to you as a tea pot. With that structure firmly in place in your mind, you can look just to the west of the spout of the tea pot to see the galactic center.

From the tea pot, the less prominent features of Sagittarius make their presence known in a star chart. We lose a bit of the bottom of this constellation because we're too far north, but most of us should be able to see all but the bottom-most two stars.

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

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