Upstate New York Stargazing – November, 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.

November Stargazing in Upstate NY: Catch the sometimes roaring Leonids

A 30 second exposure of the International Space Station above Lake Ontario and just past the Big Dipper (left). Photo by Don Chamberlin, member of ASRAS-Rochester Astronomy Club.

Updated: Mar. 22, 2019, 12:53 a.m. | Published: Oct. 31, 2016, 3:13 p.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis, Contributing writer

There are some at observing sessions who, upon seeing a satellite for the first time, marvel at just how bright something so small and far away can be. There are several individual high-fliers and families of orbiting objects, and you can use such websites as heavens-above.com, n2yo.com, and spaceweather.com/flybys/ to predict their paths with great accuracy. You need not do your homework, however. Anyone with decent night vision will see satellites jump out against the backdrop of stationary stars all night long, moving swiftly until they set below the horizon, enter Earth's shadow, or reorient their solar panels.

With a sturdy tripod and a camera that can do long exposures – and we're only talking 15 seconds or more – you can catch the trails of bright satellites from urban locations. If your timing is right, you might even try for a combination satellite/airplane flyover. With a long exposure, the satellite will produce a long, continuous light trail, while the flashing lights of the airplane will produce a bright dotted line.

The image above is one such example of a well-placed International Space Station (ISS) flyover, complete with the bright stars of the most famous asterism in the Northern Hemisphere – The Big Dipper. Thanks to the long exposure, it is even possible to see that some of the stars are slightly red-orange and not just pure white pinpoints of light. Thanks to some straightforward physics, we know that our photographer opened his shutter at 7:49:57 p.m. and closed it at 7:50:27 p.m., and we could have figured out the exact day and time from the recent orbits of the ISS even if we didn't know that the picture was taken on Oct. 12.

Your First Steps Outside:

The view looking south at 9:00 p.m. on November 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of November).

NOTE: Daylight Saving Time ends at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 6th. Because of this, reported times for some month-long events listed below will be one hour earlier starting on the Nov. 6. To account for this difference, certain reported times below are in a [before the 6th]/[after the 6th] format, while other times correctly account for the time change.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing between 8 p.m. and midnight throughout November 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.

Mars and Terebellum help mark globular cluster M75.

Mars: Mars will follow the horizon close to [10]/[9] p.m. all month long before setting, sliding from the southwest to the west in the process. It remains the most accessible, although not the most prominent, planet in the skies this month. Starting October 30th, Mars and the faint globular cluster M75 will be in the same field of view of a pair of 10×50 binoculars. Closest approach will occur on the night of November 7th, although the Moon that night will not make your observation of M75 easy. You can use Mars and the four stars of the tiny, ancient asterism Terebellum to help orient yourself. For a refresher on globular clusters, check out the October article.

Saturn, Venus, and the Moon on November 2nd just after sunset.

Venus: Observers unimpressed with the recent temperature change can still get some early planetary viewing in. Venus remain unmistakable to the southwest soon after sunset, making an early exit from the night sky at the beginning of the month around [7:45]/[6:45] p.m. Thanks to our relative positions in our respective orbits, we'll even be gaining about one minute of additional Venus viewing each night. By month's end, Venus will set below the SW horizon just before 7:30 p.m.

Saturn: What we gain in Venus viewing we lose in Saturn viewing. Saturn has been setting just after Venus recently, but will hit the horizon at the same time on Nov. 2, when Venus, Saturn, and the very young waxing crescent moon make for a pleasant grouping. Catch this soon after sunset, as we lose the whole group to the horizon before 7:30 p.m. Chances to catch Saturn all but end by Nov. 15, when it sets just before 6 p.m.

The last good month for seeing the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle: If it was not already apparent that we're not in Summer anymore, the Summer Triangle becomes the Summer Line in pre-midnight skies this month. Our summertime southern-pointing star Altair in the constellation Aquila now sets just north of due-West earlier and earlier this month, leaving Deneb in Cygnus and the brilliant Vega in Lyra. Vega itself will drop below the horizon before midnight by mid-month, marking the transition of Cygnus the Swan into what some refer to as the Northern Cross, with Cygnus now diving head-first into the horizon to leave its wings and back-end standing upright to the west/northwest. For a refresher on the Summer Triangle, see the August and September articles in this series.

The unmistakable Orion, rising before 11:00 p.m. this month, and neighboring constellations.

Orion, Taurus, And The Pleiades: Winter's best now make grand appearances before midnight, featuring the two closest open clusters to our Solar System. Unlike the dense globular clusters described in last month's article, open clusters contain only 10's to 100's of stars that are all gravitationally bound to one another. You can think of "open" here as referring to all of the open, dark space you can see between member stars. The Pleiades, the second-closest open star cluster to Earth, rises above the Eastern horizon after 7/6 p.m. in early November and comfortably before sunset by month's end. Following about an hour behind the Pleiades is the head of Taurus the Bull. The distinctive V-shaped head is composed of the bright red-orange star Aldebaran and "all the other" stars – this final collection of remaining notable-but-not-as-prominent stars are themselves called the Hyades and are the closest open star cluster to Earth. Contrary to some representations you might see, Aldebaran is not, in fact, a gravitationally-bound member of this cluster – it is much closer to Earth than the Hyades cluster and just happens to be placed in just the right spot to turn an otherwise less-impressive "checkmark" shape into a more distinctive "V" shape. Orion rises soon after Taurus and looks like a massive bowtie as it comes over the horizon. Only after it has fully cleared the horizon does it begin to take on the image of a human figure instead of human formal wear.

Early Riser Alert:

Jupiter: Jupiter rises above the Eastern horizon near 5:30 a.m. on Nov 1st and by 4:00 a.m. at month's end. Its four Galilean Moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – are all visible in low-power binoculars when Jupiter rises, but are washed out early by sunlight even before sunrise approaches. Jupiter and the very waning crescent moon will make a very nice pairing after 4:00 a.m. on November 25th. The next prominent change to the early morning sky will not occur until mid-February, when Saturn makes its reappearance in the sky after its November departure at sunset.

November Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York:

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are free and open to the public, often close to the New Moon when skies are darkest and the chance for seeing deep, distant objects is greatest. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgeable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent news and discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for November. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the website links or email the groups for directions, to find out about any fees, and to double-check about an event the day of the announced session. Also note that some groups will include weather-alternate dates for scheduled sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 46:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 185:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star Party & LectureNov. 47:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Grafton LakesNov. 47:30 – 11:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Landis ArboretumNov. 25, 268:00 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusPublic Viewing With Bob PiekielNov. 4/57:00 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"What is inside Jupiter?" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 47:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 56:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"High Performance Computing" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 117:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 126:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Water from Rain" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 187:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 196:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Black Holes on Black Friday" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 257:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 256:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 57:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 127:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 197:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 267:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website

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 ISS this month is going to be an excellent morning target, but will not make any appearance in the evening sky until month's end. On the bright side, December will see several bright evening passes early in the month. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
11/1very7:08 AMSW7:14 AME/NE
11/2moderately6:16 AMSSW6:21 AME
11/3extremely6:59 AMW/SW7:06 AMNE
11/4very6:08 AMS/SW6:13 AME/NE
11/5very6:51 AMW6:57 AMNE
11/6extremely5:01 AMN5:04 AMNE
11/7very5:44 AMW/NW5:48 AMNE
11/8moderately4:53 AMN/NE4:55 AMNE
11/9moderately5:36 AMN/NW5:39 AMNE
11/10moderately4:45 AMN/NE4:46 AMNE
11/10moderately6:18 AMNW6:23 AMNE
11/11moderately5:27 AMN/NW5:30 AMNE
11/12moderately6:10 AMNW6:15 AME/NE
11/13moderately5:19 AMN5:22 AMNE
11/14moderately6:01 AMNW6:06 AME
11/15moderately5:10 AMN5:13 AME/NE
11/16very5:52 AMNW5:58 AME/SE
11/17very5:02 AMNNE5:05 AME
11/18extremely5:44 AMW/NW5:49 AMSE
11/19very4:54 AME4:56 AME/SE
11/19moderately6:27 AMW6:31 AMS
11/20very5:36 AMW/SW5:39 AMS/SE
11/21moderately4:46 AMSE4:47 AMSE
11/28somewhat6:24 PMS6:25 PMS
11/29somewhat7:06 PMSW7:07 PMSW
11/30very6:14 PMS/SW6:16 PMS/SE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Oct. 30, 1:30 PMNov. 7, 2:51 PMNov. 14, 8:52 AMNov. 21, 3:33 AMNov. 29, 7:18 AM

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.

Meteor Showers: Leonids, Peaking Nov. 16-18

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 Leonids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be just within Leo the Lion's mane, which rises from the east after midnight this month. The meteor shower itself is provided to us by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, whose 33-year orbit will return it to the inner solar system in 2031.

Leo rises in the very early morning this month. To fully orient yourself, look for a backward question mark (in green) that marks Leo's mane.

How to observe: The Leonids can be impressive and impressively bright, with up-to 15 meteors per hour expected. Sadly, the Moon will be prominent in the late-night/early-morning sky during the days around the Leonid peak, making for a far less impressive display.

Leo marks the position of the meteor shower radiant, meaning the meteors themselves will seem to shoot roughly from the east to the west. To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed east and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see shooting stars associated with the Leonids during the middle and end of the month.

Learn A Constellation: Cygnus

The constellation Cygnus the Swan has reared its beak in the August and September articles, as its tail star Deneb is one of the corners of the Summer Triangle. If we imagine its wings fully expanded, the body of Cygnus happens to line up very well with the plane of the galaxy. When we look at the body and long neck, we're taking a look into the thicket of the spiral arm that is our nesting place in the Milky Way.

Cygnus and surroundings.

Cygnus is a prominent constellation in a busy part of the nighttime sky – but its placement right above us during prime summer observing hours makes binocular viewing a literal pain in the neck. As mid-autumn gives way to late autumn, Cygnus reaches the western sky during more reasonable observing hours, giving us a far more comfortable opportunity to explore this part of the galaxy.

The easiest way to find Cygnus is to search for the Summer Triangle itself – which for many eyes will mean finding the bright star Vega in Lyra the Harp first. For this, simply orient your head to the west/northwest, keeping in mind that the brilliantly bright Venus to the southwest will *not* be the star you're looking for in the early evening. With Vega and Lyra found, the distinctive cross shape should jump out at you to Vega's upper left. Deneb will be the bright east-pointing tip, followed by Sadr at the crossroads. Glenah and Rukh make up the joint in the wings, while Albireo marks the swan's head. Albireo is itself a pleasant big bino/telescope object, as it splits into two stars upon sufficient magnification, with one a pronounced red/orange and the other giving off a slight blue twinge to most eyes.

A distant view of tiny M29 (slooh.com) and a high-resolution view of M39.

For significant deep sky objects, we continue with the open cluster theme begun with the Hyades and Pleiades in Taurus the Bull. M29 is a small open cluster just to the left of Sadr – a dim object requiring magnification and eagle eyes to really take in. The open cluster M39 lies above Deneb. With Deneb in your sights, identify a bright triangle taking up much of the field of view of your binoculars. Use the star farthest from Deneb as an anchor to slide the binos up to search for a small grouping of dim stars.

Those with a keen imagination are welcome to take a gander just to the south of the star half-way between Sadr and Albireo. You won't be able to see it, but marked in the image above is the location of the first X-ray source ever classified as a black hole – the existence of which made for a long-running game of gravitational chicken between famed physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne. These two and other astrophysicists, as well as most progressive rock fans, know this object as Cygnus X-1.

Beyond M29, M39, a black hole, and its prime position along the Milky Way, you can add one more feather to the cap of Cygnus. The green squares in the image above mark the location where the NASA Kepler Mission undertook a multi-year survey for extrasolar planets, finding (so far) over 2,300 of the 3,200 confirmed extrasolar planets in our Milky Way – a search for which astronomers are just getting started. When you look to the northern wing of Cygnus, consider how many exoplanets this telescopic fox captured in only nearby stars, then consider how small a patch of the night sky this galactic hen house represents.

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 – 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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