The Sky Guy: Stars align for gazers

Posted: Sunday, September 04, 2005

 

  Sky in September 2005 Photo provided by Andy Veh

Sky in September 2005

Photo provided by Andy Veh

This would be a good month to watch Venus and Jupiter during dusk, but we are just too far north. Both planets and our sun set virtually at the same time as seen from Alaska. If you're traveling down south, you'd see that our sun sets first and then the two brightest planets appear nicely visible next to each each other. Hence I stand slightly corrected from what I mentioned last month when I indicated we might see Jupiter from Alaska. Sorry.

Still, Venus will appear in the evening all winter long. Mars in Taurus rises around 10 p.m. and is visible the entire night. It, too, is a winter planet, making a triangle with the red giant star Aldebaran and the star cluster Pleiades. Saturn in Cancer is the dominant object in the predawn skies. With average binoculars you probably won't see its rings but look right above it and you see the Beehive cluster. You can actually see that without binoculars using averted vision (out of the side of your eye, not directly looking at it). Saturn's rings are visible with powerful binoculars or a small telescope.

The chart shows an all-sky map for 3 a.m. throughout September. I used that unusual time in order to squeeze Saturn on it. For viewers earlier during the night, imagine rotating the chart clockwise, so that stars in the northwest, west and southwest are high in the south, stars beneath the horizon are in the west and stars in the eastern parts have not yet risen.

At 3 a.m. find the Big Dipper low in the northwest (high in the south earlier in the evening). The Little Dipper and Polaris, the North Star, are easy to find by extending the two end stars of the Dipper's pan five times. Cassiopeia, the W, is virtually overhead. Once you have your eyes accustomed to a very dark sky, you'll lose it because it blends in with the Milky Way that runs right through it.

The Milky Way also leads you to Cygnus in the northwest. Its brightest star Deneb is part of the summer triangle with the other two bright stars, Vega and Altair, still visible during the evening. As we're so far north in Alaska, we actually will be able to see most of this triangle throughout the entire winter, just lower on the horizon.

In the southwest, find the Great Square of Pegasus. As the chart indicates, Uranus appears in that region, as well. It's easiest to find around midnight when it's highest in the sky in the south. Use binoculars and check out the finder charts for the planet in the June issue of Sky & Telescope at a library or at its Web site, skypub.com.

Toward the south, find bright reddish Mars with red Aldebaran to its left in Taurus. To Mars' left is the pentagon of Auriga with bright yellow Capella, then further east is Castor and Pollux, the twin stars in Gemini. Finally, Saturn is on the eastern horizon.

In the early evening, find the Big Dipper and follow the curve of its handle toward the bright red giant Arcturus low in the west with its constellation of Bootes above, appearing as a kite or cone shape. Notice the bowl-shaped Corona Borealis to its upper left. Prominently high overhead and extending to the south is the summer triangle made up of the three bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Deneb's constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, in a cross shape is easily seen. Vega's small, rectangular-shaped Lyra, the Harp, is prominent, as well, while Altair's Aquila or Eagle may be depicted by its wings. Just on the upper left of Altair is the dolphin-shaped small constellation Delphinus.

Later in the predawn hours, also look out for Orion on the southern horizon. That's a typical winter constellation but you only see it now because I make you get up in the wee hours for some star gazing. Winter is still a while off.

Have fun observing. I'm looking forward to hopefully clear skies this fall and winter and the astronomy class I'll be teaching this November for community schools.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. This column appears on the first Sunday of each month. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.alaska.edu.



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