It’s really autumn now, and it’s a wonderful time to get out and enjoy the absolute beauty of the Northwest night sky.
We’re entering the prime time of stargazing season. The nights are longer and with less moisture in the air the skies are more transparent.
Even if you’re not a big-time stargazing fan, you owe yourself the treat of lying back on a reclining lawn chair and taking in the celestial show. The dark skies of the countryside are best.
You’ll see the bright Milky Way Band, the thickest part of our home galaxy, stretching from the northeast to southwest horizon. Even if you stargaze outside your house in the more lit up neighborhoods in the city or suburbs it’s still a pretty good show.
Even though it’s autumn, summer is hanging on in the western sky. You can still easily see the famous Summer Triangle high above the western horizon, made up of three bright stars from three separate constellations.
There’s Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp; Altair in Aquila the Eagle; and Deneb, the brightest star, in Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus is also known by a lot of stargazers as the Northern Cross.
Deneb is more than 1500 light-years away and just one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles. Since a light-year is defined as the distance a beam of light travels in a year’s time in the vacuum of space, the light we see tonight from Deneb left that star back in A.D. 500.
In the north the Big Dipper is upright and riding low in the northwestern sky. In fact, it’s getting so low that it’s hard to see if you have a high tree line.
The Big Dipper is the most famous star pattern there is, but technically it’s not a constellation. The Big Dipper is actually the rearend and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
It’s also the brightest part of the Big Bear. Look to the right of the pot section of the Big Dipper for a skinny triangle of three dimmer stars that make up the head of the Big Bear.
Enjoy your October skies. They are truly magical.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist.