It’s time to get out and enjoy the absolute beauty of the autumn 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 generally more transparent.
The dark skies of the countryside are best, but it’s even a great show right from your backyard.
For the next several nights, however, your stargazing adventures will be mooned. The harvest moon of 2012 will still obliterate all but the brightest stars as it hogs up the night skies through Thursday, when it rises late enough not to get in the way.
I truly love the beauty of any full moon, especially the harvest moon, called that because it’s the nearest full moon to the autumnal equinox, the first day of autumn. That occurred on Sept. 22. Because of the timing of the moon’s cycle this year, the harvest moon is a little later than average.
A lot of the stars of summer hanging on in the western sky. You can still easily see the famous Summer Triangle high above the western horizon with the three bright stars from three separate constellations.
The brightest shiner is Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. In second place for brilliance is Altair in Aquila the Eagle. The third brightest is Deneb in another bird constellation, Cygnus the Swan.
Cygnus is also known by a lot of stargazers as the Northern Cross, because at first glance that’s what it really looks like. Deneb is at the top of the cross and below are three dimmer stars that make up the crosspiece.
Roll your eyes a little ways below the crosspiece and look for an equally bright star at the foot of the cross, Albireo. It’s definitely one you want to look at with binoculars or a small telescope.
When you zoom in on Albireo you’ll think you’re seeing double and you are: Albireo is a gorgeous double star, one gold and the other is blue, and you can really see these colors.
The two stars look like they are right next to each other, but they’re actually light-years apart. They just happen to be in the same line of sight.
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 it’s technically not a constellation. It is actually the rearend and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. It’s also the brightest part of the Big Bear.
Over in the eastern skies is the grand constellation Pegasus, the winged horse. Look for a giant diamond of stars on the rise. Just to the upper left of Pegasus is the Andromeda Galaxy, the next-door neighbor to our Milky Way, nearly 2.5 million light-years away, with just one light-year spanning nearly 6 trillion miles.
Instructions for sky map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map’s horizon to the actual direction you’re facing. East and West on this map are not backward. When you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions. Attach a piece of red cloth or paper over the lens of a small flashlight so you don’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.