Look east in October 2013 – see a bow, the demon star, and a distant galaxy

On tap this month are:


To begin our monthly exploration of the night sky in the east, you can take a slide down Andromeda’s Couch to Mirfak and the Bow of Perseus in the northeast – that is, you can if you learned how to find Andromeda’s Couch last month. If that’s new to you, ignore it for now and simply start by looking for the “Bow” of three bright stars rising low in the northeast.

To find it, go out about an hour after sunset and watch the bright stars emerge. It may take a few minutes to see the bow clearly, but what you are looking for is three stars in a vertical arc, with the middle one - Mirfak - the brightest. How big an arc are we talking about? Just make a fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length, and your fist should just cover these three stars. How high? The bottom one should be about a fist above the horizon. Here’s a chart modified from Starry Nights Pro software.

lookeast10_13
Click image for larger version. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

lFor a printer friendly version of this chart go here.

The bow asterism is the core of the constellation Perseus. Now if you want to be a stickler about mythology, Perseus doesn’t carry a bow – he wields a sword instead, which he is holding in his right hand high over his head, while in the left hand he holds the severed head of Medusa. Here’s how the 1822 “Urania’s Mirror” depicted him.

perseus
Perseus – click for a larger version.

Oh boy – and if you can see all that in these stars, then you have a very vivid imagination. I never would have learned the night sky if I had to try to trace out these complex constellations as imagined by ancient cultures and depicted in star guides up until fairly recently. And for the purposes of helping you find your way around the night sky I think remembering the “Bow of Perseus” is easier.

Getting sharp about brightness

As you start to learn the stars, it may surprise you how precise you can be about their brightness. At first you may have difficulty just telling a first magnitude star from a second, but if you get to know Algol, the “Demon Star,” I bet you’ll find that you can quickly become quite sophisticated in assessing brightness and shaving your estimates down to as little as a tenth of a magnitude. So let’s take a closer look at the Bow and three bright stars in this region – Mirfak, Algol, and Almach.

Imagine a star that regularly varies in brightness every few days – that’s what Algol does. Exactly every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes it begins a 10-hour period where its brightness dims more than a full magnitude. If you look during the right two hours, you’ll catch it at or near its dimmest – and most of the rest of the time you’ll catch it at or near peak brightness. And it’s quite easy to judge. But first let’s find it. Here’s the chart we’ll use.

Notice how Algol makes a very nice triangle with two companions, and all three stars are close to the same brightness - Almach, the northern-most star in Andromeda’s Couch; Mirfak, the central star in the Bow of Perseus; and Algol. Algol is called the “Demon Star” because it varies in brightness – and, of course, it marks the head of Medusa. Gazing directly at her turned onlookers to stone according to Greek mythology – but I hope that doesn’t worry you because I’m going to ask you to stare directly at her – or at least at Algol! In fact, that relates to our first challenge: Go out any clear night and study these three stars and decide which is the brightest. Two are equal in brightness, but one is a tad brighter than the other two. Which is it? Algol? Mirfak? Almach? (The answer is at the end of this post so you can ignore that answer until you actually have an opportunity to test yourself.)

However . . .

Because Algol is a variable, sometimes when you look at it, Algol will actually be significantly dimmer than either Mirfak or Almach. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it will be dimmer than either of Mirfak’s two fainter companions that make up the Bow of Perseus. If, when you test yourself, this is the case, congratulations! Make note of the date and time. But that’s not the test – just fun! For the test you want the “normal” condition, which has these three nearly the same in brightness.

OK? Back to Algol. It’s a special kind of variable star known as an eclipsing binary. That is, what looks like one star to us is really two stars very close together, and when we see Algol’s light start to dim it means its companion is passing between Algol and us causing an eclipse. Since the stars are locked in orbit around one another this happens with clockwork regularity.

algol_edu

The above diagram came from this astronomy class web site which includes a more detailed scientific explanation. Since either star of the pair can cause an eclipse, there is a much fainter, secondary eclipse of Algol – really too faint to be noticed by most observers. Why is one eclipse fainter – because one star is blue and much hotter/brighter than the other star. It is when the cooler star is in front that we see the dramatic change in light.

It’s fun to catch Algol in mid eclipse, but I suggest you not read about when to do this right now. Instead, do the little challenge first. Then when you’re ready, go to the final item in this post, which explains how and when to catch Algol in eclipse and in the process, tells you the brightness of its companions.

See a few hundred billion stars at one glance!

Yes, you can do it if you have good dark skies, you have allowed your eyes to dark adapt, and you are looking at the right place. Once again, Andromeda’s Couch is our guide, and what we are looking for this time is the Great Andromeda Galaxy aka M31.

This is our “neighbor” in space if you can wrap your mind around the idea that something “just” 2.5 million light years away is a “neighbor.” As you try to do that remind yourself that a single light year is about 6 trillion miles – of course, good luck if you can imagine a trillion of anything! OK – let’s try that – quickly. If you wanted to count one million pennies, and you counted one every second, it would take you 11 days. A billion pennies would take you about 31.7 years! And a trillion pennies? 31,700 years - roughly the time that has elapsed since the earliest cave paintings. So what if you were the cabin boy on an inter-galactic spaceship charged with ticking off the miles at the rate of one mile a second on the way to Andromeda? Think you could do it? Think you would live long enough? Hardly! The task – and journey – would take you almost half a million years - or by my crude estimate 475,650 years! And that’s non-stop counting. Ohhh – are we there yet, Mom?

And yet here you are collecting photons in your backyard that got their start on the journey to your eyes some 2.5 million years ago! Even if you live under normal, light-polluted skies, you should be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars. In fact, this is one object where the binocular view can be as rewarding as the view through a telescope. Here’s a wide field chart for mid-month and about 90 minutes after sunset. At that point the galaxy should be roughly half way up your eastern sky. (Look for it on a night when the moon isn’t in the sky and when, of course, your eyes have had at least 15 minutes to dark adapt.)

Click image for larger version.

Starting with the preceding chart – and moving to the chart below, here’s a more detailed star-by-star hop to the Andromeda Galaxy:

  1. Locate the Great Square
  2. Locate Andromeda’s Couch off the northeast corner of the Square.
  3. Go down to the middle star in the couch, then count up two stars and bingo!
  4. You can also find the general vicinity by using the western end of the “W” of Cassiopeia as if it were a huge arrowhead pointing right at the Andromeda Galaxy.

Well, “bingo” if you have been doing this with binoculars. With the naked eye it’s more an “oh yeah – I see it – I think!” But what do you expect? Think about it. The light from the near side of this object started its journey about 150,000 years before the light from the more distant side did! And think of where the human race was 2.5 million years ago when these photons began their journey – or for that matter, where all these stars really are today! Nothing is really standing still – everything is in motion.

You might also want to think about the folks who are on a planet orbiting one of those stars in the Andromeda Galaxy and looking off in our direction. What will they see? A very faint patch – certainly  fainter than what we see when we look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but in a modest  telescope  roughly similar in shape, though about two-thirds the size. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way Galaxy we inhabit are huge conglomerations of stars. We’re about 100,000 light years in diameter – Andromeda is about 150,000 light years in diameter. The Milky Way contains perhaps 100 billion stars – the Andromeda Galaxy maybe 300 billion. (Don’t quibble over the numbers – even the best estimates are just estimates. )

And yes, in a few billion years we will probably “collide” with the Andromeda Galaxy, for we are hurtling towards one another. Such galaxy collisions are not that unusual and probably aren’t as violent as the word “collision” makes them sound – but they do, in slow motion, bring about radical changes in one another.

But all that is for the professional astronomers to concern themselves with – for us, there’s the simple beauty and awe of knowing that with our naked eye – or modest binoculars – we can let the ancient photons from hundreds of billions of stars ping our brains after a journey of millions of years.

So here’s hoping for clear skies for you so you can find a winking demon and capture in your own eye the photons from a few hundred billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy!

And now the truth about Algol and companions

Have you done the Algol test yet? Looked at Algol, Mirfak, and Almach and tried to decide which is brightest? If so, you can check your answer by continuing to read. If not, I suggest you first do that exercise, then come back to this.

Chances are that when you look at Algol, it will be at its brightest – but how can you tell? Well, as we mentioned, you can compare it to Mirfak – but there’s an even closer match with another nearby bright star – Almach. That’s the third star in Andromeda’s Couch – the one nearest Algol.

Mirfak is the brightest of the three at magnitude 1.8.

Almach is magnitude 2.1 – which is the same brightness of Algol when Algol is at its brightest – which is most of the time. OK – for the hair splitters, Almach is a tad dimmer than Algol, but the difference is far too little to be able to tell with your eye. But that makes Mirfak about one third of a magnitude brighter than the other two. That difference you should be able to see – but it does take practice.

Here’s a chart showing the magnitude of the stars near Algol that you can use to compare it to and see if it is going through an eclipse. People who look at variable stars use charts like this, but with one important exception – the numbers are given like they were whole numbers so you will not confuse a decimal point with another star. Thus, a star like Mirfak, of magnitude 1.8, would have the number “18” next to it. I broke a convention here because there are just a few bright stars on the chart, so I didn’t worry about the possible confusion of a decimal point being mistaken for another star.

So If Algol and Almach are the same, no eclipse is going on at the moment. If Algol appears dimmer than Almach, then an eclipse is in progress. If it’s as dim or dimmer than either of the companions of Mirfak in the Bow, then you can be pretty sure you’ve caught Algol at or near its darkest. In two hours – or less – it will start to brighten and will return to full brightness fairly quickly.

Catching Almach at its dimmest is fun, but not as easy as it may seem. Why? Because although an eclipse happens every few days, it may happen during the daylight hours, or in the early morning, or some other time when it’s inconvenient. And, of course, you need clear skies. So when I want to observe an Algol eclipse, I go to a handy predicting tool on the Web that you can find here.

I then note the dates and times and pick out only those dates when the times are convenient to me – that is, happening during my early evening observing sessions. Then, given the iffiness of the weather, I consider myself lucky when I  get a good look at an eclipse of Algol. What are your chances – given your weather – that it will be clear on a night when an eclipse is visible before your normal bed time?

If I do this for October 2013 I find that out of 12 Algol minima this month, just  one hit at the right time for me. (Usually there are three or four.) Keep in mind the times are for mid-eclipse – it will be this dim an hour before and after the time given. The date  and times best for me is:

  • 0/11/2013 @ 08:53 pm EDT

Of course the dates and time may be different for you, depending on where you live, and none of us can escape the whims of the weather!

Look east in November 2012 for the “Eye of Sauron” star and its “zombie” planet!

November brings us our southernmost – and northernmost – guidepost stars, Fomalhaut and Capella. And  fresh off the press of NASA for Halloween – a zombie planet! Now you see it – now you don’t – now you do!  But first, the normal.

The positions of Capella and Fomalhaut in the sky mean that for Northern Hemisphere observers Fomalhaut is the guidepost star we see for the shortest amount of time – and Capella is the one we see the longest.

In fact, for many, Capella is visible during some hour every night of the year – and for those north of latitude 45 degrees, it is circumpolar – that is, it never sets. But lonely – and freshly fascinating – Fomalhaut just puts in a relatively brief appearance low to the south.

From NASA:”This image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows the newly discovered planet, Fomalhaut b, orbiting its parent star, Fomalhaut. The small white box at lower right pinpoints the planet’s location. Fomalhaut b has carved a path along the inner edge of a vast, dusty debris ring encircling Fomalhaut that is 21.5 billion miles across. Fomalhaut b lies 1.8 billion miles inside the ring’s inner edge and orbits 10.7 billion miles from its star.” Click image for larger version.

Fomalhaut is “lonely” because there are few bright stars in its vicinity. It is “freshly fascinating” because early in this century the Hubble Space Telescope got a fantastic picture of a disc of “debris” surrounding it, showing this young star to be in the throes of forming planets. Then in 2008 scientists announced they had actually found a planet circling Fomalhaut (see photo above), the first planet outside our Solar System to be seen with visible light. Cool! Add to this the fact that the Hubble photograph of Fomalhaut could be easily mistaken for the Eye of Sauron, and for fans of the Lord of the Rings movie triology, Fomalhaut becomes especially memorable. (For more on the “Eye of Sauron” go here.)

But wait, this just in!

Vital stats for Fomalhaut (FO-mal-ought)

• Brilliance: Magnitude 1.16; its luminosity is the equal of 16 Suns.
• Distance: 25 light years
• Spectral Types: A3V
• Position: 22:57:39, -29:37:20°

After reading this description, click on the chart for a larger version. About an hour after sunset, November evenings offer us an eastern sky filled with a host of asterisms both large and small. A good starting point for the naked eye is the Great Square of Pegasus. From one corner of it you can find Andromeda’s Couch which ties into what I call the “Demon’s Triangle” because it is anchored by the eclipsing variable, Algol – the “Demon Star.” The “W” of Cassiopeia should be obvious – and there are three asterisms shown that are best seen with binoculars. The “Hockey Stick” and “Water Jug” should fit in a low power binocular field, while only half of the “Circlet” will fit. Capella anchors our chart to the north, with Fomalhaut to the south. I included Deneb Kaitos because while it is a little dimmer than Fomalhaut, it could be mistaken for it. Wait an hour or so and you’ll see brilliant Jupiter rise in the east to dominate this portion of the sky in 1012. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

Click here to download a printer friendly version of the above chart.

Finding Fomalhaut

As always, it’s easiest if you start looking in the east 45 minutes to an hour after sunset when in the twilight only the brightest stars are visible as shown on our chart. Fomalhaut is the brightest star south of southeast and about a fist and a half above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset. I emphasize “star” because a bit later int he evening in 2012 Jupiter is in the  east as well, but significantly brighter. Trailing well behind Fomalhaut – to the east – and lower still is a second magnitude star (same brightness as the North Star) called Deneb Kaitos. Don’t mistake it for Fomalhaut.

If you have learned the Great Square – see this post – then the two stars that form the western edge of that square can be used, as pointer stars. Drawing an arrow through those two stars leads you to Fomalhaut. You could also wait until a couple of hours after sunset when you would find Fomalhaut very close to due south. Even then, from my latitude of 41.5° N it is not quite two fists (19°) above the southern horizon.

Ahhh Capella!

Capella is distinctive because it’s not “a” star – it’s two! But these two, bright, yellow suns are so close together that you’ll always see them as one, even if you use a large telescope. Together they make a star that rivals Vega and Altair, now well into our western sky, in brightness. (See Summer Triangle chart here.) In fact Capella is the third brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere – but that’s a tad deceptive because it doesn’t count Sirius – the brightest star that most Northern Hemisphere observers can see, although technically Sirius is in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, since it is below the celestial equator. But you don’t have to worry about such technicalities to enjoy a view of Capella. Just look near the horizon to the northeast. You will need a very clear horizon, however, especially at the start of the month because then Capella will not even be one fist above the horizon.

Just as Fomalhaut is a bit south of southeast, Capella is a bit north of northeast.

It’s easiest to find Capella if you start 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Choose a spot with a clear horizon to the northeast and watch for a bright star to appear very near the horizon. Like all bright stars near the horizon, Capella will twinkle and flash in different colors because you are seeing it through a lot of atmosphere. It won’t show its soft, golden hue until it is much higher in the sky. Even a veteran skywatcher can be fooled by this. Recently my wife was looking to the northeast on a fall evening and saw what she thought was Capella. But it was so bright and blinking red and green so distinctly, that she changed her mind and decided it was an airplane! (There’s an airport off in that general direction.) When after a minute or so it hadn’t moved, she knew her first thought was correct – but boy it made a convincing airplane!

For me, Capella marks a graceful arc of bright stars and asterisms that circle the north celestial pole. If you have been following these directions for a few months, look at Capella, the “Bow” of Perseus, and the “W” of Cassiopeia to see what I mean. Watching these move in the course of a single night – or from month to month – always gives me a real sense of how, from our vantage point, all the stars appear to circle Polaris.

As mentioned, Capella is really a complex multiple star. Its two main components are both yellow giants dubbed Aa and Ab, but there are two more stars in this family. However, they are a pair of red dwarfs only visible in a telescope and are so far away from the two bright stars that they take more than 1,000 years to complete an orbit. The two bright stars orbit in just 104 days. James B. Kaler, in his book The Hundred Greatest Stars, says this about the Capella twins:

These two magnificent giants are separated by about the distance between Venus and the Sun. A resident on a ‘Jupiter’ ten times further out would see two ‘Suns’ about half a degree across (similar to the Sun in our own sky), separated at maximum by some 6 degrees, one setting right behind the other.
So when you find Capella, pause – picture yourself on the Jupiter-like planet with these twin yellow Suns in your sky!

Vital stats for Capella (kah-PEL-ah)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .08; its luminosity is the equal of 16 Suns.
• Distance: 42 light years
• Spectral Types: G8/G0
• Position: 05:16:41, +45:59:53

In this month’s chart I identify three relatively dim asterisms as good objects for your binoculars – there’s also the magnificent Andromeda Galaxy barely visible to the naked eye if you have very dark skies, but certainly a small blurry patch in binoculars. The arrows on the chart show two paths to tracking it down by star hopping. Found it? Pat yourself on the back. You are looking at about 300 billion stars and you are looking back in time about 2.5 million years!

The “Water Jug” of Aquarius is a nice binocular object. To me it looks just like a three-bladed airplane propeller.  The “Circlet” is part of Pisces and while quite faint, is easy to trace out in binoculars, though you will have to scan about a bit to see it all. It doesn’t fit in a single field of view – at least in most binoculars.

What I dub the “Hockey Stick” are the three brightest stars of Aries, the Ram. The faintest of these is an easy and beautiful double – a nearly perfectly matched pair if you have small telescope, point it at them and enjoy.

Still with us!

Other bright guide stars and asterisms introduced in previous months that are still readily seen include the Summer Triangle of Altair, Deneb, and Vega, which is high over head and crossing into the western sky. Arcturus is just above the horizon in the west, the Big Dipper just west of north and hugging the horizon, and the Teapot is diving into the ground in the southwest. And, of course, we have the “Bow” of Perseus with “Algol” the “Demon” star, the “W” of Cassiopeia, the “home plate” of Cepheus, Andromeda’s Couch, and the Great Square.

Look east in October 2012 – see a bow, the demon star, and a distant galaxy

On tap this month are:


To begin our monthly exploration of the night sky in the east, you can take a slide down Andromeda’s Couch to Mirfak and the Bow of Perseus in the northeast – that is, you can if you learned how to find Andromeda’s Couch last month. If that’s new to you, ignore it for now and simply start by looking for the “Bow” of three bright stars rising low in the northeast.

To find it, go out about an hour after sunset and watch the bright stars emerge. It may take a few minutes to see the bow clearly, but what you are looking for is three stars in a vertical arc, with the middle one - Mirfak - the brightest. How big an arc are we talking about? Just make a fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length, and your fist should just cover these three stars. How high? The bottom one should be about a fist above the horizon. Here’s a chart modified from Starry Nights Pro software.

Click image for larger version. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer friendly version of this chart, go here.

The bow asterism is the core of the constellation Perseus. Now if you want to be a stickler about mythology, Perseus doesn’t carry a bow – he wields a sword instead, which he is holding in his right hand high over his head, while in the left hand he holds the severed head of Medusa. Here’s how the 1822 “Urania’s Mirror” depicted him.

perseus
Perseus – click for a larger version.

Oh boy – and if you can see all that in these stars, then you have a very vivid imagination. I never would have learned the night sky if I had to try to trace out these complex constellations as imagined by ancient cultures and depicted in star guides up until fairly recently. And for the purposes of helping you find your way around the night sky I think remembering the “Bow of Perseus” is easier.

Getting sharp about brightness

As you start to learn the stars, it may surprise you how precise you can be about their brightness. At first you may have difficulty just telling a first magnitude star from a second, but if you get to know Algol, the “Demon Star,” I bet you’ll find that you can quickly become quite sophisticated in assessing brightness and shaving your estimates down to as little as a tenth of a magnitude. So let’s take a closer look at the Bow and three bright stars in this region – Mirfak, Algol, and Almach.

Imagine a star that regularly varies in brightness every few days – that’s what Algol does. Exactly every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes it begins a 10-hour period where its brightness dims more than a full magnitude. If you look during the right two hours, you’ll catch it at or near its dimmest – and most of the rest of the time you’ll catch it at or near peak brightness. And it’s quite easy to judge. But first let’s find it. Here’s the chart we’ll use.

Notice how Algol makes a very nice triangle with two companions, and all three stars are close to the same brightness - Almach, the northern-most star in Andromeda’s Couch; Mirfak, the central star in the Bow of Perseus; and Algol. Algol is called the “Demon Star” because it varies in brightness – and, of course, it marks the head of Medusa. Gazing directly at her turned onlookers to stone according to Greek mythology – but I hope that doesn’t worry you because I’m going to ask you to stare directly at her – or at least at Algol! In fact, that relates to our first challenge: Go out any clear night and study these three stars and decide which is the brightest. Two are equal in brightness, but one is a tad brighter than the other two. Which is it? Algol? Mirfak? Almach? (The answer is at the end of this post so you can ignore that answer until you actually have an opportunity to test yourself.)

However . . .

Because Algol is a variable, sometimes when you look at it, Algol will actually be significantly dimmer than either Mirfak or Almach. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it will be dimmer than either of Mirfak’s two fainter companions that make up the Bow of Perseus. If, when you test yourself, this is the case, congratulations! Make note of the date and time. But that’s not the test – just fun! For the test you want the “normal” condition, which has these three nearly the same in brightness.

OK? Back to Algol. It’s a special kind of variable star known as an eclipsing binary. That is, what looks like one star to us is really two stars very close together, and when we see Algol’s light start to dim it means its companion is passing between Algol and us causing an eclipse. Since the stars are locked in orbit around one another this happens with clockwork regularity.

algol_edu

The above diagram came from this astronomy class web site which includes a more detailed scientific explanation. Since either star of the pair can cause an eclipse, there is a much fainter, secondary eclipse of Algol – really too faint to be noticed by most observers. Why is one eclipse fainter – because one star is blue and much hotter/brighter than the other star. It is when the cooler star is in front that we see the dramatic change in light.

It’s fun to catch Algol in mid eclipse, but I suggest you not read about when to do this right now. Instead, do the little challenge first. Then when you’re ready, go to the final item in this post, which explains how and when to catch Algol in eclipse and in the process, tells you the brightness of its companions.

See a few hundred billion stars at one glance!

Yes, you can do it if you have good dark skies, you have allowed your eyes to dark adapt, and you are looking at the right place. Once again, Andromeda’s Couch is our guide, and what we are looking for this time is the Great Andromeda Galaxy aka M31.

This is our “neighbor” in space if you can wrap your mind around the idea that something “just” 2.5 million light years away is a “neighbor.” As you try to do that remind yourself that a single light year is about 6 trillion miles – of course, good luck if you can imagine a trillion of anything! OK – let’s try that – quickly. If you wanted to count one million pennies, and you counted one every second, it would take you 11 days. A billion pennies would take you about 31.7 years! And a trillion pennies? 31,700 years - roughly the time that has elapsed since the earliest cave paintings. So what if you were the cabin boy on an inter-galactic spaceship charged with ticking off the miles at the rate of one mile a second on the way to Andromeda? Think you could do it? Think you would live long enough? Hardly! The task – and journey – would take you almost half a million years - or by my crude estimate 475,650 years! And that’s non-stop counting. Ohhh – are we there yet, Mom?

And yet here you are collecting photons in your backyard that got their start on the journey to your eyes some 2.5 million years ago! Even if you live under normal, light-polluted skies, you should be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars. In fact, this is one object where the binocular view can be as rewarding as the view through a telescope. Here’s a wide field chart for mid-month and about 90 minutes after sunset. At that point the galaxy should be roughly half way up your eastern sky. (Look for it on a night when the moon isn’t in the sky and when, of course, your eyes have had at least 15 minutes to dark adapt.)

Click image for larger version.

Starting with the preceding chart – and moving to the chart below, here’s a more detailed star-by-star hop to the Andromeda Galaxy:

  1. Locate the Great Square
  2. Locate Andromeda’s Couch off the northeast corner of the Square.
  3. Go down to the middle star in the couch, then count up two stars and bingo!
  4. You can also find the general vicinity by using the western end of the “W” of Cassiopeia as if it were a huge arrowhead pointing right at the Andromeda Galaxy.

Well, “bingo” if you have been doing this with binoculars. With the naked eye it’s more an “oh yeah – I see it – I think!” But what do you expect? Think about it. The light from the near side of this object started its journey about 150,000 years before the light from the more distant side did! And think of where the human race was 2.5 million years ago when these photons began their journey – or for that matter, where all these stars really are today! Nothing is really standing still – everything is in motion.

You might also want to think about the folks who are on a planet orbiting one of those stars in the Andromeda Galaxy and looking off in our direction. What will they see? A very faint patch – certainly  fainter than what we see when we look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but in a modest  telescope  roughly similar in shape, though about two-thirds the size. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way Galaxy we inhabit are huge conglomerations of stars. We’re about 100,000 light years in diameter – Andromeda is about 150,000 light years in diameter. The Milky Way contains perhaps 100 billion stars – the Andromeda Galaxy maybe 300 billion. (Don’t quibble over the numbers – even the best estimates are just estimates. )

And yes, in a few billion years we will probably “collide” with the Andromeda Galaxy, for we are hurtling towards one another. Such galaxy collisions are not that unusual and probably aren’t as violent as the word “collision” makes them sound – but they do, in slow motion, bring about radical changes in one another.

But all that is for the professional astronomers to concern themselves with – for us, there’s the simple beauty and awe of knowing that with our naked eye – or modest binoculars – we can let the ancient photons from hundreds of billions of stars ping our brains after a journey of millions of years.

So here’s hoping for clear skies for you so you can find a winking demon and capture in your own eye the photons from a few hundred billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy!

And now the truth about Algol and companions

Have you done the Algol test yet? Looked at Algol, Mirfak, and Almach and tried to decide which is brightest? If so, you can check your answer by continuing to read. If not, I suggest you first do that exercise, then come back to this.

Chances are that when you look at Algol, it will be at its brightest – but how can you tell? Well, as we mentioned, you can compare it to Mirfak – but there’s an even closer match with another nearby bright star – Almach. That’s the third star in Andromeda’s Couch – the one nearest Algol.

Mirfak is the brightest of the three at magnitude 1.8.

Almach is magnitude 2.1 – which is the same brightness of Algol when Algol is at its brightest – which is most of the time. OK – for the hair splitters, Almach is a tad dimmer than Algol, but the difference is far too little to be able to tell with your eye. But that makes Mirfak about one third of a magnitude brighter than the other two. That difference you should be able to see – but it does take practice.

Here’s a chart showing the magnitude of the stars near Algol that you can use to compare it to and see if it is going through an eclipse. People who look at variable stars use charts like this, but with one important exception – the numbers are given like they were whole numbers so you will not confuse a decimal point with another star. Thus, a star like Mirfak, of magnitude 1.8, would have the number “18” next to it. I broke a convention here because there are just a few bright stars on the chart, so I didn’t worry about the possible confusion of a decimal point being mistaken for another star.

So If Algol and Almach are the same, no eclipse is going on at the moment. If Algol appears dimmer than Almach, then an eclipse is in progress. If it’s as dim or dimmer than either of the companions of Mirfak in the Bow, then you can be pretty sure you’ve caught Algol at or near its darkest. In two hours – or less – it will start to brighten and will return to full brightness fairly quickly.

Catching Almach at its dimmest is fun, but not as easy as it may seem. Why? Because although an eclipse happens every few days, it may happen during the daylight hours, or in the early morning, or some other time when it’s inconvenient. And, of course, you need clear skies. So when I want to observe an Algol eclipse, I go to a handy predicting tool on the Web that you can find here.

I then note the dates and times and pick out only those dates when the times are convenient to me – that is, happening during my early evening observing sessions. Then, given the iffiness of the weather, I consider myself lucky when I  get a good look at an eclipse of Algol. What are your chances – given your weather – that it will be clear on a night when an eclipse is visible before your normal bed time?

If I do this for October 2012 I find that out of 12 Algol minima this month, just three hit at the right time for me. Keep in mind the times are for mid-eclipse – it will be this dim an hour before and after the time given. The dates and times best for me are:

  • 10/06/2012 @ 11:32 pm EDT
  • 10/09/2012 @ 08:21 pm EDT
  • 10/29/2012 @ 10:03 pm EDT
  • 11/01/2012 @ 06:51 pm EDT

Of course the dates and time may be different for you, depending on where you live, and none of us can escape the whims of the weather!

Look east in October 2011 – see a bow, the demon star, and a distant galaxy – plus Jupiter

On tap this month are:


To begin our monthly exploration of the night sky, you can take a slide down Andromeda’s Couch to Mirfak and the Bow of Perseus in the northeast – that is, you can if you learned how to find Andromeda’s Couch last month. If that’s new to you, ignore it for now and simply start by looking for the “Bow” of three bright stars rising low in the northeast.

To find it, go out about an hour after sunset and watch the bright stars emerge. It may take a few minutes to see the bow clearly, but what you are looking for is three stars in a vertical arc, with the middle one - Mirfak - the brightest. How big an arc are we talking about? Just make a fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length, and your fist should just cover these three stars. How high? The bottom one should be about a fist above the horizon. Here’s a chart modified from Starry Nights Pro software.

Click image for larger version. (Derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer friendly version of this chart, go here.

The bow asterism is the core of the constellation Perseus. Now if you want to be a stickler about mythology, Perseus doesn’t carry a bow – he wields a sword instead, which he is holding in his right hand high over his head, while in the left hand he holds the severed head of Medusa. Here’s how the 1822 “Urania’s Mirror” depicted it.

perseus
Perseus – click for a larger version.

Oh boy – and if you can see all that in these stars, then you have a very vivid imagination. I never would have learned the night sky if I had to try to trace out these complex constellations as imagined by ancient cultures and depicted in star guides up until fairly recently. And for the purposes of helping you find your way around the night sky I think remembering the “Bow of Perseus” is easier.

Jupiter pops onto the eastern horizon and it is bright!

You may not see the King of Planets just an hour after sunset – and certainly won’t unless you have a clear eastern horizon – but be patient. It will be there.  Jupiter is reasonably high about two hours after sunset the first of the month and by the 15th it is just peeping above the horizon – about   3 degrees high  -  just an hour after sunset. You can see it on our “look east” chart above.  Since it rises about four minutes earlier each night it will be well up ( 12 degrees – more than a fist above the horizon)  by an hour after sunset at the end of the month.

The fun of Jupiter is it’s four Galilean moons – one or more of which can usually be seen with binoculars held real steady – and certainly are visible in any small telescope. (When he discovered them in 1610 Galileo had a poor and tiny telescope compared to the smallest and cheapest available today. ) The moons always line up roughly with Jupiter’s equator, but they change position continuously, some of the changes being noticeable in about an hour. To learn which moon is which and where they are at any given date and hour, go here and click on the special javascript utility. The moons are easier to see as Jupiter gets higher in the sky, so it is good to wait a few hours before trying to see them.  (Plug different times into this script to see how their positions change.)

Getting sharp about brightness

As you start to learn the stars, it may surprise you how precise you can be about their brightness. At first you may have difficulty just telling a first magnitude star from a second, but if you get to know Algol, the “Demon Star,” I bet you’ll find that you can quickly become quite sophisticated in assessing brightness and shaving your estimates down to as little as a tenth of a magnitude. So let’s take a closer look at the Bow and three bright stars in this region – Mirfak, Algol, and Almach.

Imagine a star that regularly varies in brightness every few days – that’s what Algol does. Exactly every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes it begins a 10-hour period where its brightness dims more than a full magnitude. If you look during the right two hours, you’ll catch it at or near its dimmest – and most of the rest of the time you’ll catch it at or near peak brightness. And it’s quite easy to judge. But first let’s find it. Here’s the chart we’ll use.

Notice how Algol makes a very nice triangle with two companions, and all three stars are close to the same brightness - Almach, the northern-most star in Andromeda’s Couch; Mirfak, the central star in the Bow of Perseus; and Algol. Algol is called the “Demon Star” because it varies in brightness – and, of course, it marks the head of Medusa. Gazing directly at her turned onlookers to stone according to Greek mythology – but I hope that doesn’t worry you because I’m going to ask you to stare directly at her – or at least at Algol! In fact, that relates to our first challenge: Go out any clear night and study these three stars and decide which is the brightest. Two are equal in brightness, but one is a tad brighter than the other two. Which is it? Algol? Mirfak? Almach? (The answer is at the end of this post so you can ignore that answer until you actually have an opportunity to test yourself.)

However . . .

Because Algol is a variable, sometimes when you look at it, Algol will actually be significantly dimmer than either Mirfak or Almach. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it will be dimmer than either of Mirfak’s two fainter companions that make up the Bow of Perseus. If, when you test yourself, this is the case, congratulations! Make note of the date and time. But that’s not the test – just fun! For the test you want the “normal” condition, which has these three nearly the same in brightness.

OK? Back to Algol. It’s a special kind of variable star known as an eclipsing binary. That is, what looks like one star to us is really two stars very close together, and when we see Algol’s light start to dim it means its companion is passing between Algol and us causing an eclipse. Since the stars are locked in orbit around one another this happens with clockwork regularity.

algol_edu

The above diagram came from this astronomy class web site which includes a more detailed scientific explanation. Since either star of the pair can cause an eclipse, there is a much fainter, secondary eclipse of Algol – really too faint to be noticed by most observers. Why is one eclipse fainter – because one star is blue and much hotter/brighter than the other star. It is when the cooler star is in front that we see the dramatic change in light.

It’s fun to catch Algol in mid eclipse, but I suggest you not read about when to do this right now. Instead, do the little challenge first. Then when you’re ready, go to the final item in this post, which explains how and when to catch Algol in eclipse and in the process, tells you the brightness of its companions.

See a few hundred billion stars at one glance!

Yes, you can do it if you have good dark skies, you have allowed your eyes to dark adapt, and you are looking at the right place. Once again, Andromeda’s Couch is our guide, and what we are looking for this time is the Great Andromeda Galaxy aka M31.

This is our “neighbor” in space if you can wrap your mind around the idea that something “just” 2.5 million light years away is a “neighbor.” As you try to do that remind yourself that a single light year is about 6 trillion miles – of course, good luck if you can imagine a trillion of anything! OK – let’s try that – quickly. If you wanted to count one million pennies, and you counted one every second, it would take you 11 days. A billion pennies would take you about 31.7 years! And a trillion pennies? 31,700 years - roughly the time that has elapsed since the earliest cave paintings. So what if you were the cabin boy on an inter-galactic spaceship charged with ticking off the miles at the rate of one mile a second on the way to Andromeda? Think you could do it? Think you would live long enough? Hardly! The task – and journey – would take you almost half a million years - or by my crude estimate 475,650 years! And that’s non-stop counting. Ohhh – are we there yet, Mom?

And yet here you are collecting photons in your backyard that got their start on the journey to your eyes some 2.5 million years ago! Even if you live under normal, light-polluted skies, you should be able to see the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars. In fact, this is one object where the binocular view can be as rewarding as the view through a telescope. Here’s a wide field chart for mid-month and about 90 minutes after sunset. At that point the galaxy should be roughly half way up your eastern sky. (Look for it on a night when the moon isn’t in the sky and when, of course, your eyes have had at least 15 minutes to dark adapt.)

Click image for larger version.

Starting with the preceding chart – and moving to the chart below, here’s a more detailed star-by-star hop to the Andromeda Galaxy:

  1. Locate the Great Square
  2. Locate Andromeda’s Couch off the northeast corner of the Square.
  3. Go down to the middle star in the couch, then count up two stars and bingo!
  4. You can also find the general vicinity by using the western end of the “W” of Cassiopeia as if it were a huge arrowhead pointing right at the Andromeda Galaxy.

Well, “bingo” if you have been doing this with binoculars. With the naked eye it’s more an “oh yeah – I see it – I think!” But what do you expect? Think about it. The light from the near side of this object started its journey about 150,000 years before the light from the more distant side did! And think of where the human race was 2.5 million years ago when these photons began their journey – or for that matter, where all these stars really are today! Nothing is really standing still – everything is in motion.

You might also want to think about the folks who are on a planet orbiting one of those stars in the Andromeda Galaxy and looking off in our direction. What will they see? A very faint patch – probably fainter than what we see when we look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but in binoculars and telescopes roughly similar in size and shape. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way Galaxy we inhabit are huge conglomerations of stars. We’re about 100,000 light years in diameter – Andromeda is about 150,000 light years in diameter. The Milky Way contains perhaps 100 billion stars – the Andromeda Galaxy maybe 300 billion. (Don’t quibble over the numbers – even the best estimates are just estimates. )

And yes, in a few billion years we will probably “collide” with the Andromeda Galaxy, for we are hurtling towards one another. Such galaxy collisions are not that unusual and probably aren’t as violent as the word “collision” makes them sound – but they do, in slow motion, bring about radical changes in one another.

But all that is for the professional astronomers to concern themselves with – for us, there’s the simple beauty and awe of knowing that with our naked eye – or modest binoculars – we can let the ancient photons from hundreds of billions of stars ping our brains after a journey of millions of years.

That bright star rising isn’t a star at all, but the king of planets,  Jupiter!

So here’s hoping for clear skies for you so you can find a winking demon, follow the dance of Jupiter and Urnaus, and capture in your own eye the photons from a few hundred billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy!

And now the truth about Algol and companions

Have you done the Algol test yet? Looked at Algol, Mirfak, and Almach and tried to decide which is brightest? If so, you can check your answer by continuing to read. If not, I suggest you first do that exercise, then come back to this.

Chances are that when you look at Algol, it will be at its brightest – but how can you tell? Well, as we mentioned, you can compare it to Mirfak – but there’s an even closer match with another nearby bright star – Almach. That’s the third star in Andromeda’s Couch – the one nearest Algol.

Mirfak is the brightest of the three at magnitude 1.8.

Almach is magnitude 2.1 – the exact brightness of Algol when Algol is at its brightest – which is most of the time. OK – for the hair splitters, Almach is a tad dimmer, but the difference is far too little to be able to tell with your eye. But that makes Mirfak about one third of a magnitude brighter than the other two. That difference you should be able to see – but it does take practice.

Here’s a chart showing the magnitude of the stars near Algol that you can use to compare it to and see if it is going through an eclipse. People who look at variable stars use charts like this, but with one important exception – the numbers are given like they were whole numbers so you will not confuse a decimal point with another star. Thus, a star like Mirfak, of magnitude 1.8, would have the number “18” next to it. I broke a convention here because there are just a few bright stars on the chart, so I didn’t worry about the possible confusion of a decimal point being mistaken for another star.

So If Algol and Almach are the same, no eclipse is going on at the moment. If Algol appears dimmer than Almach, then an eclipse is in progress. If it’s as dim or dimmer than either of the companions of Mirfak in the Bow, then you can be pretty sure you’ve caught Algol at or near its darkest. In two hours – or less – it will start to brighten and will return to full brightness fairly quickly.

Catching Almach at its dimmest is fun, but not as easy as it may seem. Why? Because although an eclipse happens every few days, it may happen during the daylight hours, or in the early morning, or some other time when it’s inconvenient. And, of course, you need clear skies. So when I want to observe an Algol eclipse, I go to a handy predicting tool on the Web that you can find here.

I then note the dates and times and pick out only those dates when the times are convenient to me – that is, happening during my early evening observing sessions. Then, given the iffiness of the weather, I usually find that there are only one or two times a month when I’ll get a good look at an eclipse of Algol.

If I do this for October 2011 I find that out of 12 Algol minima this month, just three hit at the right time for me. Keep in mind the times are for mid-eclipse – it will be this dim an hour before and after the time given. The dates and times best for me are:

  • 10/05/2011 @ 11:00 pm EDT
  • 10/08/2011 @ 07:49 pm EDT
  • 10/28/2011 @ 09:30 pm EDT

Of course the dates and time may be different for you, depending on where you live, and none of us can escape the whims of the weather!

Prime Time observing for October 2009

Seeing a bow, a demon,  and a few hundred billion stars  – meanwhile, Jupiter slams it into forward!

Please note: All charts with this post are for observers in mid-nothern latitudes centered on 40° N. If you are 10 or more degrees south or north of that – or if you’re not sure of your latitude – please go here to make your own custom star charts.

On tap this month is a new asterism,  the bow; a variable, Algol, the “demon star;” a neighboring galaxy you can see with the naked eye or binoculars; and yes, Jupiter, which appears to abruptly change directions as it moves against the background stars.

To begin our monthly exploration of the night sky, you can take a slide down Andromeda’s Couch to Mirfak and the Bow of Perseus in the northeast, assuming you learned these last month. If these are new to you, simply start by looking for the rising low in the northeast.

As usual, go out 45 minutes after sunset and watch the stars emerge. It may take another 15 minutes for  to see the bow  clearly, but what you are looking for is three stars in a vertical arc, with the middle one – Mirfak -  the brightest. How big an arc are we talking about? Just make a fist and hold it vertically at arm’s length, and your fist should just cover these three stars. How high? The bottom one should be about a first above the horizon.  Here’s a chart modified from Starry Nights Pro software..

Click chart for much larger view. If you observed last month you know the Great Square and Andromeda's Couch and can slide down the "Couch" to Mirfak, the brightest star in the bow of Hercules. If this is your first month of learning the sky, simply look to the northeast and find the bow.

Click chart for much larger view. If you observed last month you know the Great Square and Andromeda's Couch and can slide down the "Couch" to Mirfak, the brightest star in the bow of Perseus. If this is your first month of learning the sky, simply look to the northeast and find the bow.

Now if you want to be a stickler about mythology, Perseus doesn’t carry a bow – he wields a sword instead, which he is holding in his right hand high over his head, while in the left hand he holds the severed head of Medusa. Here’s how the 1822 “Urania’s Mirror” depicted it.

perseus

Perseus - click for alarger version.

Oh boy – and if you can see all that in these stars, then you have a very vivid imagination. I never would have learned the night sky if I had to try to trace out these complex constellations as imagined by ancient cultures and depicted in star guides up until fairly recently.  And for the purposes of helping you find your way around the night sky I think remembering the Bow of Perseus is easier. Mirfak, is just a tad dim to serve as one of our guidepost stars, but it does come in handy when identifying the “Demon Star,” whose proper name is Algol.

Getting sharp about brightness

As you start to learn the stars, it may surprise you how precise you can be about their brightness.  At first you may have difficulty just telling a first magnitude star from a second, but if you get to know Algol, the “Demon Star,” I bet you’ll find that you can quickly become quite sophisticated in assessing brightness and shaving your estimates down to a tenth of a magnitude.

Imagine a star that regularly varies in brightness every few days – that’s what Algol does. Exactly every 2 days, 20 hours and 49 minutes it begins a 10 hour period where its brightness dims more than a full magnitude. If you look during the right two hours, you’ll catch it at or near its dimmest – and most of the rest of the time you’ll catch it at peak brightness. And it’s quite easy to judge. But first let’s find it. Here’s the chart we’ll use.

algol_no_mags_web

Notice how Algol makes a very nice triangle with two companions, and all three stars are close to the same brightness – Almach, the bottom star in Andromeda’s Couch; Mirfak, the central star in the Bow of Perseus; and Algol. That brings us to our first challenge: Go out any clear night and study these three stars and decide which is the brightest. Two are equal in brightness, but one is a tad brighter than the other two. Which is it? Algol? Mirfak? Almach? (The answer is at the end of this text so you can ignore that answer until you actually have an opportunity to test yourself.)

However . . .

Because Algol is a variable, sometimes when you look at it, Algol will actually be significantly dimmer than either Mirfak or Almach. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it will be dimmer than either of Mirfak’s two fainter companions that make up the Bow of Perseus. If when you test yourself, this is the case, congratulations! Make note of the date and time.

Algol is a special kind of variable star known as an eclipsing binary. That is, what looks like one star to us is really two stars, and when we see Algol’s light start to dim it means its companion is passing between Algol and us causing an eclipse. Since the stars are locked in orbit around one another this happens with clockwork regularity.

algol_edu

The above diagram came from this astronomy class web site which includes amore detailed scientific explanation.

Since either star of the pair can cause an eclipse, there is a much fainter, secondary eclipse of Algol – really too faint to be noticed by most observers. Why is one eclipse fainter – because one star is blue, Class B – and much hotter/brighter than the other star which is “K” class. (Remember – OBAFGKM.)  It is when the cooler star is in front that we see the dramatic change in light.

It’s fun to catch Algol in mid eclipse, but I suggest you not read about when to do this right now. Instead, do the little challenge first. Then when you’re ready, go to the final item in this, which explains how and when to catch Algol in eclipse and in the process, tells you the brightness of its companions.

OK – second project – Jupiter changes direction!

I described this in an earlier post an am quotingit in its entirety here.

On October 1, 2009 a nearly full moon joins Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune in the southeast as shown here about an hour after sunset as seen from latitude 42 degrees north and longitude 71 degrees west. Chart from StrayyN oghts Pro software. Click for larger image.  .
On October 1, 2009 a nearly full moon joins Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune in the southeast as shown here about an hour after sunset. (Jupiter is made large to indicate its relative brightness – ut it will look like a very bright star – not a small moon!) This is how the sky appears from latitude 42 degrees north and longitude 71 degrees west. Chart from Starry Nights Pro software. Click for larger image.

The idea here is simple – connect what we can see in the sky this month with what’s actually going on. We’ll do this by watching Jupiter, the easiest object to find right now since it is the brightest “star” fairly high in the southeast shortly after sunset.

With just a few quick checks with binoculars we should be able to track the movement of Jupiter in relation to a bright, nearby star. You should start this project on or before October 1, 2009 if at all possible and plan to observe two or more nights between your start time and October 13. Then observe again in about a week and again near the end of the month.Your first couple of checks should show Jupiter in “retrograde” moving westward among the background stars. Your next two checks should show Juputer has resumed it’s normal eastward movement.

Use the following chart as both your guide and your log. That is, click on it to get a version you can print, take out under the stars, and record your observations on with a pencil.

Click for larger version, suitable for printing.
Click for larger version, suitable for printing.

So why does Jupiter appear to first go one way, then the other? Afterall, it isn’t really doing that, is it? Like the other planets – and us – it’s simply continuing a steady, eastward journey around the Sun. But so are we – and we are moving much faster because we’re much closer to the Sun. So what you are seeing is partly the movement of Jupiter – but also the apparent change in its position caused by our rapidly changing position.

I made the following animation from Solar System Live charts. It shows how Jupiter’s position changes slowly in relation to Earth and the other planets, particularly Neptune. The animation starts with September 1, 2009  and moves a month at a time for six months. The arrow shows our changing view of Jupiter with relation to Neptune, a much more distant – and even more slowly moving, planet. Notice that in late December Jupiter makes another close approach to Neptune – the third this year – which will make especially easy at that time to find this distant and faint planet. Right now you can use the chart above to track it down – it would be just visible in binoculars on a moonless night.

picasion.com_8320c15f05e4065bb6a5159017c4c205

So let’s review the movements we’re dealing with here.

1. The daily rotation of the Earth causes Jupiter to appear to rise inthe east and move westward as the night progresses.

2. The revolution of the Eartha round the sun at a much higher speed than Jupiter makes it so that for some time the huge planet appears to be moving westward in relation to background stars and the more distant planet Jupiter. That apparent westward motion comes to a stop October 13, 2009.

3. Jupiter’s own motion is more apparent after October 13, as it appears to move eastward against the background stars. This general motion will carry it about 30 degrees eastward – very close to where Uranus can be found now – in about a year. It takes Jupiter almost 12 of our years to make a complete circuit of the sky.

The idea here is simple – connect what we can see in the sky this month with what’s actually going on. We’ll do this by watching Jupiter, the easiest object to find right now since it is the brightest “star” fairly high in the southeast shortly after sunset.

See a few hundred billion stars at one glance!

Yes, you can do it if you have good dark skies, you have allowed your eyes to dark adapt, and you are looking at the right place.  Once again, Andromeda’s Couch is our guide, and what we are looking for this time is the Great Andromeda Galaxy aka M31.

This is our “neighbor” in space if you can wrap your mind around the idea that something “just” 2.5 million light years away is a “neighbor.” ( As you try to do that remind yourself that a single light year is about 6 trillion miles – of course, good luck if you can imagine a trillion of anything!)

But seriously, you can see this with  your naked eye – and even in normal, light-polluted skies, you can see it with binoculars. In fact, this is one object where the binocular view can be almost as rewarding as the view through a telescope. Here’s a wide field chart for mid-month and about 90 minutes after sunset. At that point the galaxy should be roughly half way up your eastern sky.

m31_finder

Click image for larger version.

Starting with the preceding chart – and moving to the chart below:

  1. Locate the Great Square
  2. Locate Andromeda’s Couch off the northeast corner of the Square.
  3. Go down to the middle star in the couch, then count up two stars and bingo!
  4. You can also find the general vicinity by using the western end of the “W” of Cassiopeia as if it were a huge arrow head pointing right at the Andromeda Galaxy.
Click image for larger chart.

Click image for larger chart.

Well, “bingo” if you have been doing this with binoculars. With the naked eye it’s more an “oh yeah – I see it – I think!” But what do you expect? Think about it. The light from the near side of this object started its journey about 150,000 years before the light from the more distant side did! And think of where the human race was 2.5 million years ago when these photons began their journey – or for that matter, where all these stars really are today! Nothing is really standing still -everything is in motion.

You might also want to think about the folks who are on a planet orbiting one of those stars in the Andromeda Galaxy and looking off in our direction. What will they see? A very faint patch – probably fainter than what we see when we look at the Andromeda Galaxy, but in binoculars and telescopes roughly similar in size and shape.  Both Andromeda and the Milky Way Galaxy we inhabit are huge conglomerations of stars. We’re about 100,000 light years in diameter – Andromeda is about 150,000 light years in diameter. The Milky Way contains perhaps 100 billion stars – the Andromeda Galaxy maybe 300 billion.  (Don’t quibble over the numbers – even the best estimates are just estimates. )

And yes, in a few billion years we will probably “collide” with the Andromeda Galaxy, for we are hurtling towards one another. Such galaxy collisions are not that unusual  and probably aren’t as violent as the word “collision” makes them sound – but they do, in slow motion, bring about radical changes.

But all that is for the professional astronomers to concern themselves with – for us, there’s the simple beauty and awe of knowing that with our naked eye – or modest binoculars – we can let the ancient photons from hundreds of billions of stars ping our brains after a journey of millions of years.

And now the truth about Algol and companions

Have you done the Algol test yet? Looked at Algol, Mirfak, and Almach and tried to decide which is brightest? If so, you can check your answer by continuing to read. If not, I suggest you first do that exercise, then come back to this.

Chances are that when you look at Algol, it will be at its brightest – but how can you tell? Well, as we mentioned, you can compare it to Mirfak – but there’s an even closer match with another nearby bright star – Almach.  That’s the third star in Andromeda’s Couch  – the one neareast Algol.

Mirfak is the brightest of the three at magnitude 1.8.

Almach is magnitude 2.1 – the exact brightness of Algol when Algol is at its brightest – which is most of the time. OK – for the hair splitters, Almach is a tad dimmer, but the difference is far too little to be able to tell with your eye.

Here’s a chart showing the magnitude of the stars near Algol that you can use to compare it to and see if it is going through an eclipse.  People who look at variable stars use charts like this, but with one important exception – the numbers are given like they were whole numbers so you will not confuse a decimal point with another star. Thus, a star like Mirfak, of magnitude 1.8, would have the number “18” next to it. I broke a convention here because there are just a few bright stars on the chart, so I didn’t worry about the possible confusion of a decimal point being another star.

algol_mag_color

So If Algol and Almach are the same, no eclipse is going on at the moment.  If Algol appears dimmer than Almach, then an eclipse is in progress. If it’s as dim or dimmer than either of the companions of Mirfak in the Bow, then you can be pretty sure you’ve caught Algol at or near  its darkest. In two hours – or less – it will start to brighten and will return to full brightness fairly quickly.

Catching Almach at its dimmest is fun, but not as easy as it may seem. Why? Because although  an eclipse happens every few days, it may happen during the daylight hours, or in the early morning, or some other time when it’s inconvenient. And, of course, you need clear skies.  So when I want to observe an Algol eclipse, I go to a handy predicting tool on the Web that you can find here.

I then note the dates and times and pick out only those dates when the times are convenient to me – that is, happening during my early evening observing sessions. Then, given the  iffiness of the weather, I usually find that there are only one or two times a month when I’ll get a good look at an eclipse of Algol.

If I do this for October I find that out of 11 Algol minima, just three hit at the right time for me. Those dates and times are:

  • 10/01/2009  9:09 pm EDT
  • 10/21/2009  10:50 pm EDT
  • 10/24/2009  07:39 pm EDT

Of course the dates and time may be different for you, depending on where you live, and none of us can escape the whims of the weather! So here’s hoping for clear skies for you so you can find a winking demon, follow the actions of Jupiter, and capture in your own eye the photos from a few hundred billion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy!

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