Lockdown stargazing: How to look 2.5 million years back in time
The dark nights with little moonlight make a great time to look for fainter objects
If you’re new to this newsletter, welcome! I’m Abby. I’m a freelance science journalist, stargazing columnist and author of The Art of Urban Astronomy. I live in England, where we have just entered a second lockdown…this time in winter. I started this newsletter to help people through the dark nights, with ideas of what to look for in the skies each week. If you live in the southern hemisphere, don’t worry I always try to make sure it applies to stargazers around the world.
Did you see any planets last week? Mars is still shining bright and red in the south-eastern sky after sunset, rising as the night progresses. Jupiter and Saturn can still be caught for about two hours after sunset, near the horizon in the west, before they set for the night. If you make a habit of finding the pair of gas giants over the next few weeks, you’ll slowly see them moving towards each other. They’re edging closer until the end of December, when they’ll be so close in the sky they’ll actually look like one really bright planet. This is called a great conjunction, and it happens around every 20 years.
Read on for more planets, little moonlight and something totally out of this galaxy.
Early risers can see Venus and Mercury
If you find yourself waking up super early, why not take a little walk outside and try to see a couple of planets? This week, Mercury is at its greatest western elongation, which means it’s furthest away from the sun, giving us the best chance to spot it. If you are up early (around 5:45AM local time for those in the northern hemisphere) you can spot Mercury and Venus just above the eastern horizon.
Venus will be higher in the sky and brighter. The planets will rise throughout the morning, but by sunrise the sunlight will outshine them, so there really is only a small timeframe in which you’ll be able to spot them, maybe about half an hour to an hour. If you look on Friday morning, you’ll see a very small crescent moon between the two planets. Set your alarms! I am planning to take my dogs, who I am sure won’t appreciate it.
If you live in the southern hemisphere, the longer daylight hours mean you’ll miss out on seeing Mercury this time. But Venus will still be visible before sunrise. it’s also coming into summer where you are, so swings and roundabouts.
The view at 5:45AM on Friday with Mercury, Venus and the crescent moon.
New moon on Sunday
With the long nights and little moonlight this week, especially on Sunday’s new moon, it will be a great time to look for fainter objects. If you have a pair of binoculars or a telescope, find Orion and look below his belt to see the Orion Nebula. This is a cloud of dust and gas where the beginnings of stars are starting to form, and it’s beautiful.
Orion Nebula (FYI, it won’t look like this through binoculars)
Image: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
November is also a great month for finding the Andromeda galaxy, one of the most distant objects we can see with the naked eye…
Finding the Andromeda galaxy
Every star you can see in the night sky is part of our galaxy, the Milky Way. If you live in the southern hemisphere, you might be able to see the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud, small galaxies called ‘satellite galaxies’ that orbit our own. But in the northern hemisphere, the only bit of light we can see that comes from outside our galaxy is Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light years away.
Andromeda is home to billions of stars, but from the northern hemisphere with the naked eye it just looks like a hazy blob around the same size as the full moon. It’s hard to see the galaxy in places with light pollution, so try and get as far away from street lights as you can, and give your eyes time to adjust.
To find the Andromeda galaxy, we can use the constellation Cassiopeia. This is the W or M-shaped constellation which is always visible anywhere north of 34 degrees latitude, all year round. Cassiopeia is never far from the north star, so looking in the northern direction is always a good start. Its position changes throughout the night, but at 7:30PM it should be in the north-east. You can always use a stargazing app to help. Once you can recognise its distinct pattern, it is an easy one to find.
After you’ve found Cassiopeia, you will notice one of its V shapes is deeper than the other. If it looks like a W to you, this will be the one on the right. If you take this V as an arrow, it points to the Andromeda galaxy, which is also known as M31 (see diagram below). Look for a hazy patch in the sky amongst the stars. If you have binoculars it will appear much brighter.
If you do find Andromeda, congratulations! You’ve seen probably the furthest object you’ll ever see with the naked eye. The light that you saw took 2.5 million years to reach your eyes, which is when the first Homo habilis, a species of archaic humans, lived on our planet.
Finding Andromeda, or M31, from Cassiopeia’s deep V
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