“Gateway to the Stars” Dec. 7 – The Andromeda Galaxy

Mike Murray

Last month we saw how The Great Square of Pegasus can serve as an ideal guidepost to finding other bright stars and deep sky objects in the Autumn sky. This great reference pattern is now high in the south soon after twilight, making it prominent and even more useful. It can even help us find some new objects in the east that signal the beginning of Winter. But before we go there, let’s stay high in the sky where objects look best to the eye and through binoculars and telescopes!

M31, The Great Andromeda Galaxy

M31, The Great Andromeda Galaxy

One of the nice features of the Great Square of Pegasus is that one of its stars is shared with another famous constellation, Andromeda the Chained Maiden.  If you’re facing south, this star is in the upper left (northeast) corner of the Square, called Alpheratz. Andromeda and Pegasus are both key characters in the Perseus Legend, and recently made even more popular with the Hollywood films “Clash of the Titans.”

Starting from Alpheratz, we’ll follow some relatively bright stars that curve even more northeast to locate a “fuzzy patch” of light known as The Andromeda Galaxy. Sometimes called our “sister spiral,” it is very similar in structure to our own Milky Way Galaxy and represents the closest spiral galaxy to our own.  Even at 2.5 million light years away, this galaxy is so huge that it can be seen to the unaided eye under dark skies and can be a memorable sight in binoculars.

M45, The Pleiades Star Cluster

M45, The Pleiades Star Cluster

The Great Square also makes for a convenient pointer to the east where we can get a preview of stars and special objects to come. The Pleiades are one of those special features. It is probably the most well known cluster in the entire sky because of its prominence in the celestial sphere and in sky lore. It can be found with the naked eye, even in moderately light-polluted skies.

December also marks one of the best known meteor showers next to the Perseids of August. The Geminids peak on December 13 and 14 but the bright moonlight will interfere with the show this year, washing out many of the fainter meteors.  You’re best chance of seeing the maximum rate (about 80 meteors per hour) will be from moonset until dawn (3:30 to 6:00 am). We’ll use the Hansen Dome Theatre to show you exactly where to look!

Come and join us this Saturday, December 7 at 6:45 pm in the dome for a special look at the December sky wonders and the best techniques for viewing them!  Tickets are $2. Members get in free.

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