September Summer Skies
For sure the days are numbered, but it's still summer and there are still plenty of summer constellations dancing across the night sky. What's really nice is that your stargazing adventures can start earlier in the evening now as daylight hours are dwindling.
As soon as it gets dark, around 8:30 to 9:00pm, look to the really low southwestern sky for the two brightest stars you can see. The one on the lower left just above the horizon is Antares, the brightest star in the sinking summer constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.
The brighter "star" on the upper right is actually the planet Saturn, now just under 934 million miles away. When you glance at Saturn with the naked eye most of the light you see from it is reflected sunlight off its ring system. Through even a small telescope you can really see Saturn's rings, but unfortunately, because it's so low in the sky, it will definitely have a fuzzy look to it. That's because near the horizon we have to look through a thicker layer of Earth's atmosphere and that has a definite blurring effect.
Not far from Saturn, just above the southern horizon, is one of my favorite constellations. It's called the Teapot because that's what it actually looks like. The Teapot is more formally known as Sagittarius, a centaur shooting an arrow at its next-door neighbor Scorpius. If you can see Sagittarius as a half man-half horse with a bow and arrow, you are kidding yourself! I'll stick with the Teapot.
The Teapot is located in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, a little over 25,000 light-years away. If the sky is dark enough where you are, you'll see a milky white band of light that runs all the way across the sky, from the Teapot in the southwest to the northeast horizon. You're looking at the combined light of billions of distant stars that make up the main plane of our galactic home. I'll have more on that next week in Skywatch.
Nearly overhead is another signpost of summer, the Summer Triangle. Just look for the three brightest stars you can see around the zenith and that's it. All three stars are the brightest stars in each of their respective constellations. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Altair is the brightest in Aquila the Eagle, and Deneb is the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, also known as the "Northern Cross".
There's nothing really all that "summer" about the Big and Little Dippers since they're visible every night of the year, but summer is a great time to spot them. That's especially true for the Big Dipper since it's proudly hanging by its handle high in the northwest. The fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle to the right of the Big Dipper with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of its handle.
In the northeast sky look for the sideways "W" that outlines the throne of Cassiopeia the Queen. Just to the upper left of the queen in the northern sky look for the faint upside-down house with the steep roof, which is supposed to be Cepheus the King.
One of the prime autumn constellations, Pegasus the winged horse, is on the rise in the eastern sky after sunset. Look for the big diamond of stars that outlines the torso of Pegasus. This is called the "Square of Pegasus", but because of the way it's positioned in the sky this time of year it's also known as the "Autumn Diamond."
The biggest astronomical event this month will be a total lunar eclipse on Sunday night, September 27th, starting just before 10pm. Let's hope it's good and clear that night, because it will be the last total lunar eclipse until 2019.