The University of Arizona

Skywatcher's Guides

Flandrau’s Observatory is operated entirely by volunteers. Please call ahead to see if the observatory is open (generally Thurs-Sat 7pm – 10pm). Our astronomer volunteers will help you experience the 16-inch telescope as well as answer your questions about the night sky.

Written by: Lucas Snyder (Flandrau Planetarium Operator)
Images contributed by: Tim Van DevenderAlistair Symon (Flandrau Telescope Operators), Nine Planets, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

Navigationphoto by Tim Van Devender

Stars and Constellations

In October, only a small portion of the spring sky is still visible at the beginning of the night.  The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is low in the north-northwest.  As always, the last two stars in the bowl point to Polaris, our north star, in the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor).  You can also still follow the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper to Arcturus, the bright star in Boötes, now low in the west-northwest.  The summer constellations are also visible for a good portion of the night, starting the night in the middle of the sky.  The Summer Triangle is almost directly overhead, with Vega closest to the west-northwest, Deneb closest to the northeast, and Altair closest to the south.  The summer Milky Way is still prominently streaking across the sky, cutting from the northeast to the southwest.  Scorpius with the bright star Antares is now gettling low in the southwest, and the nearby "teapot" of Sagittarius in the south-southwest.  The fall sky is now very prominent, taking up most of the eastern sky at the beginning of the night.  The "W" of Cassiopeia is easy to spot in the northeast, with Perseus just below.  The Great Square of Pegasus is up in the east, and Andromeda nearby in the east-northeast.  There is also a fairly bright star called Fomalhaut in the southeast, though its constellation Piscis Austrinus is not easy to distinguish.

 

In November, all but a few of the spring stars are now gone, and the summer constellations are starting to get lower in the west.  Deneb is the highest point of the Summer Triangle, with Vega below to the west, and Altair towards the southwest.  The brightest part of the summer Milky Way is now gone, but a good portion of it is still easy to distinguish.  Scorpius is now gone, but the "teapot" of Sagittarius is still above the horizon in the southwest.  The fall sky is now a little higher, but still in the eastern half of the sky.  We can now begin to see a few winter stars coming up along the eastern horizon, namely the bright Capella in the northeast and Aldebaran in the east-northeast.  Also look for the Pleiades (aka the Seven Sisters or Subaru) star cluster just above Aldebaran.

 

 Interesting Stars to Observe

Name / Designation

Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)

Distance

(light-years)

Notes

Sirius

-1.44

8.6

 

Arcturus

-0.05

36.7

 

Vega

0.03

25

 

Capella

0.08

42

 

Rigel

0.18

770

 

Procyon

0.4

11

 

Betelgeuse

0.45

427

 

Altair

0.76

17

 

Aldeberan

0.87

65

 

Pollux

1.16

38

 

Markab

1.25

140

 

Deneb

1.25

3230

 

Castor

1.58

52

 

Polaris

1.97

431

 

Alpheratz or Sirrah

2.07

97

 

Mirach

2.07

199

 

Algol

2.09

93

variable star

Denebola

2.14

36.2

 

Enif

2.38

670

 

Almak

2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3

355

 triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit

Albireo

3.2 / 5.8 & 5.1

390 / 380

 possibly a triple star system

Eta Cassiopeiae

3.5 / 7.4

19

480 yr orbit

 

Solar System

Mars is getting low in the southwest, and is only visible at the beginning of the night.  It is moving from the constellation Scorpius to Sagittarius.

 

Venus is not visible as it is passing behind the Sun.

 

Jupiter is coming up in the early morning, just ahead of the constellation Leo.

 

Saturn may be seen at the beginning of the night in early October, but will be passing behind the Sun later in the month.

 

Mercury will be passing between us and the Sun in mid-October, but will be visible in the morning sky in November.

 

 

Calendar of Night Sky Events during October and November

 

10/01/14

First Quarter Moon.

10/07/14

Uranus at opposition. Best time of year to see this planet.

10/08/14

Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse Totality lasts from 3:25 to 4:25am.

10/08/14

Peak of Draconids meteor shower.

10/15/14

Last Quarter Moon.

10/16/14

Mercury at superior conjunction. Behind the Sun.

10/17/14

Conjunction of Mercury and Venus. Separated by 2.4°.

10/22/14

Peak of Orionids meteor shower.

10/23/14

New Moon and Partial Solar Eclipse. 31% obscuration from Tucson. Lasts from 2:27 to 4:47pm.

10/25/14

Venus at superior conjunction. Behind the Sun.

10/30/14

First Quarter Moon.

11/01/14

Mercury at greatest westward elongation. Visible in the morning before sunrise.

11/06/14

Full Moon.

11/12/14

Conjunction of Venus and Saturn. Separated by 1.5°

11/14/14

Last Quarter Moon.

11/17/14

Peak of Leonids meteor shower.

11/18/14

Saturn at conjunction. Behind the Sun.

11/22/14

New Moon.

11/25/14

Mercury and Saturn in conjunction. Separated by 1.6°.

11/29/14

First Quarter Moon.

 

Deep Sky

There are many deep sky objects we can see since the summer Milky Way is high in the sky.  There are many open star clusters that can be seen with only binoculars scanning this part of the sky.  For example we have the Butterfly Cluster (M6) and Ptolemy's Cluster (M7) near the tail of Scorpius.  Further north there is the Wild Duck Cluster (M11) in the faint constellation of Scutum between Sagittarius and Aquila.  There is also the asterism of the Coathanger between Aquila and Cygnus in the fainter constellation of Vulpecula.  Next, heading towards the west we can see the Coma Star Cluster in the constellation of Coma Berenices, which is even visible naked-eye.  The Pleiades (M45) will be visible later in the night, after midnight.

 

There are a several globular clusters we can see as well, as the center of our galaxy is the highest it gets for the year.  Near the bright star Antares in Scorpius lies the globular cluster M4.  In Sagittarius we also have the Teapot Cluster (M22).  Of course we have the famous Hercules globular (M13) high in the east.  Also, M15 is visible in the east near the head of Pegasus.

 

For nebulae, we have several in the plane of the galaxy, one of which is the Swan Nebula (M17) in Sagittarius, also known as the Omega Nebula.  There is also the Lagoon Nebula (M8) nearby and the North America Nebula (C20) further north in Cygnus.  For planetary nebulae we have the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, the Dumbell Nebula (M27) in Vulpecula, and the Blue Snowball (C22) in Andromeda.

 

And now the galaxies:  Although the Big Dipper is getting lower in the sky, you may still be able to find some of the galaxies in this part of the sky.  We have the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) and the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) near the handle, and the Cigar Galaxy (M82) and Bode's Galaxy (M81) near the bowl.  The spectacular Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is now coming up in the northeast, along with the nearby Triangulum Galaxy (M33).

 

 Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during October and November

Designation

Name

Apparent Magnitude

Apparent Size

Distance

(light-years)

Type

Messier 45

Pleiades

1.6

110'

440

open cluster

Messier 31

Andromeda Galaxy

3.4

3° x 1°

2,900,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 44

Beehive Cluster

3.7

95'

577

open cluster

Messier 42

Orion Nebula

4

85' x 60'

1400-1600

diffuse nebula

Messier 33

Triangulum Galaxy

5.7

67' x 42'

3,000,000

spiral galaxy

NGC 7293

Helix Nebula

7.3

16'

450

planetary nebula

Messier 27

Dumbbell Nebula

7.4

8' × 6'

1,250

planetary nebula

NGC 7009

Saturn Nebula

8

36"

2,400

planetary nebula

Messier 81

Bode's Galaxy

8.5

21'

1,200,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 57

Ring Nebula

8.8

1'

2,300

planetary nebula

Messier 82

Cigar Galaxy

9.5

14'

1,200,000

galaxy

 

Frequently Asked Questions – How far can we see?

I get this question a lot.  The answer is that it depends on how you are looking.  It is really a function of how much light you can gather.  If you are just looking with the naked eye, the farthest we can usually see is the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away.  We can also sometimes see the Triangulum Galaxy, 2.9 million light years away. Under exceptional conditions, some people have also reported seeing some fainter galaxies up to 14.7 million light years away.

 

One step up would be using some kind of instrument to enhance your vision, such as binoculars or a telescope.  Here it depends what the aperture (the light-gathering area) is.  The bigger the aperture, the fainter and farther the objects we can see.  Our eyes have an aperture of only a few square millimeters, but even small telescopes have hundreds to thousands of times that area.  We can therefore see objects hundreds to thousands of times fainter.  This pushes our limits to hundreds of millions of light-years. (The reason it's not hundreds to thousands of times farther is because our eyes work on a logarithmic scale.)

 

Next, instead of using our eyes, whether alone or with an instrument, we can use cameras to see the universe.  Our eyes make images based off of the light they collect in only a fraction of a second.  Cameras however can accumulate light over several seconds to minutes to hours.  The longer you can collect the light, again the fainter the objects we can detect.  Hooking a camera up to a good telescope (like the Hubble Space telescope for example) allows us to see galaxies up to tens of billions of light years away.  The farthest objects we have detected (and measured the distance to) are about 30 billion light years away.

 

Finally, rather than just limiting ourselves to visible light, we can look in other parts of the spectrum.  Our eyes and our cameras only see a narrow band of wavelengths, but we can use special detectors to "see" in ranges below and above that band.  In the microwave part of the spectrum, for example, we have made a picture of what's called the Cosmic Microwave Background.  This essentially defines the limit of how far we can see with current technology.  It is the echo of the Big Bang, back when our universe was opaque because of the energy density at the time.  This distance is about 46 billion light years.

 

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

 

Table of Images (Click on an image to expand)

Sketches and Images - Image Credit (Tim Van Devender)

Mars

Mars

Saturn

Saturn

Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2264

NGC 2264

Images from Alistair Symon
Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Mssier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

Images from Nine Planets
Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Images from SEDS
Messier 13 (Hercules Globular Cluster)

M13

Messier 15

M15

Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Messier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 44 (Beehive Cluster)

M44

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula)

NGC 7009

NGC 7293 (The Helix Nebula)

NGC 7293

 

Bibliography

Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Starlore Handbook: an Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1997. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2012. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2011. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2013. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2012. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. The Astronomical Companion. 2nd ed. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2010. Print.

 

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 2.

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 3.

Sky & Telescope. February 2013. Volume 125, No 2.

Sky & Telescope. March 2013. Volume 125, No 3.