This week, the moon rises well after midnight, leaving the evening sky at its darkest for great views of the stars. Get many miles away from city light pollution, or use binoculars, and one of the starry wonders you will be able to see is the constellation Andromeda, famed for its majestic galaxy.
If you go out between 8 and 10 p.m. on November evenings, you will see the huge Summer Triangle of bright stars still in the west, the brilliant planet Jupiter in the southwest and, following Jupiter low in the south, the more modestly bright star Fomalhaut.
A few weeks back, I explained how you could direct your gaze straight up from Fomalhaut in the south to eventually come to the large geometric figure of four stars called the Great Square of Pegasus. But the upper left star in the Great Square officially belongs to another constellation, whose name is famous in both myth and astronomy: Andromeda.
In myth, Princess Andromeda was the first damsel in distress, chained to rocks at the shore awaiting sacrifice to a sea monster. She was rescued by the young hero Perseus. Andromeda and Perseus, Andromeda's royal parents Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the winged horse Pegasus and the monster now called Cetus the Whale: All six of these characters of the great Greek myth are represented by constellations in the autumn sky. But as interesting as all these constellations are, Andromeda may be the most intriguing, due to one celestial object that shines in it.
I'm not talking about any individual star in Andromeda. The main pattern of the maiden is formed by a lovely line of three similarly bright stars spaced equally from the upper left corner of the Great Square to part-way down the northeast sky. But the prime astronomical sight in Andromeda is located a bit to the right of the middle star as you gaze high in the northeast at about 7 to 8 p.m. and just about overhead at about 9 p.m. I'm talking about M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.
Even on a very clear night many miles from city lights, M31 shows up to the naked eye as a not-very-bright, hazy and elongated patch of light. City-dwellers and astronomy beginners anywhere will need binoculars to spot and identify it. But M31 is no less than a spiral swirl of hundreds of billions of stars. The galaxy is bigger than even our own vast Milky Way Galaxy. But it looks so small and gentle in our sky because the Andromeda Galaxy lies more than 2 million light-years away. The light you see from M31 tonight left the galaxy more than 2 million years ago.
Next Tuesday, I will tell you where locally you can get free looks at M31 and much, much more in big telescopes. I will also tell how we may catch an amazingly strong showing of the Leonid meteor shower. You may want to look for your first few dozen of these Leonid shooting stars in the hours after midnight Monday.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: