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ASTRONOMY: Fall brings extra-galactic deep space views

by By David Cater, Star Gazing | August 29, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.
Photo submitted Clinton's M31 618 Core

In September, we move toward the fall season in Northwest Arkansas. Some leaves are starting to fall and, while the summer heat continues to scorch, this will change to cooler weather.

If you look at the southwest at about 11 p.m. or later, you will see that the planet Saturn has returned. If you stay up very late, say, 1:15 a.m., you can see Jupiter directly east about one fist-width above the eastern horizon.

Soon, these gas giant planets will be seen at an earlier hour in the evening and will be a lot more convenient to see. They will be seen nicely in telescopes as small as three inches, but larger scopes will show more detail.

As we move toward fall, we move off the plane of our galaxy and start to see into extra-galactic deep space.

Around this time of year, I always look for the return of M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy. September is a good month to see it. By 10 p.m. in the evening, M31 will be in the eastern half of the night sky, moving towards the zenith.

When I moved to Siloam Springs 30 years ago, this was an object people with good eyes could see with the naked eye. This is much more difficult now. My friend Clinton Willis and I recently attempted an image of M31 with a new eight-inch scope. The results were underwhelming, though, technically, we did everything correctly. The problem was two-fold: light pollution and smoky haze, most likely from Canadian forest fires.

M31 is a large spiral galaxy with really beautiful spiral arms. It lies some 2.5 million light years from our galaxy. The little particles of light, photons, from this galaxy that land on the chip of cameras -- or on your retina -- have traveled 2.5 million years to make the image you see and record. To see this galaxy visually, dark skies, binoculars and a star map to find it should be used.

Willis made the image I have included. While it would have been ideal to record the spiral arms of this galaxy, when we saw the final stacked image, we could only bring out the central core. If we had tried to bring out the arms, the whole picture would have been just a white, shapeless blob -- light pollution allowed only the core to look presentable. You are seeing the middle third of M31 close-up.

As winter comes on, we hope the fires will go out and we can see this galactic neighbor more clearly. We will try again to get a better image.

Looking directly south, the constellation Sagittarius is bright with its nebular wonders. This constellation is a wonderful region of our Milky Way and a delight to scan with binoculars.

I wish you clear skies ...

David Cater is a former faculty member of JBU. Email him at s[email protected]. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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