It was painful to look at the auroral plots and satellite images last night and know the northern lights were happening only 4 miles away … through an impenetrable layer of clouds. Walking the dog around 9 p.m., I could see a pale glow through broken clouds in the northern sky. Five minutes later even that filled in.
Thanks to clear skies and alert eyes elsewhere, we can still enjoy the nice show. Northern lights were reported across northern Europe and the northern U.S. last night. Tonight there’s still a good chance for auroras due to high speed material arriving from earlier eruptions in sunspot group 1302. Let’s hope the weather forecast is equally optimistic.
The moon is new today leaving us dark evening skies now through the weekend. Why not go out and try to see the farthest thing you can see without a telescope? That would be the Andromeda Galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda the Princess. You might be surprised at how easy it is to find. And you won’t need a cabin in the country to do this. The galaxy, the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, is visible from moderately dark skies such as those you’d find on the outskirts or suburban areas of smaller cities.
The key is allowing your eyes about 10-15 minutes to adapt to the darkness. Once you can see your way around, look about halfway up in the northeastern sky around 8:30-9 p.m. and find the zigzag or W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. It spans an amount of sky equal to about one fist held at arm’s length. Now pretend that the top half of Cassiopeia is really the tip of an arrow. If you follow where it points, it will take your gaze directly to a small, fuzzy patch of light – the Andromeda Galaxy.
It looks like a bit of fluff or haze to most of us. Those with darker skies and keener vision can detect the galaxy’s brighter, more concentrated core set in a faint oval disk. Binoculars will show the shape, large size and bright nucleus very clearly. No matter how you see it, your vision will reach across a distance of 2.5 million light years and into the depths of time.
Time? Yes, the light from everything we see in the celestial vault takes time to get here even though it’s traveling at 186,000 miles per second. Sunlight requires nearly 8 minutes to reach Earth 93 million miles away. The light from Jupiter, which is currently 381 million miles from Earth, takes 34 minutes to get here; Pluto’s requires 4 1/2 hours! Once we get to the stars, we’re dealing with years and years. Whatever that star’s distance in light years, that’s how old the light reaching our eyes will be tonight. Vega is 25 light years from us, so we see the star as it was 25 years ago.
As for the Andromeda Galaxy, the light you see tonight left it at the beginning of the Stone Age, when our human-like ancestors first starting making stone tools. It’s quite a time shock when it hits you.
Andromeda is a spiral galaxy similar to our Milky Way. If we could orbit on a planet about a star in the galaxy we’d see all stars around us just as we do on Earth. There would even be an “Andromeda Way” similar to the hazy band of distant starlight light we call the Milky Way (which is also the name of our galaxy). Andromeda has its own star clusters, gas clouds called nebulas, sun-like stars and undoubtedly planets set in a flattened, self-contained disk at least 220,000 light years across.
We look to Andromeda as September becomes October and recognize a familiar face across the vastness of space.