Aurora Pix! Take A Seat In Andromeda’s Time Machine

Great aurora scene taken from Rimsfora, Sweden last night. Details: Nikon D5000 camera, f/3.5 18mm lens at ISO 3200. Credit: Krzysztof Polakowski

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.

Reed Ingram Weir of Northumberland, UK captured this colorful rayed arc last night. The clouds add a special touch.

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.

This map shows the sky facing northeast around 8:30 p.m. local time. The Andromeda Galaxy is one "Cassiopeia width" to the lower right of that constellation. If you have difficulty seeing it, play your eye around the spot rather than stare directly at it. This technique, called averted vision, exposes the low-light-sensitive part of the eye to the galaxy. Created with Stellarium

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.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest bright galaxy beyond the Milky Way system. The hazy disk and bright nuclear region are actually billions of stars that blend into an unresolved glow. The dark stripes are lanes of interstellar dust within the galaxy's spiral arms, while the smaller galaxy below is a satellite galaxy revolving around larger Andromeda. Photo: Bob King

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.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows individual stars in a small part of the disc of the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA

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.


14 Responses

  1. Yeah it was sad with the clouds last night. I sat outside for a while when there were still stars waiting but the clouds just kept cycling through blocking the view.

    Was the photo of Andromeda made through your telescope?

  2. Rick

    Hey Bob I just wanted to give you much thanks for such awesome info and research during all the hype and fear mongering of the whole Elenin thing. I did see that NASA is scheduled to have a announcement at 1:00pm Eastern time on near Earth asteroids in the future. Any info on that?

    1. astrobob

      You’re welcome! It sounds like NASA folks are going to report findings from the asteroid part of the WISE probe’s sky survey.

  3. les

    Okay came back for a read…and saw more asteroid talk..uh oh…umm does nasa normally have meetings like that??? ..or is this like a urgent thing?…i checked out the NEO on spaceweather and saw that plenty asteroids fly by…by do u think any are a threat to us?

    1. astrobob

      Not an urgent meeting, just an announcement of findings. The fact that NASA tries to keep people on top of research is a sign of the agency’s openness.

  4. les

    2005 YU55 Nov 8 0.8 LD — 175 m

    Please explain this to me… And how far…lets say how many football fields..or how many states far from earth will this ateroid be..?? uhhh a whole new worry….geez

    1. astrobob

      0.8 LD = 0.8 the moon’s distance from Earth = 0.8 x 240,000 = 192,000 miles. Diameter of Earth = 8,000 miles. 192,000 divided by 8,000 = 24 Earth diameters away = nothing to fear.

  5. les

    Hi bob…i read about.radiation and dangerous solar flares…is the sun that close to us to damage earth?? Also can u tell me what a red tide is?? It seems like the first time all this stuff has happened that i remember…are they all common ?

  6. Patience

    Astro Bob,
    Great pictures of the Auroras! I have never had the experience of seeing them myself being from Arizona. My husbands ship is currently deployed and he was able to see them a little while ago while they were ported in Norway.

    1. astrobob

      Well, your time is coming, because we’re headed toward the maximum of the sunspot cycle. Hopefully, we’ll get a large display in the next year or two.

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