Feed your head with photons from Andromeda

The Andromeda Galaxy as it appears in binoculars with a bright center set in a fainter, saucer-shaped disk. Photo: Bob King

Two nights ago I was out with a group under the sky at 11 o’clock. We were a good distance from city lights with dark sky all around. The W-shape of Cassiopeia stood high in the northeastern sky.

I love the W not just for its easy-to-recognize outline but because it can take you places. The farthest place it points is the most remote object typically visible with the naked eye – the Andromeda Galaxy.

Subtle spiral structure is visible in this photo of the Andromeda Galaxy taken with a 200mm lens. One of its companion galaxies, M32, is visible at upper left. The view approximates what you’d see in an 8-inch or larger telescope. Photo: Bob King

The galaxy looks like an unassuming small, fuzzy patch of light, but don’t let it fool you. Andromeda is at least half again as large as the Milky Way galaxy and contains 1 trillion stars or more than twice as many as our galaxy. When you take all those riches and stash them 2.5 million light years away, only a hint of their grandeur remains. We can bring some of the galaxy’s spectacle back through photography. Our imagination does the rest, transforming fuzz into glory.

Before the moon is too bright, go out the next clear, haze-free night, face east around 11 p.m. and use the Cassiopeia “W” or the Great Square to find the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Our second featured galaxy, M33, is shown in the nearby constellation Triangulum. Created with Stellarium

Like you, I enjoy looking at pictures of nebulas, galaxies, planets – you name it – taken with big scopes like the Hubble. But I’m never satisfied until I get a look at the real thing. The thought of tiny photons of light traveling all the way from a particular deep sky object straight into my own eyeballs gives my spine a sizzle. Who cares if it looks like nothing more than a pinpoint of light. If you know you’re staring at a supernova or Earth-approaching asteroid, reality wins.

Andromeda in all its glory photographed by Adam Evans. Click for the sumptuous version.

That’s why you should go out the next clear night to find the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s not too hard to find. If you can see the hazy band of the Milky Way across Cassiopeia even faintly, Andromeda’s within your reach. Use the right side of the W as an arrow to point you to the galaxy. It’s a little more than one fist held at arm’s length away from the “pointing star”. I’ve picked out the galaxy from suburban areas here in Duluth, Minn.; it’s even easier from the countryside.

If you have any trouble at all, take along your binoculars. Heck, take them anyway. With just a little extra glass and magnification, Andromeda expands into a disk several times the size of the full moon. You’ll also be able to distinguish the galaxy’s central bulge, where most of its stars are concentrated, from the flat disk. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way are spiral galaxies with arms that wind around their centers. Other types of galaxies include ellipticals which are spherical to oblong but lack arms, and the ragtag “irregulars” that lack symmetry.

A photograph shows Triangulum and the Triangulum Galaxy. Even if you can’t spot this one with your naked eye, it’s visible as a smoky smudge in 7×35 and 7×50 binoculars. NGC 752 is a nearby star cluster in the Milky Way. Photo: Bob King

Since light takes 2.5 million years to reach your eye from Andromeda, I’ve often been asked whether we’re even sure it’s still there right now in 2012. The answer is yes! Compared to a galaxy’s lifetime of billions of years, a few million is just a drop in the bucket.

Care to see even farther? Not far from Andromeda in the constellation Triangulum the Triangle sharp-eyed sky watchers under very dark skies can spot M33, the Pinwheel or Triangulum Galaxy.

M33 is also a spiral galaxy like Andromeda and the Milky Way but its arms are flocculent and loosely wound. Credit: Hunter Wilson

Catch it and you’re peering out another 200,000 clicks to 2.7 million light years. It’s faint but even my aging eyes can spot it under great skies. I’ve heard of some amateur astronomers pushing back the naked eye limit even further with sightings of the galaxy M81 in the Great Bear Ursa Major. That one’s nearly 12 million light years away!

12 thoughts on “Feed your head with photons from Andromeda

  1. hi Bob, my question was answered. I, too, was wondering if you ever sleep. admire your dedication to things astronomical. thanks for your posts.

  2. Hi Bob,

    I just saw the Andromeda Galaxy for the first time with my 8-inch this past Saturday night. The moon washed it out considerably but it was still an amazing sight. Just like you said, there’s something special about knowing actual photons from the galaxy are reaching your eye.

    We also saw the dimmer Whirlpool Galaxy — another beauty!

    Jed

    • Hi Jed,
      Thanks for sharing your observation. I got up this morning after the moon had set to poke around for a couple comets in a dark sky. Andromeda was nearly at my zenith at the time and an easy naked-eye catch.

  3. Rich and I finally got to see the Andromeda Galaxy last weekend! We had a beautifully clear sky just north of Grand Marais on Saturday. It was absolutely amazing. I definitely agree, the Hubble photos are great but seeing it with your own eyes is so much more satisfying.

    Btw, we love the picture you took of us in front of the Aurora! Thank you again!

      • While Sarah and our other two friends sat around the camp fire, I pulled out the scope and trained it towards the Milky Way.
        One of our friends was visiting from Japan where light pollution drowns out all but the brightest objects. I scanned the sky till I found a spot that filled the eyepiece with stars. Even I was mesmerized. I told my friend from Japan to come take a look and he was just amazed. He was stuck to the telescope the rest of the night.
        Thanks to your blog and a little help from an app on Sarah’s phone we were able to zoom in on the Andromeda Galaxy and share the experience with him. Trying to breach the language barrier was pretty amusing. Trying to explain to him what he was seeing was tough but I think he got it. It gave me the excuse (not that I needed it) to go get a camera mount for Sarah’s DSLR and try my hand at some astro photography.
        It was great bumping into you as well. We really enjoyed your company and the conversation.

        • Rich,
          Great story. And I’m glad to hear you got a camera mount. Now you’ll be taking your aurora pictures the next time it comes around. If you need any tips, just ask.

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