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Activity #9
Seeing as Far as You Can See

Directions:

In this night-time activity, you will become familiar with some of the stars and constellations in the autumn sky. You will also locate and see the Andromeda Galaxy.

  1. Orient yourself to how objects in the night sky appear in binoculars and telescopes by looking at "Directional Chart."
  2. Read "Tip Sheet" for types of objects you might see in the night sky, and for observing tips.
  3. Read "Autumn Seasonal Guide Posts" and "Galaxies Visible in the Autumn Sky" to identify constellations in the Autumn sky and directions for locating the Andromeda Galaxy.
  4. Fill out "Observation Log" for each object you observe. Make additional copies for additional objects.
  5. Complete the assessment.

Materials Needed
Flashlight
Piece of red cellophane
Rubber-band
Pencil
Planisphere
Observation Log (included)
Seasonal Guide Posts (included)
Tip Sheet (included)
Blanket/Lawn Chair
Telescope
Binoculars

Directional Chart

Below are three orientations of a star field: as it appears to the naked eye; as it appears in the finderscope (upside down); and as it appears in most telescopes with a star diagonal (mirror image). Reflecting telescopes will not have the mirror image effect. The arrows show the directions that stars appear to drift, moving east to west, across the field of view.

Star Chart

Naked Eye

Binoculars

Finderscope

Most Telescopes
without star diagonal

Most Telescopes
with star diagonal

Tip Sheet

It's sometimes difficult to identify objects in the night sky. Here are some hints to help you determine what you're looking at.

Jets, Planes, Earth-orbiting Satellites
These objects move extremely fast. Blinking lights and loud noises reveal a jet plane. Satellites travel in a straight line across the sky.

Planets
Some planets have a distinct appearance, others do not. To the naked eye, the planets do not twinkle as the stars do. The disk of the brighter planets can be seen with a telescope.

Meteors
Meteors are small pieces of rock that blaze across the sky appearing to leave a trail. They are often called "shooting stars."

Comets
These objects come into sight over a course of several weeks. They usually appear with a long tail and a somewhat fuzzy head.

Stars
The majority of the objects that we see in the night sky are stars. They appear to be moving slowly because the Earth is turning underneath them.

Galaxies and Nebulae
Most galaxies and nebulae are too faint to see with the naked eye. Therefore, you will need to use binoculars or a telescope. Two exceptions are the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula.

Observation Tips

  • Choose a safe location on a clear night. Be patient and let your eyes adjust to the darkness for 30-45 minutes.
  • Allow telescopes and binoculars to adjust to the air temperature. Let condensation on lenses or mirrors evaporate on its own.
  • Attach red cellophane to the flashlight using the rubber-band. Red light interferes the least with night vision.
  • Take along a pencil, observation log, and your planisphere.

Autumn Seasonal Guide Posts

The following will help you become familiar with the stars and constellations of the Autumn sky.

Autumn Seasonal Guide Posts: For Naked Eye/Binoculars (~9 p.m.)
ObjectConstellationType
PolarisUrsa MinorStar
Big DipperUrsa MajorAsterism
AltairAquilaStar
VegaLyraStar
DenebCygnusStar
Great SquarePegasusAsterism
CassiopeiaCassiopeiaConstellation
PleiadesTaurusOpen cluster
CapellaAurigaStar
AndromedaAndromedaConstellation

Looking due north, about half-way up from the horizon will be a modestly bright star, Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper can be hard to find in Autumn because it lies along the northern horizon. Now look to the south and west of Polaris. There you will see the 3 bright stars of the summer triangle slowly setting. Altair is to the south; the brilliant star nearest to the horizon is Vega; and a bit higher overhead is Deneb. Deneb is at the top of a collection of stars in the form of a cross. The cross is between Vega and Altair, standing almost upright this time of year. High overhead are the 4 stars of the Great Square. Although they're not particularly brilliant, they stand out because they are brighter than any other stars near them. After you have found the Great Square, look north. You'll see the 5 main stars of Cassiopeia making a bright "W" shape or an "M" depending on the way that you're turned around. Between Cassiopeia and the Great Square is the constellation Andromeda. To the east you'll see a small cluster of stars called the Pleiades. North of the Pleiades, the brilliant Capella rises.

Now we locate a few galaxies in the Autumn sky. You'll need binoculars to see the Andromeda Galaxy, and a small telescope to see the other. It should also be a night in which the moon is not up, and you are at a dark site.

Galaxies Visible in the Autumn Sky

Galaxies Visible in the Autumn Sky
ObjectNameConstellationMorphologyRating
M31 Andromeda Galaxy Andromeda Spiral 4
M32 Companion to M31 Andromeda Elliptical 2
M33 Triangulum Galaxy Triangulum Spiral 2

Now to find the Andromeda Galaxy. Locate the Great Square overhead. From the northeast corner, find 3 bright stars in a long line, arcing across the sky west to east, just south of Cassiopeia. (These 3 stars are part of the constellation Andromeda). From the middle of these 3 stars go north toward Cassiopeia past one star to a second star, in a slightly curving line. The Andromeda Galaxy is near the second star. On a moonless night in a dark sky you may be able to see it without binoculars. If so, Congratulations! You're seeing an object 2.2 million light years away! Through binoculars, the galaxy looks like a bright oval embedded in the center of a long swath of light. In a small telescope at low power, the galaxy extends across the field of view. In the telescope, off to the south, and a bit east, is what looks like an over-sized star making a right triangle with 2 faint stars. This is the companion galaxy, M32. Increasing magnification, you can see it is an egg-shaped cloud of light.

Next, locate the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), which is not far from the Andromeda Galaxy. Locate again the Great Square, and follow the curving line of 3 stars toward Cassiopeia. We used the middle of these to find the Andromeda galaxy. Starting at the middle star again, the Triangulum galaxy is in the opposite direction from Andromeda. Down and to the left of the second and third stars you'll find 3 stars forming a narrow triangle pointing toward the southwest. This is the constellation Triangulum. Use the distance from the northernmost star of this triangle to the point of the triangle as a yardstick. Half this distance up and to the right from the point is a very faint star. Past this star half as far is M33. On a dark night you may be able to see it in binoculars. In a telescope, the galaxy is toward one end of 4 stars arranged as a "kite". The galaxy will look appear large, but very faint. Be sure to use your lowest power.

Tip Sheet

It's sometimes difficult to identify objects in the night sky. Here are some hints to help you determine what you're looking at.
Jets, Planes, Earth-orbiting Satellites
These objects move extremely fast. Blinking lights and loud noises reveal a jet plane. Satellites travel in a straight line across the sky.

Planets
Some planets have a distinct appearance, others do not. To the naked eye, the planets do not twinkle as the stars do. The disk of the brighter planets can be seen with a telescope.

Meteors
Meteors are small pieces of rock that blaze across the sky appearing to leave a bright trail. They are often called "shooting stars".

Comets
These objects come into sight over a course of several weeks. They usually appear with a long tail and a somewhat fuzzy head.

Stars
The majority of the objects that we see in the night sky are stars. Over the course of the night, they move slowly across the sky. In reality, the Earth is turning underneath them.

Galaxies and Nebulae
Most galaxies and nebulae are too faint to see with the naked eye. Therefore, you will need to use binoculars or a telescope. The two exceptions are the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebulae.

Observation Tips

  • Choose a safe location on a clear night. Be patient and let your eyes adjust to the darkness for 30-45 minutes.
  • Allow telescopes and binoculars to adjust to the air temperature. Let condensation on lenses or mirrors evaporate on its own.
  • Attach red cellophane to the flashlight using the rubber-band. Red light interferes the least with night vision.
  • Take along a pencil, observation log, and your planisphere.

Scavenger Hunt: Observation Log Observation Date: _____________

Observer's Name _____________________________

Location (City, Country): ______________________________

Temperature: _______________ Cloud Cover (% estimated): ____________

Object Name: ______________________________________

Description: ________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________

Observing Start Time: _________ Observing End Time: __________


Explanation of Rating Scale
based on a small telescope

  Rating  Description
5 Breathtaking, easily seen even on a hazy night, the best example of its type, not to be missed.
4 Impressive, easily seen even on a hazy night, a good example of its type.
3 Also impressive, but not the best of its class.
2 May or may not be easy to find, but not exciting to observe, lacks color.
1 Not spectacular at first sight. Difficult to see. Pushes the small telescope to its limits.

Rating:_________
Sketch:

Assessment:

  1. Identify five constellations you observed in the night sky.

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  2. Identify any planets that you located.

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

  3. Identify the galaxy in which our solar system is located and list the morphology of the galaxies you observed in the night sku.

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

    ___________________________________________________________________

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This page last updated: Tuesday, 18-Sep-2007 16:09:14 EDT