A trove of celestial treasures—including the chance to track down a cosmic swan and eagle—come sky-watchers’ way this week, thanks to the moon acting as a guidepost. On top of that, the “king of asteroids” is meeting up with the “lord of the rings.”
Moon and the red wonders. Just after sunset on Monday, September 29, look to the low southwestern sky for a waxing crescent moon, perched right above Mars and orange Antares.
The three celestial objects line up and make for a stunning photo opportunity. While Mars resides some 12 light-minutes from Earth and shines brightly thanks to sunlight reflecting off its iron oxide-rich deserts, Antares is a super red giant star that sits some 600 light-years from Earth.
The ancient Greeks gave the bright star its name Antares, which means “rival of Mars,” because its ruddy color reminded them of the god of war, the red planet.
Moon points to teapot treasures. After nightfall on Wednesday, October 1, look for the quarter moon to point to a brilliant star cluster and a well-known nebula.
Face toward the low southwestern sky in the mid-evening this week, and you will find it easy to spot a group of stars in the shape of a giant teapot. It marks the heart of the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer.
Complete with handle, lid, and spout, the best part of the slightly tipped teapot is that it seems to be pouring out celestial steam into the sky.
The moon appears just above the teapot, and to its lower right is the open star cluster Messier 25. The two are separated by less than 3 degrees, equal to the width of your three middle fingers held at arm’s length.
The star cluster, a loose association of bright stars that lies some 2,300 light-years away, can be glimpsed from dark skies with the naked eyes as a hazy little patch. Binoculars and small telescopes can begin to resolve its 600 stars, which stretch for 26 light-years across the sky.
Then, about 6 degrees to the right of the moon, is the stunning Swan, or Omega, Nebula (Messier 17).
This bright cloud of gas and dust is located about 6,000 light-years away and is lit up from within by 35 hot, massive, baby stars.
Observers in southerly latitudes may even glimpse it with the naked eye under dark skies. However, it really looks magnificent through a small telescope, which will reveal the nebula’s wisps and knots.
And since we are in the neighborhood, look about 2 degrees above the Swan for the regal Eagle Nebula, or Messier 16.
Best seen with a small backyard scope, the Eagle’s star cluster contains about 20 bright members and many fainter background stars. But it is the cluster’s columns and other structures of the gas cloud that really draw attention.
The Hubble Space Telescope made the Eagle Nebula famous back in the 1990s with an iconic snapshot of its core region called the Pillar of Creation.
King of asteroids. Own a backyard telescope? On Friday, October 3, it’s easy to hunt down the largest asteroid in the solar system, Ceres, thanks to bright Saturn pointing the way.
This faint 9th magnitude asteroid is currently sailing through the constellation Libra and passing just north of the ringed giant, which is an easy naked-eye sight.
The best way to know for sure you’ve snagged this Texas-size space rock is by checking your views from night to night to see its movement in front of the background star field.
This week the celestial pair will appear no more than a degree apart, equal to the distance of two side-by-side lunar disks.
The moon near Neptune. After complete darkness falls on Sunday, October 5, look for the blue ice-giant Neptune parked next to the waxing gibbous moon.
The eighth and outermost big planet in the solar system will appear about 5 degrees south of Earth’s companion.
Shining at magnitude 7.8, Neptune is best seen through a backyard telescope. Look for its tiny disk with a distinctive blue tinge among the faint scattering of background, white stars.
Amazing to think that Neptune is so far away from us that reflected light bouncing off its cloud tops takes just over four hours to reach our eyes.