The arrival of fall is a blessing for many of us who enjoy looking at the starry sky when we can. A dark, starry summer sky is fantastic, but one needs to stay up late to see the stars well. Winter stars are glorious, but the night air can be frigid here in the mid-northern latitudes. Like Goldilocks trying out porridge, fall and spring can be exactly right.
The stars are out early and even if it is chilly out, it is nothing like what winter can bring. Autumn also has provided a wonderful window into the Universe beyond, where we can view seemingly countless stars, and once the Moon is out of view, hopefully catch the Milky Way and see the grand sight of the neighboring spiral galaxy of Andromeda, M31.
Top it off this year, planet Saturn shines bright and yellow in the east-southeast during the evening, and even if the Moon brightens the sky, it is no match for Saturn as well as the brighter stars.
The last week of September brings a waxing gibbous Moon, leading to the full Moon Sept. 29, known as Harvest Moon. Tuesday night, Sept. 26, the gibbous Moon is right below Saturn.
Even a small telescope on a sturdy tripod or pedestal and magnifying around 60x will give you an amazing view of Saturn. The sight of this celestial ball encircled by rings is one you should never forget and has launched many lifetime passions for astronomy, enjoying the splendor of the sky, the science behind it all and our place in the Universe.
This year, the ring system appears very foreshortened, a tight ellipse circling the equator of the planet. Other years the rings are very wide open; eventually they appear like a thinning line to the point where the rings seem to completely vanish for a while. This changing perspective is due to the tilt of the planet and inclination of its orbit around the Sun in respect to the view from the Earth.
Higher magnification can reveal more details, but the atmosphere needs to be steady for a sharp view. The telescope's optics and alignment are also important, and one's level of experience and patience at the eyepiece.
The higher the magnification, the quicker whatever you are viewing — the stars, planets or Moon — will appear to move. You need to carefully adjust the aim of the telescope to keep it in view or use a motor drive to compensate for the rotating Earth.
Always look for the dim "star" close by Saturn in your telescopic view. That is Titan, Saturn's largest moon, slowly looping around the planet.
On early autumn evenings, look straight up for the constellation Cygnus the Swan and is principal stars forming the "Northern Cross." The brightest star at its top is Deneb, shining blue-white. Over to the right is Vega, a brilliant blue-white star, marking the top of Lyra the Harp. Making a big triangle with Deneb and Vega is the bright white star Altair, the "eye" of Aquilia the Eagle.
If you have a low view to the east, watch for the brilliant planet Jupiter rising. By late evening it is quite high in the east-southeast.
Look low in the northeast in mid-evening for the rising, bright yellow star Capella.
Be sure to see bright orange Arcturus, so prominent in the spring, still visible as it sets in the west.
Turn north to enjoy the Big Dipper riding low, and the M-shaped constellation Cassiopeia the Queen up high. Right between is Polaris the North Star, the top of the handle of the Little Dipper. This dipper is fainter and better seen with the moonlight.
Partial solar eclipse
Looking ahead: Saturday, Oct. 14, there will be a partial solar eclipse as seen from the East and Central U.S. Parts of the West will witness an amazing "Ring of Fire" annual eclipse, where the Moon is too far in its orbit to fully cover the Sun. You will need proper eye protection to view the eclipse.
From northeastern Pennsylvania, about a third of the Sun will be covered at maximum. The eclipse begins at approximately 12:05 p.m.; maximum is at 1:19 p.m. and the eclipse ends at approximately 2:33 p.m. A completely safe way to see the eclipse is to make a pin hole in a piece of cardboard and cast a small, sharp image of the Sun onto a white piece of cardboard held a few inches behind the first one. Better yet, do this with a cardboard shoe box; make a pin hole in one end and paste a white piece of paper on the inside of the opposite end.
Never look at the Sun through a telescope (or binoculars) without a properly fitted, safe solar filter or by projecting the Sun on a white screen.
Keep looking up at the sky!
This article originally appeared on Tri-County Independent: Looking Up: What to watch for in autumn night skies