September features yet another delightful selection of astronomical treats. Whether you are a veteran explorer of the night sky or new to star gazing, the heavens are full of wonders!

Image of jupiter by damian-peach

Astronomy Photographer of the Year winning picture of Jupiter and two of its moons, Io and Ganymede composited together. (Image credit: Damian Peach.)

Jupiter, king of the planets, is gracing the celestial stage this month from dusk till dawn. It is well worth turning even a small telescope in its direction as you should be able to see the equatorial bands and the Galilean moons. Mars becomes visible in the east from about 2am. For naked eye viewing that’s about it as far as the planets are concerned. Neptune and Uranus can be viewed through binoculars and are to be found in Aquarius and Pisces respectively.

The Summer Triangle is still with us in the sky. Vega is almost at the zenith with Deneb and Altair lower in the sky. In this area of the sky there are a few little constellations that are worth a mention, Between Altair and the bright star, Albireo, at the head of Cygnus, lies(or flies) Sagitta, the Arrow, the third smallest constellation in the sky, which was well known to the ancient Greeks. This little arrow shape in the sky is quiet easy to find once you have been out for a while and your eyes are dark adapted. Of course you need dark, clear skies.

Image of little constellations

The Summer Triangle of Deneb, Altair and Vega can guide you to neglected constellations. (Image cedit: Armagh Planetarium)

Also within the Triangle and higher in the sky is Vulpecula, the Fox, this is a modern constellation, introduced in 1687 by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-87) who referred to it as Vulpecula cum Ansere,  the Fox with the Goose and depicted it as a fox carrying a goose in its jaws. Since then the goose has been eaten, leaving just the fox. Vulpecula was in the news in 1967 when the first pulsar, nicknamed LGM-1 (standing for Little Green Men) was discovered there by Portadown’s own Jocelyn Bell.

Brocchi’s Cluster, better known as the Coathanger is another little gem that can be found in this part of the heavens. It cannot be seen with the naked eye. Binoculars are best for making out the upside down coathanger shape of the stars. The Coathanger is easy to find. Draw a line from Vega to Altair, and you will find it roughly in the middle.

Image of coathanger

The Coathanger seen at right, about 1/3 up the image (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

Just to the east of Sagitta is Delphinus, the Dolphin. This ancient star pattern, one of the 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy is said to represent the dolphin that rescued the poet and musician Arion from drowning.  Delphinus looks remarkably like the creature it is meant to represent. Its two brightest stars, Rotanev and Sualocin, when read backwards give the name of the astronomer Nicolaus Venator (alias Niccolò Cacciatore, 1770-1841)  He was the assistant director of Palermo Observatory in 1814 when a star catalogue was published naming these stars for the first time.

Equuleus, the Little Horse, is the second smallest constellation after Crux (the Southern Cross.) Some say this ancient constellation represents the offspring of the famous Pegasus.

The Plough can be seen low above the northern horizon, see if you can spot the current supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy. Very low in the east, Aldebaran is shining bright not to be confused with Capella which is higher in the heavens and easier spotted. Also rising in the east is the Great Square of Pegasus and the amazing open star cluster, the Pleiades, a sure sign that the summer is over.

The brightest star of the Great Square, Alpheratz, isn’t an official member of the Pegasus constellation, being part of the neighbouring constellation Andromeda. This decision was made by the International Astronomical Union in 1926,  a very strange decision considering that Alpheratz is derived from surrat al-faras which is Arabic for “horse’s belly navel”, thus leaving the misfortunate Princess Andromeda with a horse’s bellybutton for her head.

One of the most amazing naked eye sights in the night sky is the Milky Way. It is high over our heads in September and can be difficult to see due to light pollution but given clear dark skies and dark adapted eyes it is a beautiful sight that can send the imagination wild

The term Milky Way and Galaxy are familiar especially to children. The Milky Way bar was created in 1923 by an American, Franklin Clarence Mars, founder of the chocolate company Mars. The Mars bar was called after the family and the celestial theme was continued with the Galaxy bar.

The Milky Way has fascinated cultures around the world for millennia and has inspired amazing stories to explain its appearance in the heavens.

According to the Greeks this band of haze was the breast milk of the goddess, Hera. How the Aboriginal people of Australia view this band of light in the sky is different. Forget about milk squirting from a goddess’s breast across the sky, think instead of a celestial river where the bright stars are fish and the dimmer ones are water lily bulbs. The legends and stories about the Milky Way in Aboriginal lore are many and varied. The Kaurna of South Australia and indeed many other groups see the Milky Way as a stellar river. They called it Wodliparri (wodli = hut, house, parri = river) and believe that positioned along the river are a number of dwellings. There is also a Lock Ness monsterish tale of a dangerous creature known as a yura lurking in the dark patches. The Kaurna call these patches Yurakauwe, which literally means “monster water.” These areas represent waterholes and billabongs and according to tradition getting too close to or swimming in these places is a foolish thing to do as the yura would pull you down into the deep, dark, murky waters. This seems to me a good story to make children aware of the dangers of water and especially of the crocodiles.

Every culture has its heroes and in Queensland we come across the Aboriginal celebrity Priepriggie famed for his songs and music. When he sang, the people danced to the rhythm until they dropped with exhaustion. Everyone said that he could even make the stars dance. One morning when he speared a flying fox, its companions attacked him and carried him up to the sky. When his friends missed him they decided to perform his dance hoping for his return. However they could not capture the rhythm. Suddenly they heard the sound of singing in the sky. As the rhythm grew louder and louder the stars began to dance and arrange themselves in time to Priepriggie’s song. Thus the Milky Way was created, and also a story that serves as a reminder that the tribal hero should be celebrated with traditional songs and dancing.

Of course astronomers and scientists and indeed most people see things differently. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), better known as a philosopher, was the first to suggest that the Milky Way was a huge spinning disk of stars. He came to this conclusion using logic and the work of those who had gone before him, including Isaac Newton.

While we now know that the Milky Way is a galaxy and in fact is only one of millions of galaxies in the universe. The reality is so mind boggling it might be easier to focus on the stories and myths it has generated.

(Article by Mary Bulman.)

Image of Mary Bulman

Mary Bulman, Education Support Officer


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