The short days of fall provide spectacular opportunities to view some of space’s greatest observations from Earth.
Ninety percent of people in the United States have not seen the Milky Way, and now is the perfect time to do so.
“From June through October is the best time of the year to see it,” said Frank Merritt, president of the Toledo Astronomical Association. “We are seeing the edge of our galaxy, like holding a plate in front of your eyes and seeing the edge of it.”
On a clear night, with the right tools, Merritt said deep space features, such as nebulas, globular clusters (balls of nearly a half million stars) and open plusters (stars gravitationally bound) are visible.
Now through late November is also prime time to view the Andromeda galaxy, a large spiral galaxy, nearest to the Milky Way. This galaxy is visible to the naked eye as a blurry star, and is best viewed with a good pair of binoculars.
The winter phenomenon, the Orion nebula, is “absolutely spectacular,” Merritt said. Because of nearby stars forming, huge bodies of gas sometimes glow pink or turquoise. “To the naked eye it looks like a fuzzy star. The Hubble has brought back photographs that are amazing.”
One of the most spectacular shows this year just may be the biannual appearance of Mars.
“Every couple of years, Mars and Earth get closest together,” Merritt said. “During these periods, it is much brighter.”
From mid-September through early December, Mars rises fairly late each morning. When Mars reaches opposition — when the sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line — it is best viewed with a telescope.
“It’s a fairly bright red object, but it’s a small planet,” Merritt said. “Because it has an atmosphere, you won’t see a lot of features like you would the moon.”
Merritt said the polar ice caps and near-black features of Mars’ landscape should be visible.
“It’s like when we see pictures of Earth from space; you see blue and green, but there’s not much of a contrast.”
Right now, Venus is “putting on a gorgeous show,” he said, noting it is the brightest star in the sky. “Jupiter is down there with it and will be until the end of September. It shines bright at sunset, but not as bright as Venus.”
With a good pair of binoculars, the four moons of Jupiter can be seen — spots of light that revolve around Jupiter so quickly, they have a different pattern each night.
“The planet that gets the most ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ is Saturn,” Merritt said. “It becomes visible starting in January. It becomes one of the brightest stars in the sky, but you need a telescope and a very clear night.”
The season has everything to do with the ability to see space objects in the Milky Way and beyond.
“As the weather cools off, the atmospheric moisture drops. As the air dries out, cooler northern air moves in,” said Jeff Bender, vice president of the Toledo Astronomical Association. When we have intense blue skies, it means it will be a good evening for observing.”
Bender also said Northwestern Ohio’s location — halfway between the equator and the North Pole, gives way to some of the brightest stars in the sky.
Viewing the wonders of the night sky isn’t always possible from areas near cities, where light pollution blocks out many sights. A telescope is one of the best ways to view deep-space features. The Toledo Astronomical Association offers both locations and equipment for those who wish to follow the stars.
“We have a rather eclectic group,” Bender said of the people from many professions who have joined TAA. The group meets the first Friday of each month except for holidays. “The club has phenomenal instruments. One can see resolvable details on any of the planets except Pluto — that would take the Hubble space
Merritt said stargazing is just one of the reasons people join.
“I’m an observer. I enjoy the equipment but it’s not a fascination for me,” he said, noting many enjoy the science, the instruments, and the camaraderie.
The group meets at UT, and holds viewings from places such as Oleander Park and the Pioneer Boy Scout Reservation in Williams County.
“It is a great hobby,” Merritt said. “It’s not just for people with advanced degrees.”