By David Ward
Rising in the east this time of year are a whole group of constellations representing one of the more elaborate myths of the ancient Greeks. Central to that story is Andromeda, the beautiful daughter of Queen Cassiopeia. To find Andromeda in the sky, first look for Pegasus, the flying horse, outlined by four equally bright stars in a large square in the east. The constellation Andromeda is a stream of several stars curving to the north from the northeast corner of that square.
Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia was also very beautiful, but boastful, a quality of mortals never appreciated by the gods. She claimed she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs cherished by Poseidon, the god of the sea.
In retaliation he sent a dreadful sea monster to ravage the coast of her kingdom. An oracle told Cassiopeia that she had to sacrifice her daughter to rid themselves of the monster. Andromeda was chained to a rock at the ocean’s edge and was almost devoured by the creature, but she was rescued by the Greek hero Perseus just in the nick of time.
The ancient Greeks must have been impressed by this old myth since a total of six constellations in the fall sky represent the characters who are part of the story.
The constellation Andromeda is home to one of the most amazing objects in the heavens, the Andromeda Galaxy. From a dark place like the Methow Valley you can actually see it with the naked eye. Look for it in the middle of the constellation just to the west or above that stream of stars from the square of Pegasus.
If you manage to spot it, you will be looking at the largest thing you have ever seen and the farthest away thing you have ever seen. The Andromeda Galaxy will look like a faint fuzzy smudge in the sky but the light from that smudge has been traveling for two-and-a-half million years across an unimaginable vast void of space to reach your eyes. Remember, light is no slow poke. It cruises along at 186,000 miles per second. If you want to translate the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy into miles, multiply two-and-a-half million times six trillion and that comes out to a number that makes my head spin.
If you really want to make your head spin, try to grasp the fact that every star in the sky, the Earth and even you are falling into the Andromeda Galaxy at a speed of over a million miles per hour! We will not get there for a while, a few billion years or so, but our final destiny is to be embraced by the arms of the beautiful Andromeda.
If you are out after dark be sure to look for the glow of the Milky Way Galaxy, our very own home in the vast cosmos. In early September it stretches all the way across the sky from the northeast to the southwest, passing almost directly overhead.
Several planets are easily visible this month. Look for the goddess of love herself embodied in the planet Venus shining brightly low in the west just after sunset. Much dimmer Saturn starts the month above and to the left of Venus. The two planets pass each other about Sept. 24 and by the end of the month Saturn is dropping into the sunset glow. It will grace our evening skies again next summer.
On Sept. 8 look for an exceptionally close pairing of a thin crescent moon and brilliant Venus. This event will definitely be worth watching. Make sure you are somewhere you can see low into the west about 30 or 40 minutes after sunset.
If you are up early, the planet Jupiter is that very bright object high in the east just before dawn.
On Sept. 22 the Earth reaches that point in its orbit known as the equinox, which heralds the first day of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
I will be up at Sun Mountain Lodge on the evening of Sept. 10 with a telescope or two. If you would like to see some of the grand sights of the heavens, come on up – it is free. I hope to see you there!