What to watch in the late fall skies

 
Our skies undergo a big shift as fall winds into winter over the next couple of months. The summer constellations sink below the Western horizon earlier every evening while the winter constellations rise out of the East earlier and earlier. There are a couple of major meteor showers to thrill late night observers: the Leonids in November and  Geminids in December.  
 
After sunset, the planets are a scarce sight, though with binoculars or a telescope you can spot the dim, blue-green ice giants Uranus and Neptune in the southern section of the sky. However, in the mornings before dawn the planets Venus, Jupiter, and Mars continue their delicate dance in the East. Even if you are not an early riser, it is worth it to try to wake up early and follow these planets at least a few times as their positions between each other change dramatically on a nightly basis. You will be able to readily see why ancient Greek observers named them "Planetes": Wanderers. 
 
Saturn, if you can spot it, is the only major naked-eye visible planet visible in the evening, but it will be a difficult target as it hovers near the Western horizon near the Sun and will ultimately dip below the evening horizon and into the morning skies by December. Mercury will make a brief evening appearance as well in late December, but very near the horizon and for a fleeting few days, making it a challenging target for even experienced Mercury fanciers.
 
There are a wonderful array of deep-sky objects visible as winter approaches. The Pleiades (M45) can be seen with the naked eye, looking like a very tiny Dipper, but when viewed though binoculars they are a majestic sight, gorgeous open cluster of hot young stars. The Hyades, right below those seven sisters, are another fantastic-and older-open cluster visible both to the naked aye and binoculars at the head of Taurus. Several hours after sunset the mighty constellation Orion rises, and with it many an observer's favorite object: the Orion Nebula(M42). You may be able to see it with your naked eyes as a little blurry "star" below the belt of Orion, making up part of his sword. Peer closer with binoculars and you will start to see some its beautiful wispy structure, and telescopic views never disappoint-even under light polluted skies! At higher magnifications, see if you can spot the famed Trapezium: hot young baby stars blowing a hole through the clouds of the nebula.
 
Another object you can spot through most light pollution is the Andromeda Galaxy. Look for it in between the constellations Cassiopeia and Andromeda; it will appear as a dim oval with a bright core. Under dark skies you will see far more detail, and may even be able to find two of its satellite galaxies! If the view is not great, don't fret: the famed double cluster lies nearby, between Cassiopeia and Perseus. The view of this open cluster is spectacular in binoculars and is not to be missed.

Of course, with the air getting chilly, remember to bundle up and keep a blanket handy-and maybe a nice mug of hot chocolate. Keep the chills away so  you can truly enjoy the crisp nightime sights of winter!
 
 


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