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Astronomy: Welcoming Autumn Skies

9-23-11 M45-Moon Chumack
The moon glows brightly beside the Pleiades star cluster. Credit: John Chumack

For residents of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn arrives Friday at 5:05 a.m. EDT. The sun rose precisely in the east and will set this evening precisely in the west. The equinox always heralds spring and fall, depending on which hemisphere you are in. The sun will continue to rush toward the south over the next few months until it slows and stands still, signaling the solstice that will occur in December.

Nightfall has also been creeping earlier into our evenings, which has been cutting into our outdoor activities. But for kids, earlier darkness means they are still awake when the stars come out and can get a glimpse of some beautiful sights. This past weekend I was at a gathering with family and friends, and after night fell, the host took out his telescope and I was able to show the children (and adults!) the craters on the moon plus Jupiter with its dark stripes and four orbiting satellites.

The kids in my group weren't quite old enough to stay out until the Pleiades rose a bit later than Jupiter. But soon the Pleiades will be up earlier in the evening, letting anyone spot this beautiful little cluster in Taurus with a telescope, binoculars, or just their eyes. In the photo here, you can see how the Pleiades has a shape reminiscent of the Big and Little Dippers. Although the Pleiades is known as the Seven Sisters, only six of the stars are of magnitude 4.29 or brighter. It is believed that at some point in the past when the cluster was originally named, one of the fainter stars was brighter and more compatible with the six brightest now seen. The six brightest stars are named Alcyone, Atlas, Electra, Maia, Merope, and Taygeta. For a telescopic observing challenge, see if you can spot the very elusive, wispy nebula that surrounds this cluster.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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