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Helping beginner and amateur stargazers understand and enjoy the night sky

Can you see the Andromeda Galaxy

Yes, you can. The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy visible to the naked eye. With todays light pollution it does depend where you are stargazing from, but you should see it under dark skies across the whole of the US. With a pair of binoculars, you can find it relatively easily under most light polluted skies.

By looking up into the sky at night – clouds willing of course – you aren’t just looking up at a bunch of stars, you’re looking back in time.

It seems almost science fiction but everything you see in space, from the moon to the furthest galaxies and even to the known edges of our Universe, is not as of now, but as it looked like the moment light left its surface.

The moon is 1.2 seconds away from Earth, whereas our closest star – the Sun – is 8 light minutes away. If the Sun vanished tomorrow, we would still see the glowing ball of hot plasma for 8 minutes after its demise.

These objects are relatively speaking pretty close. We’re just talking light seconds and light minutes. Many of the stars you see in the night sky are over 1,000 light years away. Meaning the light from the star you see took off from its hot plasma surface over 1,000 years ago. Mind boggling.

Even these huge distances are a mere hop across the pond when you look at even the nearest large galaxies like the Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy is so far away that light itself, travelling at 186,000 miles a second, takes 2.5million years to reach us!

When you gaze at this nightly marvel traversing across the dark sky you’re actually looking at what the galaxy looked like 2.5million years ago and just like the Sun, if it vanished tomorrow, we would still see it shining away in our night skies for another two and a half million years before we knew.

Despite the vast distance away the Andromeda Galaxy is so bright that it is possible to see in our night sky with the naked eye, without the aid of binoculars or a telescope, and the months of December and January are the best times to go outside and take a look.

The winter nights are perfect for stargazing and astronomy. Grab yourself a flask of hot chocolate, a warm blanket as well as a winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves and you’re set. Your back yard can be adequate enough, but if you have dark skies nearby it may be worth the journey out to really see the galaxy and stars dazzle.

 

How to find the Andromeda Galaxy

The Lonely Spaceman has been keeping a watchful eye over the Andromeda Galaxy for years now. It never gets boring or old taking a look our nearest galaxy neighbor.

I also think it’s one of the easiest objects to find in the sky, even when your skies are a little light polluted and you can’t actually see it. The rest of the stars you can see help point the way.

The easiest way to start is to find the constellation of Pegus. Fortunately, Pegasus is one of the most recognizable constellations. It looks like a large square or diamond depending on your viewpoint. Once you’ve found Pegasus you want to be looking at the top left star, called Alpheratz.

Once found you may notice a ‘line’ or ‘row’ of stars heading towards the left of Alpheratz – this forms part of the constellation of Andromeda.

The second, and brightest, star called Mirach. If you drew a line from Mirach straight up, you’d come to and find the Andromeda Galaxy.

But how do you know how far to venture from Mirach – well, another star can help you here.

We want to look a little further higher in the sky to find the constellation Cassiopeia, it looks like a ‘W’ in the night sky.

The star we need to be looking at is the fourth star from the left (i.e. if you split the W in to two separate V’s, it would be the lower point of the second ‘V’). This star is called Shedir.

If you drew a line from Shedir towards the Pegasus square, whilst at the same time drew a line from Mirach straight up – at the points the lines would meet is where Andromeda is.

The image below should help clarify all:

Where is the Andromeda Galaxy

(Yes, I could have just shown this image, but it never hurts to understand what you’re looking at!)

As the Pegasus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia constellations are bright enough to see even in light polluted skies such as New York, LA or Chicago it means finding the location of Andromeda can be pretty easy even when you can’t actually see it.

Practise this just a couple of times and you’ll always know where to find this majestic of galaxies.

The other option of course is to use one of the wonderful stargazing apps available, such as Star Tracker or Sky Safari 6, which allow you to point your phone to the sky and the app will point the way to where Andromeda is. Isn’t technology wonderful.

 

 

What does the Andromeda Galaxy look like in binoculars or a telescope?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like all those amazing photos you see in space books or on the news coming from the Hubble telescope.

Those photos are taken with multiple long exposures which take in more light than the eye can. There is also some software manipulation at play through Photoshop which enhance colors and detail a little.

It may surprise you to know that whether you look at the Andromeda Galaxy through a pair of binoculars or a telescope you will pretty much see the same object and the same level of detail. It’s so far away that the difference in magnification between binoculars and a telescope doesn’t make much of a difference.

The Andromeda Galaxy will look like a small cloud or, as it has also been described ‘a small white smudge in the sky’. Well I did say that it’s 2.5million light years away!

Here is a photo from Lonely Spaceman of the Andromeda Galaxy taken with just a cell phone. It’s the best way to show you how the Andromeda Galaxy will look like in a pair of binoculars or telescope:

 

 

In Conclusion

I love looking at all images of the Andromeda Galaxy. From white smudges taken with a cell phone to the grandest detailed images from amateur and professional astrophotograhers around the world.

This white smudge in the sky is home to one trillion stars (by comparison the Milky Way is home to 250 billion stars). You are looking at the concentrated light accumulation of a colossal amount of glowing balls of plasma. Maybe even home to life.

Also this small white smudge in the sky is so big that light (remember travelling at 186,000 miles a second) takes 260,000 years to travel from the right side to the left side.

Future stargazers, if the Earth is still here and hasn’t been gobbled up by an expanding Sun, will witness one amazing spectacle in the sky. Andromeda Galaxy and Milky Way are being pulled together by gravity. It means Andromeda will become bigger and brighter in the skies until it clashes with the Milky Way and becomes a huge combined galaxy.

With this not happening for around 4.5 billion years, give or take a year or two, for the moment we get to witness the absolute splendour of our nearest 1 trillion star galaxy neighbour as it shines down on us whilst we’re in our backyards, sipping hot chocolate.

Give it a wave the next time you track it down, I’m sure it’ll appreciated it.

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