Depending on your point of view, Autumn either starts on 1 September (meteorological autumn) or the 22 September (astronomical autumn). The latter is when the Autumnal Equinox takes place and when the sun is directly above the earth’s equator. On that date, day and night are of equal length and the Sun rises due east and sets due west. With this, the dark nights return and, because it doesn’t get too cold outside, September is a great month for stargazing. According to NASA, the Equinox is a prime time for Northern Lights so, if you want to catch a glimpse of them, do keep an eye out for “aurora alerts” on social media.
This month the sun sets around 8:00 pm and the stars and the constellations become visible from about 9:00 pm onwards. As with July and August, the best way to navigate your way around the night sky is to use the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb. Start off by finding Vega, a really bright white star, which will be directly overhead. Next is Altair, which you will find halfway between Vega and the southern horizon. Finally, there is Deneb, which will be almost directly above Altair and across from Vega.
Next, look at Deneb, which marks the top of the Northern Cross, or the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan), which flies down the Milky Way with its wings outstretched. Deneb marks the tail of the Swan and Albireo, a fairly faint star at the bottom of the constellation, marks its head. If you have a telescope, or even powerful binoculars, take a look at Albireo and you’ll see that it’s a double star of contrasting colours. Typically, people see them as yellow and blue, or more accurately yellowish and bluish.
Finally, looking at Altair, which you will find the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) because Altair is its brightest star. Altair also has outstretched wings, though they are not as obvious at the wings of Cygnus, and in Greek mythology, Aquila is identified as the eagle that carried Zeus’ thunderbolts and was once dispatched by the god to carry Ganymede, the young Trojan boy Zeus desired, to Olympus to be the cup bearer of the gods. In between these two flying birds is the constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow), a dim but distinctive shape which is reasonably easy to pick out. Another small but easily seen constellation called Delphinus (the Dolphin) is nearby and it also looks like what it’s meant to be.
The two better-known constellations of Capricornus and Aquarius are below Delphinus in the lower part of the sky. They are well known because they are in the Zodiac, the path of the planets but, as they have no very bright stars, you might not be able to pick them out. Capricornus is the Water-Goat and Aquarius is a human, the Water-Carrier.
As with August, September is a good month to view the Milky Way. If you trace a line down from Deneb and through Altair, you should be able to make out the Milky Way’s cloudy core well to the right of Saturn, which you’ll find shining bright low down in the southern sky. The cloudy core will be visible up until about 10:00 pm. When you look at the Milky Way, you’ll notice a black band running down it’s middle, between the stars. William Herschel, the first astronomer to map our Galaxy, thought that this was a hole in space, but it is actually a dark swathe of sooty dust, known as the Great Rift in Cygnus which runs along the disc of our Galaxy.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, but their orientation varies from month to month. By September the familiar Plough asterism, which many people recognise, is down over to the north-west. Follow its two right-hand stars upward, veer a little bit to the right and you’ll find Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look over to the north-east you can see Capella. Contrast its colour with that of Vega which is virtually overhead at this time of year. Capella is a yellow giant star, while Vega is a slightly bluer star than the Sun. The contrast is obvious if you look from one to the other.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) will be on 3 September. You will find it above the southern horizon as darkness falls and it will dip below the southwestern horizon at around 11:00 pm.
This month’s full Moon is on 10 September, becoming 100% full at 10:59 am. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 9-10 September and 10-11 September. It will rise in the south-east just before about 8:30 pm on 9 September and just after 8:30 pm on 10 September. On 7 September and 8 September, you will see an almost full Moon sitting close to Saturn and on 11 September, you will find it close to Jupiter, over in the east.
On 16 September you will find the Moon sitting above Mars, at around 10:15 pm, once they have both risen above the north-eastern horizon. The last quarter Moon is on 17 September, when you will see it traversing the night sky just to the left of Mars, rising in the northeast at around 10:00 pm.
There is a new Moon (no moon) on 25 September and a few days later in the evenings of 27 and 28 September, you should be able to pick out the thinnest of crescent moons sitting close to western horizon as darkness falls.
This month, the first planet you will see is Saturn, which will be sitting above the south-eastern horizon as darkness falls. If your binoculars or telescope magnify by about 40 or 50 times, you be able to see its famous rings and its biggest moons when you look at it. The largest, Titan, is enormous. In fact, it’s 40% more massive than the planet Mercury and 80% more massive than our own moon.
Next to see is Jupiter, rising over in the east at around 8:00 pm. It reaches its closest point to Earth on 26 September, meaning it will be at its brightest this year, making it much easier to see that Saturn, which will be 20 times fainter. If you take a look at Jupiter through binoculars, you will see some tiny starry objects on either side of it. These are its brightest and largest moons. They are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and are known as the Galilean moons and will change position each night as they circle the might gas giant planet.
Between these two gas giants of Saturn and Jupiter and in Aquarius, is Neptune. Like Jupiter, this most distant planet is at its closest to us this month, reaching opposition on 16 September. Although it will be above the horizon all night, it will be very faint, so you will need binoculars or a telescope to see it.
Uranus rises at about 9:00 pm in the northeast. You may be able to see it with the naked eye, but you will stand a much better chance of seeing it with binoculars or a telescope. On 14 September, the Moon occults Uranus. So, if you look for Uranus at around 10:30 pm on that night you will see it disappear as it passes behind the Moon and then reappear about 50 minutes later.
Mars rises in the northeast at about 10:30 pm and will sit reasonably close to Aldebaran, the reddish giant star in the Constellation of Taurus. Given their proximity, you could look at them both through a telescope and see how their red hues compare.
Finally, rising in the eastern twilight from at around 5:00 to 5:30 am, Venus continues to spend this time of the year as the glorious “Morning Star”, shining much brighter than anything else in the sky. However, it is gradually dropping down towards the horizon and will disappear from view by the end of the month.
Mercury is too close to the Sun the be visible this month.
The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaked last month and those of you who were lucky enough to have clear skies around its peak on the night of 12-13 August may have seen some of the brighter meteors shooting across the sky. However, September is not a good month for meteor showers, so we will have to wait until October for the chance to see some more. The Draconids are expected to peak at nightfall on 8 October and the Orionids are expected to peak between midnight and dawn on the night of 21-22 October.
Autumnal Equinox & Northern Lights
The Autumnal Equinox is when night and day are nearly exactly the same length (12 hours). It also marks the start of astronomical autumn and when the nights start to become longer than the days. Although the autumnal equinox referred to as a day by many people, it is actually the exact moment in time when the tilt of the Earth’s axis and Earth’s orbit around the sun combine in such a way that the axis is inclined neither away from nor toward the sun. For 2022, this will be at 2:04 am Friday 23 September.
The Autumnal Equinox also paves the way for increased chances to see aurora borealis displays. According to NASA, the equinoxes are prime time for Northern Lights, because the geomagnetic activity that causes them is more likely to take place in the spring and autumn than in the summer or winter. In addition, we tend to have more clear nights in spring and autumn so this, combined with more geomagnetic activity, may be the reason why I tend to have captured most of my Northern Light images in September/October and March/April. Finally, if you do want to catch a glimpse of the “Merry Dancers”, be sure to keep an eye out for “aurora alerts” on the web and on social media. Good sources for forecast and alerts are AuroraWatch UK, Glendale Skye Auroras and Aurora Research Scotland.
Spring arrives this month, with the Vernal (spring) equinox on 20 March, when day and night are each 12 hours long. On that day, the Sun rises at about 6:20 am due east and sets at about 6:20 pm due west. From then on, the nights get shorter and the days get longer. British Summer Time (Daylight Saving Time) starts on 27 March, so it gets dark a lot later in the evening. Don’t be put off with it getting darker later and the nights becoming shorter. There is still much to see, with the bright winter constellations still visible and the constellation of Leo (The Lion) coming in to view. Now is also a great time of year to spot Zodiacal Light, the night sky’s most elusive phenomenon.
This month, the sun sets around 6:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 8:30 pm onwards. If you look south, you will still see the winter constellations of Orion, Taurus, Auriga and Gemini that I described in on my “Exploring Our Night Sky: February 2022” blog at the start of last month. Bear in mind that they will have moved a little bit to the west. Also, you will now be able to see some of the spring constellations coming into view, with the most significant of these being Leo (The Lion), which will be high up in the south-east sky.
Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. You can find the seven stars of the Plough up in the north-east and you can use its two right-hand stars to find the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Just follow the line between them for about five times its length and you’ll arrive at it.
Once you’ve found Polaris, you can use it to get your bearings on any night but bear in mind that all the northern constellations rotate around it in an anticlockwise direction and therefore change their position. It is also worth noting that Polaris is not that bright, with it being about the same brightness as the stars of the Plough. Its significance comes from it being directly above our North Pole. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the northern sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
The constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) was pretty much overhead last month and is now starting to sink down towards the western horizon but it’s still high up. It’s in the shape of a pentagon, with Capella, one of the brightest stars in the sky, at its northern tip. Next to Capella is a triangle of three stars which, though much fainter, makes the whole constellation very recognisable. Below Auriga is the constellation of Perseus who, in Greek mythology, beheaded the Gorgon Medusa for Polydectes and saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. Also, below Perseus, you may be able to pick out the W-shape of the constellation of Cassiopeia, so named after the vain queen Cassiopeia in Greek mythology, who boasted about her unrivalled beauty.
This month’s full Moon is on 18 March, becoming 100% full at 7:17 am. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 16-17 March, 17-18 March, and 18-19 March. It will rise in the east at about 4:00 pm on the 16 March, at about 5:30 pm on the 17 March and at about 7:00 pm on 18 March. It is referred to as the Worm Moon because of the earthworms that come out at the end of winter. It is also known as the Crow Moon, Crust Moon, Sap Moon, Sugar Moon, and Chaste Moon. The Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is Lenten Moon.
On the night of 15-16 March, then moon will spend the night traversing the sky close to Regulus, the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation of Taurus, while on the night of 19-20 March, it be close to Spica, the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation Virgo.
The last quarter Moon is on 25 March and on 28 March and you will see it rising in the south-east at about 7:00 am with Venus, Saturn, and Mars above it.
This month there are no bright planets in the night sky, with the exception of Uranus which, at a magnitude of +5.8 will be very difficult to see.
If you do want to see some planets, you will either need to stay awake for most of the night or get up early and watch Venus rising in the south-east at around 4:30 am. It is shining very bright this month, at a magnitude of -4.4 and reaches its maximum separation from the Sun on 20 March. If you look at it through a telescope, you should be able to see it as a thick crescent which broadens as the month progresses. It reaches dichotomy on 21 March when it is exactly half illuminated.
Mars spends the month below and to the right of Venus, rising at around 5:00 am and will be over 100 times fainter at a magnitude of +1.1. Saturn rises about half an hour later and will be in-between Venus and Mars.
Jupiter, Neptune and Mercury are lost in the Sun’s glare this month.
We are now in a quiet period for meteor showers, until the Lyrid meteor becomes active on 16 April. It will peak on the night of 21-22 April and the best time to look for them will be between sunset and when the moon rises at about 3:30 am.
The Zodiac is an 8° wide band that straddles the ecliptic, the invisible path that the Sun traces as it moves around the sky and is the region of the sky where we can find the Sun, Moon and planets (except for Pluto). It is only 8° wide because most of the planets have orbits that are only slightly inclined to that of the Earth. The exception is Pluto, whose orbital inclination of 17° takes it out of the zodiac during part of its orbit.
At this time of year, the Zodiac rises steeply from the horizon at dusk, meaning now is great for looking out for and observing one of the night sky’s most elusive phenomena: Zodiacal Light. It is fainter than the Milky Way, so the darker your sky, the better your chances of seeing it. Go to a location with little or no night pollution, on a night when the moon is out of the sky and look for it in the west in the hour or two after sunset. If you are lucky, you may spot a faint pyramid of light rising from the horizon.
This ghostly glow is caused by light from the sun, which will be well below the horizon at that time, reflecting off a fog of tiny interplanetary dust particles that fill our inner Solar System. It’s so difficult to see and many astronomers have never witnessed it, however, I was lucky enough to spot and photograph it at Sailean nan Cuileag around this time last year and I’ve used the resulting image as the header photo for this blog. The conditions for spotting it are good for the next 2-3 months, so do keep an eye out for it.