September Skies Of The Gulf Coast

Aug 28, 2020

East of the Scorpion’s tail is the teapot shape of Sagittarius, which marks the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. Looking like a cloud of steam coming out of the teapot’s spout is the fine Lagoon Nebula, M-8, easily visible with the naked eye. East of the teapot are the two bright planets Jupiter and Saturn in the fall of 2020. In this photo, the star clouds in Sagittarius, toward the center of our own Galaxy.
Credit EAAA President Ed Magowan

For September 2020, the moon is full, the Harvest Moon, on September 1. The waning gibbous moon will be in the dawn sky just above bright red Mars on September 6. The last quarter moon is September 10, rising about midnight. The waning crescent moon passes just north of Venus in dawn skies on September 14, and the moon is new on September 17. The Autumnal Equinox begins fall at 8:31 a.m. September 22. The first quarter moon is on September 23. The waxing gibbous moon is to the lower right of Jupiter on September 24, and to lower left of Saturn on the following evening. The Full Moon, the Hunter’s Moon, is on October 1.

While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, visit www.skymaps.com and download the map for September 2020.

Mercury is out of view, too close to the Sun in September. Venus dominates the dawn, a waxing gibbous phase in scopes. It passes just above Regulus, the brightest star of Leo, on September 30. Mars is being overtaken by us, and grows bigger and brighter in the late evening skies. It comes to opposition on October 13, giving us our best views of it for a decade. Jupiter is overtaking Saturn in the southern evening sky in September, east of Sagittarius. They will be closest at the end of the year. Jupiter features its four Galilean moons in small scopes, all in a row around its equator, and its Great Red Spot is still active.

At dusk, Saturn lies due south, farther east of the teapot of Sagittarius, and its rings are tilted widely open for great telescopic views now. Its large and fascinating moon Titan is also easily need in small scopes. From the Dipper’s handle, we “arc” southeast to bright orange Arcturus, the brightest star of Spring. Spike south to Spica, the hot blue star in Virgo. Jupiter is just northwest of Spica, a little brighter and more yellow in color. Note that Spica is now low in the southwest, and by September’s end, will be lost in the Sun’s glare due to our annual revolution of the Sun making it appear to move one degree per day eastward.

To the Greeks, Spica and Virgo were associated with Persephone, the daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest. In their version of “Judge Judy,” the beautiful young daughter falls for the gruff, dark god of the underworld, Pluto. He elopes with her — much to the disapproval of mother Ceres, and they marry in his underworld kingdom of Hades, a honeymoon in hell — really. He does love her as well, and the marriage itself works well. But it is the reaction of Ceres that creates alarm. Very despondent over the loss of her young daughter to a fate as bad as death, Ceres abandons the crops, which wither. Soon famine sets in, and humanity appeals to Jupiter to save us all.

Calling all together, Jupiter hears that Ceres wants the marriage annulled, Persephone loves them both, and Pluto wants his mother in law to stop meddling. Solomon style, Jupiter decides to split her up, not literally, but in terms of time. In the compromise (aren’t all marriages so?) when you can see Spica rising in the east in March, it means to plant your peas. For the next six months, she visits upstairs with as very happy mama, and the crops will prosper. But now, as Spica heads west (to the kingdom of death, in most ancient legends) for six months of conjugal bliss with Pluto, it is time to get your corn in the crib. This simple story, told in some form for as long as Noah’s flood, was one of the ways our ancestors 7,000 years ago knew the solar calendar and when to plant and harvest. 

A Scorpius sky.
Credit Stéphane Guisard/NASA

As you watch Spica fade, thank this star for agriculture, and even our own civilization. To the south, Antares marks the heart of Scorpius. It appears reddish (its Greek name means rival of Ares or Mars to the Romans) because it is half as hot as our yellow Sun; it is bright because it is a bloated red supergiant, big enough to swallow up our solar system all the way out to Saturn’s orbit. Near the tail of the Scorpion are two fine open clusters, faintly visible to the naked eye, and spectacular in binoculars. The clusters lie to the upper left of the bright double star that marks the stinger in the Scorpion’s tail.

The brighter, M-7, is also known as Ptolemy’s Cluster, since he included it in his star catalog about 200 AD. The brightest star of the northern hemisphere, Vega dominates the northeast sky. Binoculars reveal the small star just to the northeast of Vega, epsilon Lyrae, as a nice double. Larger telescopes at 150X reveal each of this pair is another close double, hence its nickname, “The Double Double.” This is fine sight under steady seeing conditions over 150X with scopes 4” or larger. Between the two bottom stars; the Ring Nebula, marked “M-57” on the Skymap, is a smoke ring of gas and dust expelled by a dying red giant star while its core collapsed to a white dwarf. A similar fate is expected for our own sun in perhaps five billion more years. To the northeast of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan.

At the other end of the “northern Cross” that makes up the body of Cygnus is Alberio, the finest and most colorful double star in the sky. Its orange and blue members are well resolved at 20X by any small scope. To the south is Altair, the brightest star of Aquila the Eagle, the third member of the three bright stars that make the Summer Triangle so obvious in the NE these clear September evenings. Binoculars should be taken to the deep sky gazes to sweep the rich portion of the Galaxy now best placed overhead in this area.

For more information on Escambia Amateur Astronomers and to view more photos visit www.eaaa.net. Or contact club sponsor Lauren Rogers at lrogers@pensacolastate.edu or (850) 484-1155.