The thing about naked eye astronomy is how near everything is. With only a couple of exceptions, everything we can see is pretty close to Earth. One of the most distant things you can see easily with the naked eye is the bright superdupergiant star, Deneb. Deneb, which is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the swan, is neck-achingly high, straight up overhead, through much of the night these days. It’s about 2000 light years away. Farther than that, things start to vanish very quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with lenses. I still remember the first time I saw Jupiter’s cloud bands and Saturn’s rings with my eyes, rather than in a book. The Pleiades in my favorite pair of binoculars on a cold January night is hard to beat. There’s something special, primitive, primal, and visceral about being out under the stars without tools. Just your eyes and the sky. It’s a very different experience.
Since everything is so close to us, it’s like visiting neighbors. They’re in the houses and shops in our neighborhood, only a quick hop across town. From out here in the suburbs of our galaxy, even Deneb is just a small fraction of the distance to the downtown skyline of the Milky Way, 20,000 light years away. On a good night, on a train out of town, you can see the tall buildings and bright city lights miles and miles away.
Unfortunately, though, there aren’t enough places left where there are good, dark nights. The Milky Way is hard to see for most of us. It’s washed out by light pollution.
For many years, I’ve had a list of things I want to see before I’m done here, an astronomy bucket list, if you like. On it are things like the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds: the pair of dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. They’re visible with the naked eye, but only from the southern hemisphere. Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to us, is also on it, but again, it’s only in the south. This is kind of convenient, because visiting New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina, and Chile are on my non-astronomy bucket list. A two-fer!
There are more but, of them all, the one that tops the list is The Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which is usually said to be the most distant naked-eye object. I can find it pretty easily, a thumb print on the sky, in binoculars when it’s up in the evenings during the cooler months. With the naked eye, though, that ancient light, which has spent the last two million years crossing all of that untold emptiness has just been no match for the light pollution in the places I spend most of my time. Just the idea of being able to look up and see an entire other galaxy, an entire other city of stars, one bigger than our own, in the sky makes my mind whirl. Every night I go outside in the fall and have a look, I try, but no luck. It’s just too far. What’s left of its light by the time it gets here is just too weak.
Traveling with my family last month, the skies in northern New Hampshire were crisp, dark, and wonderful. Up late with my wife and exhausted daughter, I convinced my little pocket camera to not focus on the trees, but on the sky, and got this shot.
This is the late-August sky to the north at around 11:00pm. If you click the caption, it’ll pop out into a new tab.
Right in the middle is a W, or, at the moment, 3-shaped asterism. That group of stars is the famous and bright part of the constellation Cassiopeia, the mythical queen, which starts to reach higher and higher into the sky this time of year. Behind it, a faint, but noticeable swelling of light. That’s the Milky Way; stars that are still within our home galaxy, but are so far away that we can’t pick them out individually. Their light blends together and looks like a single long band, a river of light. It’s amazing and the three of us stood, staring and silent, for a good long while that night.
If you look a little closer, though, there’s more in the photo. Look a little a little to the right of Casseiopeia. Do you see it?
As we stood and stared, out of the corner of my eye, I saw two things I hadn’t noticed before. Two things that clearly weren’t stars. First, I saw the Double Cluster, NGC 869 and NGC 884 in Perseus. Using averted vision, looking out of the corner of your eye, is sometimes very helpful for seeing faint objects. Your peripheral vision is more sensitive to light than the vision in the middle part of your eye. So, sometimes you can see things you might not otherwise be able to.
Then, I saw it! Off to the right of Cassiopeia and the band of the Milky Way, there it was!
M31! The Andromeda Galaxy! Two million-year-old light, with my naked eye!
It was hard to see, and hard to get my wife and daughter to see, but there it was, and it was gorgeous. Two galaxies—M31 and the Milky Way—in just a small patch of sky. Wow. A bucket list item, checked off.
It’s nights like those that really get me moving. I hope they do for you, too. Even regular nights under regular skies can be spectacular and you never know what you’ll find. What’s next? Maybe tonight’s the night.
Thanks for reading, and clear skies, everyone!