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star gazing at the Andromeda galaxy

Star gazing – dark skies, celestial bodies and deep-space objects

Autumn nights tend to be clearer which provides plenty of star gazing opportunities. As the temperature begins to drop our yurts and glamping lodges here at Strawberry Skys really come into their own. Warm, cosy woodburners inside and roaring campfires outside. Add some marshmallows, the refreshment of your choice and the hooting of the nearby owls and you have the perfect star gazing scenario.

You will be amazed at the Milky Way above your head, but what else can you look for, especially without any specialist equipment? 

In this blog piece I will provide some simple guidance and fascinating facts about the celestial bodies and deep-space objects you will be able to see with the naked eye, or just a pair of binoculars, from the comfort of your campfire outside your yurt at Strawberry Skys. 

Don’t just gaze at the stars. We’ll show you how to spot a distant galaxy

– The Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest astronomical neighbour

The Andromeda Galaxy is the only major galaxy you can see with the naked eye. It’s a staggering 23 billion billion km away, or in more familar terms, 2.5 million light years.

When you consider that most of the stars we see are relatively near, in astronomical terms, at around 10-100 light years, you begin to understand the distance to Andromeda is simply staggering. It is definitely the furthest thing away you will ever see.

You can see Andromeda with the naked eye as a grey smudge. Pick up a decent pair of binoculars and you will see the galaxy, also known as M31, with little difficulty. However, it will still appear as a grey oval cloud. You won’t be able to identify the individual stars within, or the bright core and spiral arms without a telescope.

But unless you know where to look. You won’t see it at all.

So how do we find M31, the Andromeda Galaxy?

You will see Andromeda best in the autumn, towards the south and it will be at its highest around 8pm. Dark moonless nights with little light pollution such as you will find at Strawberry Skys Yurts will give you the best possible views.

Looking to the south, first search for five bright stars that form a “M”, or “W” shape. This is Cassiopeia, but remember it may be tilted when you look for it. (A good way to locate Cassiopeia by using the Plough is detailed below).

The right hand side of the “M or W” is made of the three brighter stars and forms a more equal triangle shape than the left. Follow the point of this triangle down and you will come to the grey oval of the Andromeda galaxy. 

Don’t worry if you can’t find  it first time, you may need to follow the imaginary line further than you think, or your eyes might not quite have adjusted properly yet to see such a deep space object. 

Be patient and try again.

Another way to find the Andromeda galaxy and once you are sure you have found Cassiopeia is to look down and to the right of Cassiopeia for the four bright stars spread widely apart marking the “Square of Pegasus”. This is a very large pattern to be found high on the southern sky on October evenings. 

Looking at the upper left star you will see two chains of stars sprouting out to the left. The brighter chain is the lower of the two. The first star in the brighter of the two chains is Alphetatz (the upper left corner of the square). Move your eyes left to find Delta Andromeda, then the second star in the chain, Mirach.

At Mirach, look up to the star in the chain above called Mu Andromeda, then continue passed Mu Andromeda for the same distance as between Mirach and Mu Andromeda and you will exactly at the Andromeda Galaxy.

Give it a go. Practice finding it. Impress your friends and family.

Then impress them even more by telling them that one day Andromeda will collide with our Milky Way. It is already racing towards us at 70 miles per second which puts the collision about 4.5 billion years into the future. Ironically, this is about the same time our own sun will run out of fuel and begin its transition into a red giant and eventual supernova. But that’s a story for another time and another blog piece.

Astronmical beauty and wonder

– Orion’s Belt, Sirius, Betelguese and the Orion Nebula.

Another familiar and easy to spot feature of the southern night sky is Orion’s belt. “Orion, the Hunter”, is a kind of tilted egg-timer/hour-glass shape, with three bright stars in a straight line forming the eponymous belt at the narrow middle(waist). In late November Orion may appear to be lying on its side with the three stars of the belt pointing upwards.

The three stars of Orion’s Belt from east to west are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Separately, these three supergiant stars are each several times more massive than the sun and thousands, or tens of thousands of times brighter.

Although these stars appear close to one another in the sky, they are actually light years apart and only appear close together from our perspective on Earth.

Mintaka and Alnitak aren’t even single stars and are in fact star systems containing multiple stars located close to one another. Again, from our perspective, they each appear as a single bright light.

You can use Orion’s Belt to find Sirius, (the Dog Star) the brightest star in the northern sky. For one of the easiest spots in Astronomy simply follow Orion’s belt down and it points straight to Sirius. 

In Sept 2023 Venus will be near Sirius and as the brightest object in the sky (after the sun) will definitely outshine the Dog Star, but you will know which one is which by following Orion’s Belt.

The top-left red star of the egg-timer is the red supergiant star Betelgeuse and the bottom right is Rigel, a blue supergiant star.

Looking down from the middle star (Alinlam) of Orion’s Belt you will see a faint line of stars pointing downwards. This is Orion’s Sword. The middle of these stars, that may only appear as smudge to the naked eye, but detail will greatly improve with binoculars, is the impressive Orion Nebula. 

This stellar nursery is a hotbed for newborn stars, an enormous dust cloud full of gases along with hydrogen and plasma. The Orion Nebula (also known as M42) is the nearest star forming region to Earth at a distance of 1500 light years.

Easy to find star gazing favourites

– The Plough and the Polaris, the North Star

Perhaps one of the easiest to spot and best known of all star patterns is The Plough, or Big Dipper as our American friends would say. In fact, to me it as always more resembled a very long ladle. Either way, once seen it is always easy to find again and again. However, one of the coolest things about the Plough is how we use it to find Polaris, the North Star. 

Very simply, the two stars forming the right hand edge of the “cup”, or “ladle” create a line which points straight to Polaris which will be the next bright star you see.  Polaris is actually the tip of the tail in the Constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. The Plough being a part of Ursa Major, The Big Bear.

And to round things off neatly the Plough and Cassiopeia rotate opposite each other around Polaris, once a day, every day.

Therefore, anther way to locate Cassiopeia is use the Plough to locate Polaris. Then use any of the stars in the “handle” as a pointer to Polaris. Follow this imaginary line double the distance again and you will arrive at Cassiopeia. Star gazing could not be simpler.

Which is why we encourage you to take a moment and look up at the night sky. Use these few star gazing tips to help navigate your way across the sky. Even finding the few features mentioned here is hugely rewarding.

Sitting around fires and contemplating the stars. It’s what people have done for millennia. The night sky is truly wondrous and I hope this simple guide will add to the enjoyment of your stay at Strawberry Skys Yurts.

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