Photograph by Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF
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The Andromeda galaxy—2.6 million light years away from Earth—is a favorite target for backyard stargazers.

Photograph by Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

This Week’s Night Sky: Andromeda Time Machine

Aligned planets and the stragglers from a meteor shower are all visible this week. Here’s how to spot them.

Last Taurid Fireballs. We’re in the final days of the Taurid meteor shower. The event peaked last week, but skywatchers should be on the lookout for a few exceptionally bright meteors through Thursday.

Watch for the shooting stars as they radiate out from the part of the sky occupied by their namesake constellation Taurus, which rises in the east well after dark this time of the year.           

The shooting stars have a distinct yellow-orange coloration and move a bit more slowly across the sky than the average meteor. Throughout this week, as many as a dozen per hour could be visible from dark skies.

Zodiacal Lights. Beginning Tuesday, keen-eyed skywatchers in the mid-northern latitudes will get to witness the ghostly glow of the zodiacal lights just before local dawn. The lights are caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles between the planets, and will be visible for about two weeks.

Morning Planet Show. Early risers in the hours before local sunrise can catch a dramatic planetary alignment in the eastern sky.

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A trio of planets treat early risers to a show at dawn on Wednesday.

Look for a brilliant Jupiter, a much fainter and ruddy Mars below it, and Venus, the brightest of the trio. Watch day to day as Venus continues to draw away from its neighboring planets as it sinks toward the horizon.

Andromeda Galaxy. With mostly moonless night skies this week, it’s the perfect time to hunt down the most distant object visible to the naked-eye—the Andromeda galaxy, also called M31.  

Face the northeast evening sky and look for the lop-sided, W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. This prominent constellation points directly at our neighbouring spiral galaxy. Cassiopeia's pointer star, Shedar, and Andromeda are separated by about 15 degrees—measurable as less than two side-by-side fists at arm’s length.

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Follow Pegasus and Cassiopeia to the Andromeda galaxy in the night sky.

Skywatchers can also find the galaxy by looking for the Great Square of Pegasus. From there, hop along the lower chain of stars that shoots out from it, then scan with binoculars above for M31. In a dark spot away from light pollution, you should easily see with your unaided eyes the galaxy as a faint 3.4 magnitude, fuzzy patch in the sky.  

If you’re in a city, don’t fret. Andromeda is easily seen from almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere through simple binoculars. A small telescope will begin to reveal it as a elongated oval patch with two much smaller round oval patches beside it.

This magnificent island of stars lies about 2.6 million light years away—which means that when we look at this galaxy tonight, we see light emitted when woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roamed North America.

Clear skies!

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