Cassiopeia Neighborhood

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Almost a year ago, we did a piece called The Fearless Observer in which we complained that, with our night sky light pollution, I had a hard time recognizing my old friends The Pleiades, and Taurus the bull.

In early August we wasted a great deal of time identifying a different constellation. Three linchpin stars that define the right angle “dipper” of the Big Dipper turned out to be the only part of Cassiopeia that we could recognize with the unaided eye. We used our Starry Night Pro software sky chart to correct our mistake. If you click the small image, you’ll find a grayscale copy of the Starry Night Pro chart which shows this neck of the woods for this time of the year in the California Bay Area.

This grayscale chart image, for 1130PM September 3 2005, shows a slice of sky ranging from about NNE to SE, and from near the horizon to almost the zenith (overhead). This is all we can see from our balcony.

We can see the “W” shape of Cassiopeia, what the cowboys would have called a lazy-W, lying on its side. Even with the 7×50 binoculars, the northmost leg star is hard to identify, but it is there. Even in Castro Valley, there is a rich field of stars in the area. Several satellites pass right over our balcony view, and we have seen several very bright meteors flash from southwest to northwest in recent days.

To the “right” of Cassiopeia (southerly, from about the middle of the constellation) points a long unnamed field of stars in the shape of a broadsword. It does not show well in the grayscale chart, but is easy to find and identify with binocs. I call it “The Alligator”.

Below Cassiopeia (as it rises in the East), cascades a long spilling trail of stars down into the rising constellation Perseus. It is quite rich. I call it “Yosemite Falls”, and on a “clear” night you can practically hear it; in fits of romantic fantasy I imagine the sound of wind chimes.

Extending in an imaginary line traced due south from Polaris through the middle of Cassiopeia, a distance of perhaps 30 degrees or the width of two extra Cassiopeias, with the binocs you can just barely find the Andromeda Galaxy. Look for a faint puffy cotton ball. If the sky is not quite clear, or your binoculars are dirty, or you rush around the sky too fast, you’ll miss it. It is the faintest puff of lighter gray; what works for me is to sweep the binoculars very slowly and look for ghosts off of the center of the field of vision which appear to move but are not stars. Rest assured, the view through an 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain is not that much more impressive in typical polluted urban skies.

As each month’s little window of night sky slips past our Castro Valley balcony, I find that remembering the sky of previous months is often difficult. Little hand drawn maps help me more than sky charts. There is no substitute for looking and looking again. Imagine my delight at 5AM recently, before the first twilight of sunrise, at spotting and remembering Castor and Pollux — these dominated our sky windows of January and February!

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