One obvious galaxy that surely everyone has seen (especially in the summer and fall months when its big billowy star-clouds pass overhead) is the one we live in—the magnificent Milky Way! But there’s another equally famous one that is perfectly placed for viewing on November evenings and which can be seen even without optical aid on a dark moonless night. It’s the great Spiral Galaxy of Andromeda.
Almost directly overhead in the sky on November evenings is one of the grandest objects in the universe—one subtly visible to the unaided eye on a dark clear moonless night, and a truly fascinating spectacle in binoculars and small telescopes. It’s the famed Andromeda Galaxy (also known as Messier 31) a near clone of and companion to the Milky Way. But rather than seeing our Galaxy while immersed in it, we look out to this one in “the great beyond” at a distance of some 2,500,000 light-years from us.
It’s easily found thanks to the Great Square asterism of Pegasus, itself currently high in the sky facing south. Following an imaginary line from the bottom right corner star of the Square (actually a rectangle) to its upper left corner one (a star Pegasus shares with neighboring Andromeda) prolonged its own distance brings you to Beta Andromeda. This wonder of wonders lies just a short distance to the upper right of the star. But this month, you can go directly to it by looking right overhead around 9 p.m. for a misty oval smudge of light that’s clearly non-stellar in appearance. Once spotted, switch to your binoculars. Slow sweeping back and forth across the Galaxy’s bright central core—combined with the use of “averted vision” (staring off to one side or other of the object)—you’ll find it spanning an area several times the apparent size of the full Moon!
If ever there was a galaxy (again—aside from the Milky Way itself) made for viewing with the Scientifics Astroscan-Plus wide-field telescope, this is it! Its 16X low-power eyepiece delivers a brilliant field of view 3 degrees across, fully encompassing the Galaxy and causing it to seemingly float three-dimensionally in space (which it is!). Extending outward from the bright nucleus is its disk—an eerie oval glow some 2 degrees in size oriented northeast-southwest. Careful scrutiny will show its northwestern edge abruptly cut off by dark material—dust lanes lying within the galaxy’s spiral arms.
But there’s still more to see! Just as our Milky Way has two companion galaxies (the Magellanic Clouds visible from the Southern Hemisphere), so does the Andromeda Galaxy. South of its core and just outside its disk is the small elliptical galaxy Messier 31, while the larger but fainter elliptical Messier M110 lies some distance northwest of the main galaxy beyond the dust lanes mentioned above. While both companions have been detected in binoculars by experienced observers under good conditions, it takes a telescope like the Astroscan to make them obvious. M32 looks like a fuzzy star while M110 appears as a ghostly glow requiring averted vision to glimpse with most nights.
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on
stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.