The Milky Way in the Autumn Sky
Signs of fall are not only in the air but also in the night sky. The Summer Triangle is overhead but it is starting its long autumn journey to the west. Even the once high Big Dipper is getting low along the northwestern horizon.
Look east and you'll see the most famous fall constellations of all- the Great Square of Pegasus. While you're looking in the east, see if you can see a shimmering little cluster of stars called The Pleidades. Binoculars are an asset when trying to locate this constellation because then you'll see a small dipper-shaped set of stars.
If you have never just laid out under the stars and gazed upon the Milky Way, the middle of October will provide a great opportunity to do so. From October 8th to 18th go out after 8:00 P.M. Even though these nights will have no moonlight, you must still go to a very dark sky away from city lights. When viewing the Milky Way, always take along a pair of binoculars. They will give you better "gazing eyes".
Start in the northern horizon. Scan up to Cassiopeia. That's the constellation that looks like a W or an M on its side. The Milky Way will look like a faint band of light going right through Cassiopeia. If you look at the Milky Way overhead, you'll see Deneb and Altair, two stars in the Summer Triangle. The band of light continues across the sky and gets much wider in the Teapot star pattern of Sagittarius.
Before telescopes were invented, stargazers could not see many of the stars very clearly. The Milky Way seemed to them as stars blurred together in a white streak across the sky. The ancient Greeks called this blur a "river of milk". The Romans referred to it as the Via Galacticia or " road made of milk". And so that is how our galaxy became known as the Milky Way.
Our sun and earth lie within the Milky Way galaxy. It's shaped like a spiral, with a bulge in the middle and long, curved arms containing millions of stars. Our solar system is found near the edge in one of these arms and is about 28,000 light years from the middle of the galaxy.
This "road made of milk" is relatively large. It takes light only 8 1/2 minutes to travel from the sun to earth. Amazingly, it takes light 100,000 years to travel from one end of the Milky Way to the other end.
So gather your warm clothes, a blanket, and a pair of binoculars and set out for a very dark night sky. Notice that the summer constellations are traveling westward and the autumn star patterns are rising in the east.
Use your "gazing eyes" to look at some of those 2000 billion stars that make up cosmic cloud known as the Milky Way. It might make you feel a bit more humble and start you wondering about what exists out there in all that space.