Want to experience the kind of cosmic panorama seen under the opening credits of Star Wars? You’re at the right place. During September nights, we are aimed toward the center of the Milky Way, and can view the full splendor of our home galaxy.
When to View the Milky Way
During September nights, the Milky Way Galaxy neatly splits the sky from north to south and passes directly overhead.
An absent Moon or a harmlessly thin crescent provides the darkest conditions, while September’s crisp, dry air affords the kind of transparency that allows the countless subtle details of the Milky Way to emerge in all its glory.
It’s best to be in a truly dark observing site in a rural area. It takes about 20 minutes for human eyes to become fully sensitive to faint light. You will witness the combined light of uncountable stars populating the dense, central hub of the Galaxy. These suns are so concentrated that you see billowing “clouds” of stars!
It’s a far cry from the spring, when the Milky Way splays along the horizon and is invisible. Then the sky offers only a smattering of stars.
In September, it’s a planetarium come to life!
How to See the Milky Way
Looking toward the dark skies, the naked human eye sees a whitish glow stretching in a huge arc. This band has been visible in the heavens since Earth first formed.
This glowing line of light is the center of our galaxy, as seen from one of its spiral arms where we are located.
Because our eyes cannot distinguish the individual stars that make up the glowing band of light, it appears “milky.”
Look through a camera which can accumulate light that the naked eye can not.
Image: The Milky Way won’t look like this to the human eye!
To the ancient Mayans, the Milky Way was the center of the universe. And even in our Space Telescope age, it’s still the heart of ours. It’s our resident galaxy, observed not from the outside but from our worms’-eye viewpoint within its pinwheel motif.
Dive Into the Milky Way
This video by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) starts with a broad view of the Milky Way. We then dive into the dusty central region to take a much closer look. There lurks a 4-million solar mass black hole, surrounded by a swarm of stars orbiting rapidly. We first see the stars in motion, thanks to 26 years of data from ESO’s telescopes. We then see an even closer view of one of the stars, known as S2, passing very close to the black hole in May 2018. The final part shows a simulation of the motions of the stars.
Our Heart of Our Galactic Home
This is the place where knowledge can safely be put aside.
Here, knowing the stars or constellations is as unnecessary as naming each goose in a flock winging across the autumn heavens. The lunatic riot of stars tumbling downward toward the south, and the twisted texture of the background glow, surely belongs in our lives at least once a year.
So take the hand of your soul mate or lover or child or anyone whom Destiny has put in your life, and pull this beloved companion away from the TV (and especially the nightly news), and turn off the house lights.
Lie under the night until your eyes adjust to the scene thousands of lightyears above. And then perhaps say, “This, my sweetheart, is our true home. I wanted you to see it.”
What else is up this month? See our September Sky Watch.