The Celestial Sea

As you look up into a November sky right at nightfall, you may notice fewer bright stars than at other times of year. No, it’s not just the glare from Houston hiding most of the stars from view–there really are fewer bright stars in the November evening sky than in, say, February or August. To understand why, you need to understand the shape of our galaxy itself.

death cab for cutie:I'll follow you into the dark
Creative Commons License photo credit: visualpanic

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a barred spiral galaxy.

Evidence indicates that the Milky Way, like many large galaxies, has a massive black hole at its center. A radio source designated Sagittarius A* could be the black hole itself. (The asterisk is part of the name, which is “Sagittarius-A-star”). Surrounding this black hole is a central bulge where older (and thus redder) stars predominate.  The Bulge of our galaxy is not fully spherical but instead forms a bar a few thousand light years long.  Branching out from this bulge are spiral arms which contain younger (bluer) stars and dust clouds out of which brand new stars form.  Our solar system is about 26,000 light-years from the center to the edge, on the inside edge of the Orion Arm.  The Orion Arm, in turn, is but a spur of the much longer Perseus Arm.  The Milky Way is quite flat–over 100,000 light years wide but only 1,000 light years thick.

The flatness of the galaxy means that most of its stars are near a certain plane in space.  Of course, the galaxy is much thicker than our solar system, so we see our stellar neighbors suurounding us on all sides.  The rest of the galaxy, extending off into the distance, appears to us as a hazy blur in the background, with individual stars (those fairly close to us) in the foreground.  That hazy blur looked like spilled milk to the ancient Greeks, thus the name ‘Milky Way.’  We see more stars near that plane than far from it.

What does this have to do with the dimness of a late November sky at dusk?

Imagine observing our flat galaxy from our vantage point on Earth. When we face into the galactic plane, we see more bright stars, because there are more stars in that direction.  When we face above or below that plane, we see fewer bright stars.

Face west at dusk in late November and early December, and you’ll notice an enormous triangle of three bright stars, all bright enough to appear even in skies lit by Houston.  These stars from the Summer Triangle, so called because it is up all night long from June through mid-August.  This Triangle is also directly in the plane of the Milky Way.  The constellation Sagittarius, which marks the center of the Galaxy, sets just after the Sun this time of year.  Therefore, if you trace a path approximately from the  point of sunset through the Summer Triangle, over to five stars in an ‘m’ shape in the North (that would be Cassiopeia, the Queen), and then over to the northeastern horizon.  This is the plane of the Milky Way across late autumn skies at dusk .

Turn to the south, and you face below the galactic plane (as we’ve arbitrarily defined ‘above’ and ‘below’).  Here is a vast region of sky almost void of bright stars.  One exception is Fomalhaut, low in the southeast at dusk tonight.  Also, Houstonians with a very clear southern horizon can see Achernar very, very low in the south on December evenings.  But that’s about it.  There are many fewer bright stars in this direction than towards the Summer Triangle.  By the way, the brilliant object in the east at dusk tonight, and high in the southeast as dusk in December, is Jupiter. It doesn’t count as a bright star for this sector of the sky.

The Celestial Sea

When ancient Mesopotamians looked up into the dim skies you see at dusk tonight, they imagined the Persian Gulf south of them extended up into the sky, forming a ‘Celestial Sea’.  They therefore placed many water-themed constellations in this part of the sky.  Zodiacal constellations here include Pisces, the Fish, and Aquarius, the Water-Carrier.  Even Capricornus, the Goat, has the tail of a fish because he originally represented Ea, the ancient Babylonian god of the waters.  Under Pisces is the sea monster Cetus, while Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, drinks the water that Aquarius pours.  Eridanus, the River, rises in the southeast, flowing from Orion’s foot into this vast ‘sea.’

Creative Commons License photo credit: paul (dex)

Contrast this vast, dim region with the much brighter swath of stars that rises in the east later this evening (9-10 pm in late November, earlier in December).  This region of sky includes the brilliant pattern Orion, the Hunter, as well as Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night.    When these stars rise, we are beginning to face back into the plane of our galaxy, this time looking into our own arm of galaxy at the stars right ‘behind’ the Sun.  (This is why our arm of the Milky Way is called the Orion Arm.)  Winter evening skies are much brighter than those of late autumn.