Astronomy Essentials

Here are 2 ways to find the Andromeda galaxy

2 ways to find the Andromeda galaxy: Dense star field containing small oblong light streak with bright center, above silhouetted pine trees.
View larger. | To the eye, in a very dark sky, the Andromeda galaxy looks like a small elongated smudge. This view of Andromeda (upper right of photo) was captured by EarthSky Facebook friend Ted Van at a Montana campsite on an August night. Thank you, Ted!

2 ways to find the Andromeda galaxy

Take a night to drive to a dark sky and find the glorious Andromeda galaxy. It’s the great spiral galaxy next door to our Milky Way and the most distant object you can see with your eye alone. It’s best seen in the evening at this time of year. Most people find the galaxy by star-hopping from the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, a very noticeable M- or W-shaped pattern on the sky’s dome. You can also find the Andromeda galaxy by star-hopping from the star Alpheratz in the Great Square of Pegasus. Both methods will lead you to the galaxy. See the charts below.

Star-hop from Cassiopeia

Star chart of constellations Cassiopeia and Andromeda with labeled Andromeda galaxy between them.
Here’s the technique most people use to find the Andromeda galaxy. Just be sure you’re looking in a dark sky. Look northward for the M- or W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia the Queen. Now locate the star Schedar in Cassiopeia. It’s the constellation’s brightest star, and it points to the Andromeda galaxy.

Star-hop from the Great Square of Pegasus

Star chart with Great Square and Andromeda constellation outlined and Andromeda galaxy marked.
Here’s another way to find the Andromeda galaxy. The constellation Andromeda can be seen as 2 streams of stars extending from one side of the Great Square of Pegasus. See the star Alpheratz? It joins Pegasus to Andromeda Now notice the star Mirach, then Mu Andromedae. An imaginary line drawn through Mirach to Mu points to the Andromeda galaxy.

The importance of a dark sky

Just be aware – bright moonlight or city lights can overwhelm the faint glow of this object. The single most important thing you need to see the galaxy is a dark sky.

What does the galaxy look like to the eye? Assuming you have a dark sky, it appears as a large fuzzy patch – bigger than a full moon in the sky – but vastly fainter and more subtle.

Binoculars enhance the view

Binoculars are an excellent choice for beginners to observe the Andromeda galaxy, because they are so easy to point. As you stand beneath a dark sky, locate the galaxy with your eye first. Then slowly bring the binoculars up to your eyes so that the galaxy comes into binocular view. If that doesn’t work for you, try sweeping the area with your binoculars. Go slowly, and be sure your eyes are dark-adapted. The galaxy will appear as a fuzzy patch to the eye. It’ll appear brighter in binoculars. Can you see that its central region is more concentrated?

With the eye, or with binoculars, or with a backyard telescope, the Andromeda galaxy won’t look like the image below. But it will be beautiful. It’ll take your breath away.

Oblique swirly oblong with bright center and two bright fuzzy spots beside it, among dense stars.
The Andromeda galaxy and 2 satellite galaxies as seen through a powerful telescope. To the eye, the galaxy looks like a fuzzy patch. But it’s an island of stars in space, much like our Milky Way. Image via NOAO.

Bottom line: The neighboring Andromeda galaxy – nearest large spiral galaxy to our Milky Way – will be visible on dark, moonless evenings from now until the beginning of northern spring. Here are two ways to find it.

Read more about the Andromeda galaxy: All you need to know

Find a moonless night: Moon phases for 2021

Posted 
August 25, 2021
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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Deborah Byrd

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