Image: Southern sky
The moon and Mars, the Great Square of Pegasus and the Andromeda Galaxy are among the highlights visible in fall's southern skies. Click for a larger, more detailed map.
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updated 12/3/2003 10:26:26 PM ET 2003-12-04T03:26:26

The wonder and beauty of the heavens begin when the cloak of daylight is lifted, revealing the vast sea of stars that make up the night sky. Navigating this sea need not be daunting. With a simple star chart and no other equipment, you can check out the brightest objects and learn the astronomer’s game of connect-the-dots, which helps form in the mind patterns of the most popular constellations.

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THIS WEEK we’ll tour some of the most easy-to-find objects and patterns in the night sky, covering one compass direction each day through Friday. Our tour guide is Starry Night Pro 4.5, the newest version of the leading astronomy software for night sky enthusiasts.

The “Watery” constellations fill the southern sky. Start with Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, low in the southwest. Barely above the horizon is Fomalhaut, the brightest star of this constellation. Fomalhaut is usually the brightest object of the southern sky in the fall, but this year it is outshone by Mars, which gleams above it. Mars is easy to spot and usually has an orange tint.

Above Piscis Austrinus is Aquarius the Water Bearer, and to the left of Aquarius is Cetus the Whale, also known as the water serpent. Above Cetus is a “V” shape formed by the stars of Pisces the Fish. Below and to the left of Cetus is Eridanus the River. The brightest star in Eridanus is Achernar, although not visible from latitudes less than 32 degrees north, it is the ninth brightest star in the whole sky.

Among the watery constellations is the Great Square of Pegasus — a large square forming the body of Pegasus, the winged horse. Originally a star of Pegasus, Alpheratz became part of the constellation Andromeda when the constellation boundaries were formalized.

To the left of Pegasus is the constellation of Andromeda. It contains the Great Andromeda Galaxy. M31, as the galaxy is also known, is the most distant object visible to the naked eye. Andromeda was a mythological princess, daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, whose constellations are found nearby.

To find the Andromeda Galaxy, you will need fairly dark skies away from city and suburban light pollution. Follow Alpheratz to Delta Andromedae and then to Mirach. To the right of the second brightest star up from Mirach is an oval smudge of milky light — the Andromeda Galaxy, whose light you are seeing now took over 2 million years to reach your eye.

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