Image: Sky map
Starry Night Software
On a late September evening, we are treated to a wide cross-section of deep sky objects: star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.
updated 9/29/2010 5:35:13 PM ET 2010-09-29T21:35:13

The end of September marks a transition in the night sky. With the bright stars of the Northern Hemisphere summer disappearing in the west, even brighter stars of winter will rise in the east in a changing tapestry of deep sky objects.

The shift in Earth's seasons is a good time for skywatchers to prepare for the next round of stargazing.

The sky map (right) shows some attractive targets in the Northern Hemisphere as September passes to October.

New skywatching season tour
For skywatchers with good weather, there is a wealth of potential targets to hunt for at night. Here's a night sky tour for the new skywatching season.

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First you'll need some clear weather away from city lights. Granted that, the Milky Way will appear in the western sky, arcing up overhead.

Looking beyond the big constellations of the Summer Triangle, we find the neat little constellation of Sagitta, the Arrow, which is surrounded by interesting objects.

Just above the Arrow's tail is Brocchi's Cluster, popularly known by the more prosaic name of the "Coat Hanger" because of its appearance: a straight line of stars topped by a very obvious hook. Above the point of the Arrow is the Dumbbell Nebula, one of the brightest and largest planetary nebulae in the sky.

Moving away from the Milky Way, we spy two of the richest globular clusters in the sky, to which 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier gave the numbers 2 and 15 in his catalog. Look a bit farther south and you are in the watery constellation of Aquarius, where you can find two more planetary nebulae.

The Saturn Nebula is very small and very bright, so it  can be easily be mistaken for a star; it's easy to see how Messier overlooked this object with his poor-quality telescopes.

The Helix Nebula is the  opposite of the Saturn Nebula: very large and very faint. It is probably the nearest planetary nebula to the sun, 700 light-years away, and is nearly half as big as the moon in apparent diameter. You  will likely need a telescope equipped with a narrow band or OIII filter to spot it, unless you are blessed with really dark skies.

Beyond the Milky Way
When we get well beyond the plane of the Milky Way, we begin to see more distant galaxies.

Two of the brightest galaxies in the sky are just above and below the two chains of stars that mark Andromeda. Above Andromeda is the large, bright Andromeda Galaxy, visible even in the centers of our cities.

With a telescope you can easily see one of its satellite galaxies, Messier 32. Its other satellite, Messier 110, is much more difficult to spot  in urban skies, and may require a trip to a dark sky site.

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Both satellites are farther away from the main galaxy than most people expect because photographs of the Andromeda galaxies are often overexposed, making the Andromeda Galaxy look much larger in pictures than it appears in our telescopes.

Just below Andromeda is a much more challenging galaxy, the Pinwheel Galaxy, in the constellation Triangulum.

Although almost as bright as Andromeda on paper, the Pinwheel Galaxy is much more difficult to spot in the sky because it lacks any central condensation and fades away to nothingness in all directions. It's easy to sweep right past it in anything but the darkest country sky.

Be sure not to overlook the interesting galaxy NGC 253 — known as the Silver Dollar Galaxy — in the little-known constellation of Sculptor. Tucked underneath the constellations Cetus and Aquarius, this constellation and its many galaxies are virtually unknown to observers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere know these sky targets well, especially the treasure that is NGC 253, one of the brightest edge-on galaxies in the sky.

Although difficult because of its low altitude for northerners, the galaxy is still a fine object and worth searching for. Although 10 million light-years away, it is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky.

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Photos: Month in space: September 2010

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  1. Martian sea of sand

    Near Mars' north pole, the landscape is dominated by sand dunes forming a massive erg, or sand sea, much like parts of the Sahara Desert on Earth. In parts of the erg, sand is abundant and covers the entire surface. Here, near the edge, sand is in shorter supply and the dunes are separated by areas of lighter-toned soil. This color-coded image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was captured in July and published on Sept. 1. (NASA /JPL/ University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Dance of the galaxies

    NGC 5426 and NGC 5427 are two spiral galaxies of similar sizes engaged in a dramatic dance. It is not certain that this interaction will end in a collision and ultimately a merging of the two galaxies, although the galaxies have already been affected. Together known as Arp 271, this dance will last for tens of millions of years. This image, released Aug. 30, was taken with the EFOSC instrument attached to the New Technology Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile. (ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Crazy cones on Mars

    These Martian volcanic cones are similar in size and shape to cones found in Iceland, where hot lava has run over wet ground. The heat from the lava boils the water, which bursts through the lava flow. These steam-driven exploding bubbles of lava throw chunks of molten and solid lava into the air. A long series of such explosions is needed to build up one of the large cones. This image, released Sept. 1, was taken by a high-resolution camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Creating Curiosity

    Engineers work on the Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 16. Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is due to be launched to the Red Planet from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in late 2011. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Igor the Terrible

    A photo taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 15 shows Hurricane Igor whirling through the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles below. In the foreground you can see a Russian spacecraft docked to the space station. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Dodging a bullet

    An extreme ultraviolet image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows an exceptionally heavy plasma eruption on the surface of the sun on Sept. 8. Not to worry, though: The resulting blast of electrically charged particles missed Earth. (NASA/SDA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Bull's-eye on the moon

    A color-coded topographic map based on data from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the 580-mile-wide Mare Orientale, the largest young impact basin on the moon. This basin formed when a projectile hit the moon about 3.8 billion years ago and penetrated deeply into the lunar crust, ejecting huge amounts of material. The image was released Sept. 16 to coincide with the publication of scientific papers about LRO's mission. (NASA / Goddard / MIT / Brown) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Two flashes from Jupiter

    A fleeting bright dot on each of these images of Jupiter marks a small comet or asteroid burning up in the atmosphere. The image on the left was taken on June 3 by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley, with a fireball appearing on the right side. The image on the right was taken by Japanese amateur astronomer Masayuki Tachikawa on Aug. 20, with a fireball appearing at upper right. In a report published Sept. 9, NASA said neither event left a lasting mark on the planet. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Spiral in space

    A picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, published Sept. 7, shows an unusual spiral nebula around the star LL Pegasi, 3,000 light-years from Earth. Astronomers say the spiral shape was created by material swirling out from one of the stars in a binary-star system. (ESA / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Bootprint on Mars?

    Orcus Patera is an enigmatic elliptical depression near Mars' equator, in the eastern hemisphere of the planet. Located between the volcanoes of Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons, its formation remains a mystery. The favored theory is that the feature was created when a comet or asteroid hit the Red Planet at a shallow angle. This picture of Orcus Patera, released Aug. 27, was taken by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. (ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA's six-legged robot

    The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE, is a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle designed to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces. ATHLETE got a chance to flex its limbs on Sept. 15 in northern Arizona during NASA's Desert RATS field tests. (Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Practicing for Mars

    Geologists Jacob Bleacher and Jim Rice take a close look at a rock formation in northern Arizona before collecting samples on Sept. 5. The geologists took part in NASA's Desert RATS exercise, which is aimed at trying out the equipment and procedures that could come into play during a mission to Mars or other interplanetary destinations. The "RATS" in the name stands for "Research and Technology Studies." (NASA Desert RATS) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ice sculptures in space

    Clouds of gas and dust in the Carina Nebula are sculpted into bizarre shapes by stellar radiation, as seen in this image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and unveiled on Sept. 16. The Hubble team compares the pillars to "cosmic ice sculptures." (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Project) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. New York at night

    New York City is ablaze in an image sent by NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock from the International Space Station on Aug. 28. "The City That Never Sleeps," he wrote in a Twitter tweet. "New York, New York on a clear summer night." (Doug Wheelock / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Shooting a laser at the sky

    This image, released on Sept. 6, shows a laser beam shooting up from the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. The laser beam is used as a guide for the observatory's adaptive-optics system, which compensates for unsteadiness in the atmosphere to produce sharper astronomical images. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Thar she blows!

    A solid rocket motor that could be used on future NASA launch vehicles is tested Aug. 31 at ATK Aerospace Systems' test site in Promontory, Utah. The rocket motor burned for just over two minutes during the successful static test, producing about 3.6 million pounds of thrust. (ATK) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The road ahead

    NASA's Opportunity rover looks across a series of sand ripples and bedrock outcrops toward the rim of Endeavour Crater on the horizon on Sept. 6. Opportunity has just crossed the halfway mark in its trip from Victoria Crater to Endeavour. The rover headed out from Victoria in September 2008. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Saturn and its children

    Four of Saturn's moons join the planet for a well-balanced portrait, released by the Cassini orbiter's imaging team on Sept. 10. Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is at lower left. Tethys is at upper right. Two much smaller moons, Pandora and Epimetheus, are barely visible near the rings. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Moon and Earthglow

    A crescent moon is just about to set below Earth's glowing horizon in a picture taken Sept. 4 from the International Space Station. The glow is sunlight scattered by Earth's atmosphere. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Twilight of the shuttle

    Photographers gather early on the morning of Sept. 21 to take pictures of the space shuttle Discovery, just after its arrival at the launch pad. Discovery is scheduled to embark on the shuttle fleet's penultimate mission on Nov. 1. The final shuttle flight, involving Endeavour, is set for launch in February - although there's a chance that one additional mission will be flown. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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