From the August 2014 issue

Web Extra: 10 great autumn binocular sights

Before the chill of winter sets in, head outside to explore a variable star, a nearby galaxy, a stellar waterfall, and more.
By | Published: August 25, 2014 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
M39 is an open star cluster in Cygnus the Swan.
M39, an open star cluster in Cygnus the Swan, lies about 800 light-years away from Earth. Its stellar members are a youthful 300 million years old.
Anthony Ayiomamitis
The Milky Way’s disk holds a greater than average number of binocular objects. The galaxy’s glittering band is high in the sky during autumn, so this season is a wonderful time to tour the universe through binoculars. What’s in the sky to view with yours tonight? Head outside to hunt these 10 terrific targets.

Let’s kick things off in Capricornus. In the northwestern corner of this triangular constellation await the pretty double stars Alpha (α) and Beta (β) Capricorni, which fit into the same binocular field. Even the tiniest pocket binoculars can resolve the two 4th-magnitude stars that compose Alpha Capricorni, properly named Algedi. They are not a true physical pairing, however. Instead, the stars only appear aligned as seen from Earth. The western sun, Alpha1, is 690 light-years from us while Alpha2 is just 109 light-years away.

The two suns of Dabih (Beta Capricorni), on the other hand, form a true binary system. The brighter, dubbed Dabih Major, shines with an orange color at magnitude 3.1 while its companion, Dabih Minor, is only magnitude 6.1 and looks slightly bluish. Both are 330 light-years away, and about 1/3 light-year separates them.

MuCephei is a variable star
Mu (μ) Cephei is a variable star that changes its brightness by nearly five times over the course of about 2.5 years. Members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers monitor this red supergiant.
Anthony Ayiomamitis
Next, head north to Cygnus and brilliant Deneb (Alpha Cygni), a radiant beauty through binoculars. Scan 9°, or a bit more than one binocular field, to Deneb’s northeast along the Milky Way, and you will arrive at open cluster M39. Look for a tiny triangular grouping of about two dozen faint points. Viewed from a dark location, M39 appears almost three-dimensional, as if suspended in front of a blanket of faint stardust.

Our next target stood out to German-born English astronomer William Herschel. He nicknamed Mu (μ) Cephei the “Garnet Star” because of its striking orange-red color. Mu is one of the largest and brightest red supergiants in the Milky Way, with a diameter spanning farther out than Saturn’s orbit. View the Garnet Star and pure-white Alderamin (Alpha Cephei) in the same field to enhance the ruby color. Like most red supergiants, Mu also pulsates: Over a semiregular period of about 850 days, it cycles between magnitude 3.4 and 5.1.

Heading back to observing star clusters, extend a line from Schedar (Alpha Cassiopeiae) to Caph (Beta Cassiopeiae), the westernmost stars in Cassiopeia’s W asterism, and continue an equal distance farther northwest to spot M52, one of my favorite autumn open clusters. There, you should spot a slender four-star diamond-shaped asterism, with M52 just to its south. Two hundred stars call this cluster home, but only a few are bright enough to crack the binocular barrier. The rest blend into a cloud of misty starlight.

Open cluster M52 lies in Cassiopeia
Open cluster M52 lies less than 1° from the Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635) in Cassiopeia, but the nebula requires at least an 8-inch telescope to spot it.
Bernhard Hubl
NGC 663 is another stellar conglomeration. This one lies a little to the east of the halfway point between Ruchbah (Delta [δ] Cas) and Segin (Epsilon [ε] Cas) along the eastern arm of Cassiopeia’s W. Through my 10×50 binoculars, this open cluster looks like an unresolved blur of light. By switching to my 16x70s, I can just begin to pick out a few feeble points within. Open cluster M103 lies just 2° to the southwest, but most observers agree that NGC 663 puts on a much better show.

Next, scan about one-third of the way from Segin toward Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris). Pause when you spot the Keystone asterism formed by 40, 42, 48, and 50 Cassiopeiae, and then look carefully inside. Can you see a dim smudge? If so, you’ve spotted Collinder 463, a little-known collection of about eighty 8th-magnitude and fainter suns. Take a careful look. Does the cluster appear crescent-shaped to you, as some report?

For another variable star, head to Algol (Beta Persei), the famous “Demon Star” in Perseus that is fun to follow through binoculars. Every 2 days, 20 hours, and 49 minutes, Algol “blinks” at us as it drops from magnitude 2.1 to 3.4. These changes result from a much dimmer companion star passing in front of the binary system’s primary sun. Each eclipse lasts about 10 hours. Time it for yourself to see the universe in action.

Kemble's Cascade is an asterism that spans about five Full Moons in Camelopardalis the Giraffe.
Kemble’s Cascade is an asterism that spans about five Full Moons in Camelopardalis the Giraffe. At the base of the “waterfall” is the cluster NGC 1502.
Steve Coe
A few years ago, I included the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) as an autumn binocular target. This year, we shift 15° southeast to the Pinwheel Galaxy (M33), another member of the Milky Way’s Local Group of galaxies. But while M31 was easy to spot, M33 may give you a run for your money. Look for the galaxy’s faint glow about halfway between the stars Mirach (Beta Andromedae) and Mothallah (Alpha Trianguli). Can’t make it out? Try bracing your binoculars against a solid support and using averted vision.

Our final target sits in Camelopardalis. While scanning the seemingly barren constellation with his 7×35 binoculars more than three decades ago, the late Canadian amateur astronomer Lucian Kemble stumbled upon, as he described it, “a beautiful cascade of faint stars tumbling from the northwest down to the open cluster NGC 1502.” Kemble’s Cascade, as this asterism is now known, spans 2.5°. A lone magnitude 5 sun at midspan highlights this curious chain of some sixteen stars between 7th and 9th magnitude. This stellar stream flows some 15° east of Segin. And once you spot Kemble’s Cascade, be sure to look for NGC 1502 at its southern tip.

These are just some of the targets in autumn’s binocular universe. If it’s clear tonight, head outside to enjoy a bit of what the season has to offer. And as always, when it comes to stargazing, remember that two eyes are better than one.