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A stargazer’s guide to autumn delights

The heavens above Finland promise a feast for the eyes well into the end of the year. Even now sky watchers are preparing for the coming of the ISON comet. And as the sun threatens to steal the spotlight from what has been billed as the “comet of the century”, the Northern Lights will still be there to bewitch night watchers.

Revontuliaktiivisuus on tänä vuonna vilkkaampaa kuin moneen vuoteen. Maaliskuiset revontulet olivat näyttävimmästä päästä myös eteläisessä Suomessa.
Sky-watchers can expect more dazzling Aurora Borealis displays than usual this year due to heightened solar activity. Northern Lights displays in March this year could be seen clearly as far as souther Finland. Image: Timo Leponiemi / Yle

Finland’s dedicated stargazers will spend the rest of the year torn between two major celestial targets: the familiar but spectacular, as in the Northern Lights, and the unique but momentary represented by the ISON comet.

The “sungrazer” comet ISON could well disintegrate before it even reaches our sun, potentially disappointing many awaiting its coming. The comet’s trajectory will take it into the sun’s corona, something very few comets do. But perhaps this is the very reason that so many are eagerly anticipating its possible arrival.

The comet itself will be visible in the early morning gloaming next month, providing a stunning vision that will likely change from one day to the next.

“The ISON comet can be seen one hour or two before sunrise in the Virgo constellation, but it will be difficult to detect in the early morning light,” noted Jorma Mäntylä, a celestial photographer from Kangasala in the Tampere region.

The editor of Star and Space magazine Marko Pekkola also put this mysterious comet at the top of his stargazing to-do list. But he is also looking forward to dazzling Aurora Borealis displays as the autumn months wane, as this year promises a particularly active season for the Northern Lights.

“All the same I fear that this autumn cloudiness will cover up how solar activity is causing the heavens to light up. Autumn is usually very cloudy and the clouds will effectively obscure these heavenly sights,” Pekkola pointed out.

Shooting stars in Gemini and Orion

Tom Eklund of Akaa in the Tampere region is also looking forward to a flock of shooting stars in the Gemini constellation. In ideal conditions the phenomenon offers a night time treat, with the best viewing times occurring on the nights of December 12 and 13. However chances are the moon could steal the show from these starry bursts this year.

“It would be a good idea to wake up earlier than usual in the morning. In an hour or an hour and a half you might see three times as many as you would during the night. These clear shooting stars are beautiful to watch,” stressed Pekka Parviainen, a veteran skywatcher and photographer.

Parviainen also recommended watching for star formations in Orion, close to the brightest star in our sky, Sirius. It will be visible low in the sky and our atmosphere will give it the characteristic twinkle that we associate with many heavenly bodies.

For enthusiasts equipped with binoculars, Parviainen recommended watching as brilliant Jupiter transits through the constellation Gemini. Binoculars will also allow viewers to see Jupiter’s four moons – the very same ones Galileo Galilei discovered back in January 1610.

Crater hunting on the moon

Once you’ve got those binoculars out, consider making the moon another target and following its many moods. The craters on a crescent moon stand out sharply, with their eerie lighting changing even during the same night. This trick doesn’t work as well with a full moon though, as details do not show as clearly.

For those who are still taking baby steps in terms of getting to know the near galaxy, Pekkola suggested setting sights on the Andromeda galaxy, where the W-shaped Cassiopeia constellation can be seen, even with the naked eye. Simply train your binoculars or telescope on this group of stars named after a beautiful but vain Greek queen, and enjoy.

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