One of the first things that amateur stargazers clamor to do, as soon as they have the necessary know-how, is to locate the beautiful Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky.
However, considering that it’s one of the few galactic phenomena that’s visible to the naked human eye, it’s ridiculous how difficult it sometimes can be to find Andromeda.
So how do you go about it?
Here’s everything you need to know about how to find the Andromeda Galaxy.
Ready? Let’s get started…
How To Find Andromeda Galaxy In The Sky: Short Summary
There are some ways simple ways to locate the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky:
- Using the Cassiopeia constellation to star-hop and locate the galaxy
- Using the Great Square of Pegasus to star-hop to find the Andromeda Galaxy
- Using a star chart
- Using a handy mobile app
About The Andromeda Galaxy
Among the night sky’s most beautiful features is the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the several galaxies that sit in the same group of galaxies as the Milky Way (known as the Local Group). This galaxy is the brightest one that is visible to the naked human eye and also the closest spiral galaxy, sitting extremely close to the Milky Way.
Though you can see the Andromeda Galaxy with your naked eyes, it might blow you away to know that the galaxy sits as far as 2.5 million light-years away, making this galaxy one of the furthest deep-sky objects that are visible to us.
To be able to see something 2.5 million light-years away also means that you’re looking 2.5 million years into the past!
The Andromeda Galaxy is also known as M31 or Messier 31, named after its position on a popular Charles Messier list of blurry objects, as well as NGC 224, a name favored by astronomers.
When Was The Andromeda First Discovered?
The Andromeda Galaxy finds mention in works of literature as old as those from 965 CE—it’s clearly mentioned in al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars.
However, the galaxy was rediscovered in the modern world by Simon Marius, a German astronomer, around 1612, a short while after Hans Lipperhey birthed the telescope as we know it today.
When it was discovered, it was believed that the Andromeda Galaxy was a part of the Milky Way—it was only as late as 1920 that Edwin Hubble proved that the Andromeda Galaxy is an independent galaxy of its own.
How Does The Andromeda Galaxy Look?
In all its glory, Andromeda is bigger than the Milky Way and the light from the galaxy could cover an area as big as six full moons—however, without a telescope, you would only be able to see a blurred streak of light (the center of the galaxy).
In fact, one of the reasons that many amateurs miss it, though it’s staring them right in the face, is because they expect to see a clearly defined, bright galaxy.
However, all you can see is a hazy light patch that’s got roughly the same diameter as the full moon—many folks have even mistaken Andromeda for blurry eyesight and smudges on the telescope lens!
Where And When To Look For The Andromeda Galaxy
Here’s everything you need to know about where and when to look for the galaxy.
Where To Look
The Andromeda Galaxy is best seen in the Northern Hemisphere, where it’s visible from the early hours of dawn till late dusk. Come winter, you’ll also find it right overhead in the evenings.
During fall, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy rise in the east, where it sits overhead for some time before and after midnight.
Additionally, you’ll also want to look for the Andromeda Galaxy in an extremely dark sky, which means that your best bet is a moonless night in a spot that’s far removed from the light pollution that accompanies city settings.
Spots like the desert and hilltops are great options.
When To Look
If you find yourself in the northern hemisphere or mid-northern latitudes, you’ll find the Andromeda Galaxy gracing the night sky every day throughout the year.
However, it’s at its most visible in the months of August and September, when it sits high enough to be easily visible from dusk to dawn.
As these months come to an end, Andromeda starts making an appearance later in the evening, in the hours after the sun sets and before midnight.
The Andromeda Galaxy travels to the eastern sky as temperatures drop, so in the last weeks of September and the early weeks of October, you’ll see the galaxy in the eastern night sky, overhead around midnight, and quite high in the western sky as dawn approaches.
For the best chance of viewing the galaxy, many astronomers suggest choosing a winter evening.
Finding The Andromeda Galaxy
As mentioned earlier, there are some simple ways to spot the Andromeda Galaxy, regardless of your level of experience in stargazing and astronomy.
Star-Hopping From The Cassiopeia Constellation
When it comes to easily identifiable constellations in the sky, the Cassiopeia constellation comes second only to the Big Dipper.
This conspicuously M or W-shaped constellation, shaped by its five brightest stars, is a constant in the northern hemisphere’s night sky (it’s what we call a ‘circumpolar’ constellation), which makes it a supremely reliable guide to finding the Andromeda Galaxy.
Just look to the right of the “W” shape and you’ll find its southernmost star, the Schedar, pointing down to Andromeda (usually to the southwest) about 15 degrees away.
If it makes it easier, you could form a triangle by connecting two more of Cassiopeia’s stars, Navi and Caph, to Shedir, so that the formation acts as an arrow and makes it simpler to identify the direction in which the Schedar points.
If you have trouble finding Cassiopeia, here’s a simple way to do so.
Most of us can easily recognize the North Star (also known as Polaris). Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper sit on either side of the Cassiopeia; at any given point, both constellations will be right opposite each other.
As mentioned, Cassiopeia is M or W-shaped, which makes it easy to identify once you have the North Star in sight.
Star-Hopping From The Great Square of Pegasus
The second path is longer and slightly more complicated, but more accurate and beautiful. Since you need some knowledge of the stars and constellations for this, this method is recommended for slightly advanced stargazers.
The Great Square of Pegasus is an almost-symmetrical constellation, a square shape (or rectangle, if you want to put too fine a technical point on it!) formed by its four brightest stars.
Once you’ve recognized the shape of the Pegasus, notice that two starry chains that extend from the constellation’s upper lefthand corner. These chains belong to the Andromeda Galaxy.
One of the chains is brighter than the other; this one starts with the Alpha Andromeda or Alpheratz star before moving on to the Delta Andromedae, Mirach (or Beta Andromedae), and Almach. Once you get to Mirach, take a sharp right to Mu Andromedae and keep going (roughly the same distance as you traveled between Mirach and Mu) to reach the Andromeda Galaxy.
Finding The Great Square Of Pegasus
This constellation makes an appearance during autumn (August to December) in the northern hemisphere’s eastern sky when it’s at its clearest and can be recognized by its “baseball diamond” shape.
If you know Cassiopeia, you can find your way to the Great Square by just traveling southeast from the W.
The Great Square is visible all night during the month of October, unless there’s extreme light pollution around.
Using A Star Chart
Star charts are not a great idea, since stars keep changing positions constantly. You’ll have to ensure that you find one that charts the star positions coinciding with the month.
You can find star charts sold by astronomical societies, planetariums, and even online. Check the position of the stars against the positions listed on the map to find the Andromeda Galaxy.
Using An App
There’s always an app to make life easier and stargazing is no exception! There are a plethora of apps that teach you how to find the Andromeda Galaxy and using your phone’s GPS, can adjust readings based on your environment.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Identify Light Pollution?
The Great Square comes in quite handy when you want to identify light pollution.
Once you spot the constellation, allow your eyes to adjust to the night sky and proceed to count the stars that belong to it.
If you see around 21 stars, your visibility levels are excellent with minimal light pollution, whereas above 9 is decent and 4 is average. If you can’t see a single star, the light pollution is at its maximum and you need to find a darker spot.
Are Binoculars Always Necessary?
Binoculars are a great tool, especially for amateurs, when used right.
First, use just your eyes to spot the galaxy through any of the above methods. Once you’ve found it, lift the binoculars to your eyes without losing sight of the galaxy.
If not, you can always just do a slow sweep of the sky with your binoculars.
However, whichever way you do it, ensure that your eyes are well adapted to the dark.
Will There Be An Andromeda-Milky Way Collision?
Though there has been a lot of back and forth on this one, it was in 2012 that NASA confirmed the possibility of a collision, stating that it would happen four billion years from now, well after our time.
Additionally, a collision doesn’t always mean crashing head-on. Due to the vast amounts of space between the stars, the two galaxies could simply pass through each other like Kitty Pryde and a wall.
When this does happen, though, there is a strong possibility of the two galaxies merging or changing shape.
By star-hopping from Cassiopeia or the Great Square or using a star chart or app, you can now easily find the Andromeda Galaxy on a dark, sparsely lit night. Remember that all you’ll see is a smudge of light, even with your binoculars or telescope, so know what to expect.
However, smudge or not, the Andromeda Galaxy is a breathtaking sight—just the knowledge that you’re looking into the past at one of the largest, closest galaxies around is enough to humble someone. Therefore, it’s well worth the effort of finding.