October is a popular time of year for stargazing. The sun is setting earlier, and in most of the U.S., the nights are aren’t too chilly. An evening spent observing the night sky can take you from the Sagittarius at the heart of the Milky Way, past the fall constellations of Andromeda (home of the famous, bright galaxy), past Perseus, to Orion rising in the east. See Sky & Telescope for a general guide to observing and exploring the night sky.
This year’s October skies will also feature a series of night sky events, according to National Geographic. These extra sky shows range from the subtle dance of passing planets, to the moon passing in front of a bright star, to sparkling calling cards from Halley’s Comet. Here is your quick guide to some of October’s most noteworthy celestial events.
No large telescope is needed to see these night sky events, though a good pair of binoculars will come in handy — as will a lawn chair.
Track the Moon and Constellations
This predawn show features the moon and a cluster of stars known as the Beehive, formally the Praesepe cluster. On a dark night, the Beehive is visible to the naked eye as a foggy patch, according to EarthSky.org. National Geographic again recommends binoculars to cut through the moonlight. Look for the cluster below and to the left of the moon.
Of all celestial objects, the nearby moon seems to move farthest across the night sky from night to night. You can see this effect on these nights when, as National Geographic phrased it, the moon will seem to “bounce past” Saturn, appearing to its right on the first night and to its left on the following night.
Look up in the sky to see a glowing full hunter’s moon, or harvest moon — aptly named because “the deer are fattened, and it’s time to begin storing up meat for the long winter ahead,” according to Farmer’s Almanac. This full moon is an important feast day in both Western European and various Native American tribes, the Almanac notes.
Meteor Showers and Sparkling Lights
Keep an eye out for the occasional meteor during the Dracanoid meteor shower. Though you may only spot a few meteors per hour, it’s still worth the try, according to Space.com.
This is not a one-night show, but looking east before dawn in later October is the best time of year to see the zodiacal lights. Often called false dawn because it produces light before sunrise, zodiacal lights are a subtle triangular glow caused by dust between the planets of the solar system, as described by EarthSky.org.
EarthSky.org promises a spectacular meteor show. Watch the eastern sky during the predawn hours for the Orionid meteor shower. Binoculars are not needed (or even helpful), just alert eyes to see about a dozen or so meteors per hour. They are formed by dust that drifted away from Halley’s Comet, which left an earlier celestial calling card during the summer.
The Subtle Dance of Passing Planets
The bright planets Venus and Mars will appear unusually close together, low in the predawn eastern sky, about an hour before sunrise. Venus is very bright and easy to find; National Geographic recommends using binoculars to pick out fainter, reddish Mars.
Like quite a few of October’s celestial events, this is an early risers’ show. Remember that when you go to bed it will still be October 4 — don’t get fooled by the calendar, or you’ll be a day late.
Once again in the predawn eastern sky, Venus and Mars continue their celestial dance of planetary motion as they (and we, on Earth) all orbit the sun. Tonight they are joined by the moon, as it orbits the Earth, said National Geographic.
Uranus is famous as the first planet discovered using a telescope, according to NASA, though in very dark skies it is just visible to the naked eye. On this night it is “in opposition” — just opposite the sun, and at its closest approach to Earth during the year. Look for it in the constellation Pisces, in the southern sky, advises National Geographic.
Night sky events are open to explorers at all levels of equipment, from binoculars to orbital telescopes. Happy stargazing!
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