Thursday, October 1, 2015

The October Sky

It's a new month and that means a new sky, at least for the trailing end of the night. Last month saw the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of fall. Around the turn of fall, the days shorten at their fastest pace and, as a result, the evening October sky isn't all that much different than it was in September. Morning? That's a different story altogether.

Cool Constellations
With the advent of October, the spring constellations are rapidly saying goodbye, with Virgo the next major constellation to disappear. Also getting low in the Southwest is Libra and Bootes and Corona are now just about due West at nightfall. In the North, the Big Dipper continues its dive, flattening out as it starts to approach the horizon. Perhaps the best part of the September sky is that one doesn't need to stay up late to see all the best sights of summer. At nightfall, Hercules is still near zenith, the Summer Triangle (Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila along with hangers-on Saggita and Delphinus) is at zenith, Scorpius is due South with Ophiuchus and Sagittarius on either side, both still well-placed for observing. Also, the Milky Way is at its best positioning right after nightfall, too. For people who like to stay up late (or get up extremely early) a fall preview in the form of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus, Andromeda, Aries, Capricorn, Aquarius, and even Perseus is on tap in the wee hours of the morning while, by month's end, the bright stars of winter in the form of Orion, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini are visible, too. The place where the October sky differs from that of September is in the later half of the night and the early morning, predawn time frame, which allows for one to see the winter constellations earlier and even get a quick peek at the spring ones, too. With the increasingly delayed sunrise coupled with the weeks just prior to the return of Standard Time, October presents a great opportunity to get a spring (yes, spring!) preview before we let the clocks fall back and, in turn, kill any opportunities for early morning observing, at least for a few weeks. In October, Leo makes its return, bright blue Regulus appearing just ahead of the rising Sun in the morning. Just before the sky starts to get light, look for the head and front of Hydra peeking up over the Eastern horizon. By now, the Big Dipper is climbing and vertical, too.

Planetary Perceptions
On the planet front, if you want to see any of our solar system neighbors, you had better be a night owl or an early bird because 4 of the 5 planets visible this month make their appearances during the wee hours of the night and into the predawn morning sky. For starters, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars, all of which disappeared a few months ago, are all now finding themselves reasonably well-placed for predawn viewing in the Eastern sky, especially come month's end. During the course of the month, there will be some planetary ballet dancing between the planets, too. If that weren't enough, Mercury will be making its best morning appearance of the year this month starting around the 5th and will continue to be visible most of October. Lastly, there's Saturn, the sole evening planet, which hangs very low in the Southwest sky just after sunset for the duration of the month.

Fun Trivia
The letters in the title of the movie October Sky, which is about the life of rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard (who was born on October 5), can be rearranged to spell 'rocket boys.'

Tonight's Sky for October 1: Moon Meets the Bull
Tonight, the Moon will be in a very unique place: right on the head of a cosmic bull. Tonight, the Moon will move directly into the Zodiac constellation of Taurus the bull, more specifically, into its head.

To see the sight, go out and look East. The Moon, of course, will be impossible to miss. Moon found, look for a sideways 'V' of stars (set off by bright orange Aldebaran), the Hyades star cluster, which represent the base of the bull's head. Extending the lines of the 'V' out, you will run into a pair of stars of roughly 2nd magnitude (though on opposite ends of the scale) that signal the end of the horns.

Cosmic picture realized, there's the Moon, smack in the middle. 

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