Awesome autumn stargazing
As far as I’m concerned this is the prime time of stargazing season, and I think you’ll agree! The nights are longer and because there’s less moisture in the air the skies are more transparent, and the stars really jump out at you. Treat yourself and lie back on a reclining lawn chair and take it all in! The dark skies away from heavy light pollution are best, but even city skies can be great show.
There is so much to see this October. Headlining are the planets Jupiter and Saturn that pop out in the low south-southwest Marshall sky in the evening twilight. Jupiter is by far the brightest star-like object in the night sky, despite the fact that Jupiter is almost at its maximum distance from Earth in 2019. At the start of the month it’s just over 517 million miles away, but even at that distance you can use a small telescope or binoculars to see some of Jupiter’s darker cloud bands and up to four of its largest moons dancing around Jupiter in orbit from night to night. They resemble tiny stars on either side of the big planet. Some nights you can’t see all four of them because one or more may be behind Jupiter or camouflaged in front of it.
It’s best to view Jupiter with a scope early in the month and as early in the evening because it sinks below the southwest horizon within three hours of sunset. On Oct. 3, there will be a spectacular close junction between Jupiter and the new crescent moon, with the moon just to the upper left of the planet. On Halloween night, Oct. 31, there will be an even thinner crescent moon to the upper left of Jupiter.
Saturn is also a wonderful telescope target, and is the next brightest star-like object to the upper left of Jupiter in the low southwest sky. With even a small telescope you should easily be able to resolve Saturn’s vast ring system and maybe even some of its moons, especially Titan, the moon that’s larger than the planet Mercury. At the beginning of October Saturn will shine at us from around 930 million miles away. On Oct. 5, the first quarter moon will be parked just to the left of Saturn in a tight celestial hug that you won’t want to miss!
The full moon in October is on the 13th, and for about five nights on either side of the 13th serious stargazing will be hampered with all of the moonlight spoiling the dark backdrop of the celestial dome.
There’s also a wonderful meteor shower this month. It’s the Orionids that peak on the early morning of Oct. 22. From midnight to just before the start of morning twilight it’s possible to see 20 to 30 meteors an hour, especially in the darker countryside. On that morning the moon will be a waning crescent rising in the eastern sky, but it shouldn’t block out too many meteors.
Even though it’s autumn, many summer constellations are hanging on in the western evening sky. You can still easily see the Summer Triangle high above the western horizon with the three bright stars from three separate constellations. There’s Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp, Altair, the brightest star in Aquila the Eagle, and Deneb the brightest luminary in Cygnus the Swan.
The Big Dipper is upright and riding low in the northwestern sky. In fact, it’s getting so low that it’s hard to see if you have a high tree line. The Big Dipper is the most famous star pattern there is, but it’s not an official constellation. It’s the bright rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
Over in the eastern skies is the grand constellation Pegasus, the winged horse. Look for a giant diamond of stars on the rise in the east. Just to the upper left of Pegasus is the Andromeda Galaxy, the next door neighbor to our Milky Way, nearly 2.5 million light- years away, with just one light-year spanning nearly 6 trillion miles!
If you stay up late enough you can also spot the Pleiades star cluster in the eastern sky resembling a tiny Big Dipper. It’s also called the “Seven Little Sisters,” who are the daughters of the god Atlas. Most people can see at least six stars, but it’s possible to see seven. Through binoculars or a telescope you can see many more. Astronomically it’s a cluster of young stars that all formed together over 100 million years ago. They’re fairly close by at a little over 400 light-years away.
Don’t miss the great October skies!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.