Heavenly Halloween hauntings
Ghosts, goblins, and assorted other demons of the dark will be lurking this week amongst us with and without costumes, especially this Thursday. There’ll be airborne spooks as well. No doubt we’ll also hear of stealth flying broomsticks being piloted by not so attractive characters with black hats and bad teeth along with many ghosts floating about. Some of them are flying amongst the stars in these late October Marshall skies.
Unfortunately, we won’t exactly have a full moon this Thursday night, but there’ll be a plenty spooky enough crescent moon in the western evening sky. You’ll also notice that the moon has a starry companion traveling along just to the lower right.
That bright tagalong is actually the planet Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. It’s by far the brightest star-like object in the evening sky this autumn. It’s so bright because it’s huge. Jupiter’s diameter is 88,000 miles, more than 10 times that of the Earth. This week Jupiter is nearly 500 million miles away so even if you were to borrow a supersonic broomstick from a local witch or warlock, you’d be traveling a really long time to get a good look at it. From here on Earth you can use a pair of binoculars to see up to four of Jupiter’s brightest moons that resemble tiny little stars on either side of the planet. They orbit Jupiter in periods of two to 17 days. With a small telescope you may even see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands that stripe the big gaseous planet. The next brightest star to the upper left of the moon is a wonderful celestial treat. That’s Saturn, and even with a small telescope you can easily see it’s wonderful ring system.
Another wonderful Halloween celestial treat in the night sky is the Pleiades star cluster, otherwise known as the Seven Little Sisters. You should have no problem finding it, even if you’re stargazing from an area plagued with light pollution. The Pleiades are in the eastern sky early in the evening, visible as soon as it’s dark enough. With just your naked eye you can’t help but see that the Pleiades resembles a tiny Big Dipper. If your vision is sharp enough you’ll see six to seven little shiners in that tight group of stars. Through binoculars or a telescope you’ll see many, many more.
Astronomically the Pleiades is a group of young stars about 410 light-years away that were born together out of a huge cloud of hydrogen gas. Before that science was known, many ancient cultures feared the appearance of the Pleiades as an omen of possible oncoming catastrophes. It was thought that when the Pleiades reached its highest point in the sky around midnight, disaster could strike. This high point of the Pleiades in the midnight hour occurs every year right around Halloween. Now it didn’t mean that there would be a calamity every Halloween at midnight, but if one were in the works, that’s about the time it would happen. Keep your eyes open and stay alert!
If you’re enjoying Halloween in the countryside there’s a really nice ghostly image in the heavens. It’s the Milky Way band, the thickest part of our home Milky Way Galaxy. This time of year it stretches from the northeast horizon to nearly overhead, and then on to the southwest horizon. This ghostly band is the combined light of the billions and billions of stars of our galaxy. Our sun and all of the stars we see in our sky are all members of our Milky Way Galaxy, a giant pinwheel of stars that may number 300 to 400 billion. The spiral disk of our Milky Way Galaxy is over 100,000 light-years in diameter, but only about 10,000 light-years thick, although our galaxy’s center is much fatter than that. By the way, just one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles! When we see that Milky Way band we’re looking edgewise into the plane of our galaxy’s disk.
Back in the “old” days when people didn’t know about galactic structure, the Milky Way band took on a much more spiritual meaning. Different ancient cultures have various stories about that band, but many of them equate it with heaven and the life after our earthly existence. The ancient Greeks considered the Milky Way band as the main street in “downtown” heaven, along which stood the palaces of the great gods. The common people or souls of heaven resided eternally in the suburbs away from the main drag of the hereafter. My favorite Milky Way lore comes from Native American tribes. They considered the band to be the collective light of the campfires of souls taking a break for the night on their way to the heavens.
Happy Heavenly Halloween!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.