Go Stargazing! October Edition

October 7, 2009

Jupiter is the brightest thing in the evening sky this month, unless the Moon is out.  Face south-southeast and look for the brightest point of light there.  Remember, Jupiter outshines everything in the sky except the Sun, the Moon, and Venus, so if you’re looking in the right direction, you can’t miss it.

Conjonction Lune/Vénus
The Moon and Venus
Creative Commons License photo credit: ComputerHotline

Venus is still a dazzling morning star this month, but it’s now getting lower in the pre-dawn sky.  Look east right as day begins to break for the brightest thing unless the Moon is nearby.  Venus remains the ‘morning star’ for the rest of 2009.  Mars is now high in the east-southeast dawn. It is also brightening as the Earth approaches it. Saturn begins to emerge from behind the Sun, joining Venus in the morning sky.  Venus and Saturn are in conjunction on October 13. Look for Saturn between Venus and the horizon at dawn before that date, and slightly above Venus afterwards.  Elusive Mercury is also below Venus at dawn during the first half of the month.

The Big Dipper happens to be to the lower left of the North Star at dusk this month; you’ll need a clear northern horizon to get a good look at it.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is in the southwest (Jupiter is in Sagittarius).  Look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, high in the west.   As familiar summer patterns shift to the west, the constellations of autumn take center stage.  The Great Square of Pegasus is high in the east at dusk.  The star in its upper left hand corner is also the head of Andromeda.  Facing north, you’ll see five stars in a distinct ‘M’ like shape—this is Cassiopeia, the Queen.  Her stars are about as bright as those in the Big Dipper, and she is directly across the North Star from that Dipper.  In fall, while the Dipper is low, Cassiopeia rides high.

Moon Phases in October 2009:

Full                                    October 4, 1:11 am
Last Quarter                  October 11, 3:56 am
New                                   October 18, 12:32 pm
1st Quarter                     October 25, 7:41 pm

Harvest Moon
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jay Scott Photography

The Full Moon of October 4 is the Full Moon nearest to the fall equinox.  Therefore, it is the Harvest Moon.  The ecliptic, which is the plane of the solar system set against the background stars, makes a very shallow angle with the horizon on late summer and early fall evenings.  Since the Moon orbits us in almost the same plane where Earth orbits the Sun, we see the Moon near the ecliptic.  When the ecliptic makes a shallow angle with the horizon, a shift in position along the ecliptic translates into less height above (or distance below) the horizon.  As a result, around the start of fall we see the Moon rise at about the same time for several days around Full Moon.  Harvesters often took advantage of this to keep working deep into the night.

November 1 is the first Sunday in November.  Therefore, Daylight Saving Time ends at 2:00 am that morning. (The time goes from 1:59:59 back to 1:00, such that the 1:00 am hour occurs twice.)  On Halloween night, remember to set your clocks back one hour and enjoy your extra hour of sleep!

Our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory is Saturday, October 24 this year.  From 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., we’ll be celebrating 400 years of modern astronomy and 20 years of the George Observatory.  Surf to www.astronomyday.org to read about all about the events going on that day.

Authored By James Wooten

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

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