Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Planets near alignment, Astronomy Day arrives, and the clock ‘falls back’ this October

October Seeing Stars

Saturn is now in the southwestern sky at dusk. It outshines the stars around it, so it’s also easy to see. By Halloween night, however, Saturn sets in twilight; it drops into the Sun’s glare next month. 

Venus, Mars, and Jupiter will come close together in the sky late this month. Right now, the three planets are almost in a vertical line, with Venus, Jupiter on the bottom, and Mars in between. Venus is brighter than Jupiter and both outshine all stars we ever see at night, so they’re easy to find even in twilight. Mars is much, much dimmer than those two. It is now just below (and slightly dimmer than) the star Regulus in Leo.  During this month, watch as Mars gains on Jupiter and Venus gains on them both. Mars overtakes Jupiter Oct. 17, when they are just 0.38 degrees apart. By way of comparison, your pinky held at arm’s length blocks about one degree. Venus then passes one degree from Jupiter Oct. 26. That morning, the three planets form the most compact alignment, fitting within a circle 3.35 degrees across. Venus goes on to overtake Mars the morning of Nov. 3. They are 0.68 degrees apart that morning.

The Big Dipper is left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ in the west at dusk. 

Autumn represents sort of an ‘intermission’ in the sky, with bright summer stars setting at dusk, while bright winter patterns such as Orion have not yet risen. The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest early in the evening. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus is in the east, indicating that autumn has begun. The stars rising in the east are much dimmer than those overhead and in the southwest because when you face east at dusk in October, you face out of the Milky Way plane. The center of our galaxy lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius, while the Summer Triangle is also in the galactic plane. Pegasus, on the other hand, is outside the plane of our galaxy and is a good place to look for other galaxies. Nearby constellations Andromeda and Triangulum (a small triangle) contain the spiral galaxies nearest to our own.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in October 2015:

Last Quarter: Oct. 4, 4:06 p.m.

New: Oct. 12, 7:06 p.m.

1st Quarter: Oct. 20, 3:31 p.m.

Full: Oct. 27, 7:05 p.m.

Our annual Astronomy Day at the George Observatory is Saturday, Oct. 24! On Astronomy Day, we have activities from 3 to 10 p.m., and all of the telescopes, even the ones that normally cost $5 to look through, are free. It’s the biggest astronomy event in southeast Texas! Click here for more information.

Halloween is on Saturday this year, which means that the next day, Nov. 1, is the first Sunday of November. Therefore, Daylight Saving Time ends and we ‘fall back’ to standard time at 2 a.m. that morning. (The time goes from 1:59 a.m. back to 1 a.m., giving us the 1 a.m. hour twice.) So get your #ChillsAtHMNS, don’t forget to set your clocks back, and enjoy your extra hour of sleep Halloween night!

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Clear Skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: the Comet ISON & the end of Daylight Saving Time

Only one more month left in the year!

In November, Venus remains in the west at dusk. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight.

Jupiter is high in the morning sky this month. Look for it high in the west at dawn.

You can also look for Jupiter in the late evening sky in the east. It rises by 11:10 p.m. on November 1, and by 8:10 p.m. on November 30.

Mars, much dimmer than Jupiter, now pulls away from it in the morning sky. It now brightens a bit in the east at dawn.

Saturn is behind the Sun (at conjunction) on November 6, and thus out of sight most of the month. By Thanksgiving, you can try finding it low in the southeast at dawn.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on November 1, 8 p.m. CST on November 15, and 7 p.m. on November 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. The Summer Triangle is high in the west. This consists of the brightest stars in Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila. The ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius sets in the southwest, with Venus to its right. Pegasus, the Flying Horse, is high in the east. To the south and east, we see a vast dim area of stars known as the “Celestial Sea,” where only Fomalhaut stands out.

This month, the Big Dipper is to the lower left of the North Star at dusk, and soon sets. As a result, it may be hard to see if you have trees or buildings north of you. As the Big Dipper sets, though, Cassiopeia rises. This is a pattern of five stars in a distinct W shape which lies directly across the North Star from the Big Dipper. Look for Cassiopeia high in the north on fall and winter evenings.

Perhaps the most significant sight in our skies this month will be Comet ISON. That’s perhaps because ISON has never been in the inner solar system before and will never come back, so astronomers are unsure how it will behave.

There is some optimism, however, that ISON will brighten enough to be visible to the naked eye as it approaches the Sun this Thanksgiving Day. On Thanksgiving, when ISON is at its brightest, it will be too close to the Sun to observe. But you might notice it low in the southeast at dawn in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Day. You’ll be looking for a dim, diffuse object, so you’ll want to pick a site far from city lights and a morning with little or no moonlight. ISON passes close to the Star Spica on November 17.

With the help of the Internet, you can track ISON’s position, or view ISON’s full path.

If ISON survives perihelion this Thanksgiving (it has about a 50/50 chance), we could see it quite well between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll have more on this in the December update.

Moon Phases in November 2013:
New:  November 3, 6:48 am
1st Quarter:  November 9, 11:58 pm
Full:  November 17, 9:15 pm
Last Quarter:  November 25, 1:29 pm

Sunday, November 3, is the first Sunday of the month. Accordingly, Daylight Saving Time ends at 2 a.m. that morning. (At 2 a.m., the time reverts to 1 a.m., such that the 1 a.m. hour happens twice). Remember to set all clocks back one hour on Saturday night, November 2, and enjoy your extra hour of sleep!

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.