Awesome October Stargazing
It’s really autumn now, and it’s a really wonderful time to get out and enjoy the absolute beauty of the night sky. We’re entering the prime time of stargazing season. The nights are longer and because there's less moisture in the air the skies are more transparent and the stars really pop out at you. Even if you’re not a big time stargazing fan, you owe yourself the treat of lying back on a reclining lawn chair and taking in the celestial happenings. The dark skies away from heavy light pollution are best, but even city skies can be great show.
The planets Mars and Saturn are still both visible in early October, but only for a brief time in the early evening hanging in the low southwestern skies. They're the brightest star-like objects in that part of sky. Mars is on the left and Saturn is close by to the lower right. Check them out as soon as you can after dark because they pretty much disappear below the horizon after 9:30 or so. These planets are not going to be all that impressive through a telescope. They'll be pretty fuzzy and that's because they're so close to the horizon, where Earth's thicker layer of atmosphere comes between us and the residents of the night sky. You should be able to make out Saturn's ring system, but I'm afraid Mars will just be a fuzzy red dot. Later this week the new crescent moon will track above those planets. On Thursday evening the moon will be parked just to the right of Saturn. On Friday and Saturday nights the moon will have advanced eastward and will be just to the upper right, and then to the upper left of Mars on those successive evenings.
Even though it’s autumn, summer is hanging on in the western sky. You can still easily see the famous “Summer Triangle” high above the western horizon, made up of three bright stars from three separate constellations. There’s Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp; Altair in Aquila the Eagle; and Deneb, the brightest star, in Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus is also known by a lot of stargazers as the “Northern Cross”. Deneb may be as much as 3000 light years away, with just one light year equal to almost six trillion miles. Since a light year is defined as the distance a beam of light travels in a year’s time in the vacuum of space, the light we see tonight from Deneb left that star back in 1000 BC.
Deneb is at the top of the Northern Cross, and below that you can see three dimmer stars that make up the crosspiece of the cross. Roll your eyes a little ways below the crosspiece and look for an equally bright star at the foot of the cross. That's Albireo.
You definitely want to check out Albireo with binoculars or a small telescope. You'll like what you see here. Albireo is actually a double star. One star is gold and the other is blue, and you can really see these colors. The two stars look like they are right next to each other, but they’re thought by many astronomers to be separated by about 400 billion miles. Most astronomers don't know for sure but Albireo may be a binary system. The two stars may be orbiting each other in a period of around 100,000 years. Who knows? One or more of them may have planets circling them.
In the north 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 technically it’s not a constellation. The Big Dipper is actually the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. It’s also the brightest part of the Big Bear.
If you’re far enough away from the city lights you may see the bright Milky Way Band, the thickest part of our home galaxy, stretching from the northeast to southwest horizon. Your best galaxy gazing will be this coming week and again the last two weeks of October. We'll have a full moon the week of October 10th that will overwhelm the night sky with lunar light.