October Stargazing is Eye Opening, and Eclipsing!
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, the mosquitoes are pretty much toast, and with less moisture in the air the skies are clearer. 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 of the countryside are best, but it's even a great show right from your own backyard.
Unfortunately there are no bright planets you can view through the course of the evening right now except for brief encounters with Mars and Saturn. Both planets will be barely visible for a short time at the end of evening twilight early this month. About an hour after sunset they will be fairly close together in the low southwestern sky. By about 8pm both will be either set or just about setting. This week Mars, which appears reddish in the sky, will be just above the bright star Antares which also sports a reddish hue. Forget about getting any decent views of Mars and Saturn though. They are too far away and too close to the blurring effects of Earth's horizon.
This month will be very special since we'll have both a total lunar eclipse early Wednesday morning on October 8th, and a partial solar eclipse on Thursday afternoon, October 23rd. Stay tuned to this column for much more on that in the coming weeks! In the meantime, you might want to order some eclipse glasses now so you'll be able to safely view the October 23rd solar eclipse. You can usually get them for less than $3.00 or so from a lot of places. Just browse "solar eclipse glasses." One place I like to get them from is Starizona in Tucson, AZ at www.starizona.com.
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 is over 1500 light years away and just one light year equals 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 500AD. Deneb is one giant powerful star kicking out at least a hundred thousand times more light than our sun.
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 the tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. It's also the brightest part of the Big Bear.
Also, 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. Make the Stars your old Friends before you need a heavy coat!