The spectacular, moonless autumn skies are upon us this week, a great time to spend outdoors in evenings that are perfect for hoodies, jackets and sweaters. And continuing last week’s column are more wonders from the celestial passion play of our Autumn night skies.
October skies are notorious for being some of the best of the year, the deep blue days and crystal-clear nights are a stargazer’s delight. The near perfect atmospheric conditions make starlight steady with less twinkling. The twinkling of stars is caused by the moving atmosphere literally bending starlight back and forth. Few times of the year stir the emotions in the stargazer as does the transition from a hot summer to the cool, crisp nights of Autumn.
Darkness falls around 8:30 pm as the square of stars in Spring constellation Hercules called “the Keystone” are setting and the huge “Great Square” of Pegasus the Horse climbs above the northeastern skies. Directly overhead, the Milky Way spans from north to south in all its glory. Thought of as a Summer sight, the band of stars is spectacular for a few hours in the nights of October as it moves from zenith (directly overhead) toward the west.
Straddling either side of the Milky Way is the familiar “Summer Triangle” of three stars. To the north is Deneb, the tail of the Great Swan, Cygnus. To the east is the brightest, Vega in Lyra the Harp. On the west side of the Milky Way is Altair in Aquila the Eagle.
Looking to the south on these October nights and you are looking into the heart of the Milky Way, or Galaxy. But you need to look quick, Scorpius and Sagittarius are in a low swath across the band of the Zodiac. Between them is planet Saturn, in the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. They will start setting in the southwest by 9 pm.
Pick up a pair of binoculars skyward and take a slow tour up and down the Milky Way. The optical trip is always rewarding with thousands of stars and plenty of intellectual stimulation.
Our Milky Way Galaxy is shaped like a pinwheel with one of the section of stars, the Perseus Arm, crossing our line of sight from late spring to late autumn. The other starry arm of our Galaxy is rising in the north east, bringing with it the “M” shaped stars of Cassiopeia the Queen and below her the “Y” shape of stars that make up the hero Perseus. The Winter Milky Way is not as bright or dense as the Summer starry arm, but it is still easy to see in dark skies.
A whole mythological drama is beginning to be played out as the four “Great Square” stars of rising horse Pegasus has the chained maiden Andromeda trailing off its northwest corner in two long strings of stars. Perseus saves Andromeda from the terrifying beast Cetus, now known as whale circling the southern horizon.
Among all those stars, is somebody looking back?
One thing you CAN count on is that somebody is looking down at us. Dozens of orbiting satellites are snapping images of our world every hour. Just check out Google Earth or even the radar map of the weather bureau to see your neighborhood from space!
Satellites of all types are crossing the sky, and the brightest are easily seen up to a couple of hours after sunset and a couple of hours before sunrise. That also goes for the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope. Several Internet websites, including a NASA site, Heavens-Above, and SpaceWeather include detailed predictions of satellite pass overs. And there are lots of Smartphone apps that give you ISS and satellite passes. You’ll be amazed to know that most of the faint satellites are really the last stage of the rocket that followed a satellite into orbit. There are dozen each evening and morning to see from a dark site.
As the evening wears on toward midnight, the star cluster The Pleiades catches our eye high in the east. Then the familiar “V” shape of Taurus the Bull appears with the red star Aldebaran marking the mythical animal’s eye. By midnight, the twin bright stars of Castor and Pollux are clearing the horizon in Gemini. And next are the constellations of Winter to fill the sky before dawn, including Orion and his two dogs.
After Daylight Savings Time changes to Eastern Time on Sunday Nov. 5th, the night will creep forward one hour with darkness setting in after 6 pm. That freaks some people out driving home from work in the dark when three months ago they were playing outside in daylight at 9 pm. But astronomers love to play in the night, and now is the time with so much to see. There are the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulae out there awaiting your attention!
If you have any kind of telescope, it’s a great time to get it cleaned up and ready for the next pass of the Moon. Using a telescope and its finder during daylight hours is a smart thing to do before tackling the night. But don’t get discouraged as maneuvering a telescope takes a little practice.
If you need an escape from this busy world, just go sit outside in the Autumn twilight and watch the stars come out to play. Before you know it, you’ll feel better with a new perspective about living on this Earth. And one day you may realize that this huge Universe is lucky to contain an inquisitive person like yourself. It’s a connection that few people indulge in, but always has a lasting reward of cosmic consciousness.