A Great Mix of Summer and Autumn Stars!
October evening skies have much to offer. Most of the sky is occupied by the constellations of autumn, but there’s still great summer constellations lighting up the western half of the heavens.
Among those summer stars in the west is Venus, brightly shining in the very low southwestern sky. It’s the brightest starlike object in the sky all night long, but we can only see it for a short time. It slips below the horizon less than two hours after sunset. In mid-October Venus has a visitor. It’s the bright star Antares, hanging below and to the left of Venus. Antares is the brightest star in the summer constellation Scorpius. On October 9th the waxing crescent moon will be joining Venus and Antares in a really tight triangular conjunction that you won’t want to miss!
Elsewhere in the west, look for the bright stars Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp, Altair in Aquilla in the Eagle, and Deneb in Cygnus. Vega, Altair, and Deneb make the Summer Triangle asterism that serves as a great tool to help you find your way around that part of the heavens. The extremely bright summer star Arcturus, with its distinct orange-red color, begins October evenings in the western sky. Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which looks much more like a giant kite with Arcturus lighting up the tail.
Another summer constellation holdout is Sagittarius the Archer, found in the very low southwest sky. According to Greek and Roman mythology, Sagittarius is supposed to be a centaur, a creature that’s a man from the waist up and a horse from the waist down, complete with a tail. Good luck seeing that! What you can more easily see is a teapot pouring its heavenly brew on the southwest horizon. If you’re stargazing away from light polluted skies, you’ll see a ghostly ribbon of light arching across the sky from the teapot up and over the northeast horizon, more or less cutting the sky in half. That’s the Milky Way band, the thickest part of our home galaxy. The center of our Milky Way galaxy is in that direction, just above the teapot.
A little to the left of Sagittarius, in the lower third of the southern sky, are a couple of really bright stars side by side. Those aren’t stars at all. They’re the giants of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn. The first quarter moon will be posing with the planets as it gradually passes below them in mid-October. On the 13th, the moon will be just below and to the right of Saturn. On the 14th, it’ll be below and to the right of Jupiter, and on the 15th, the moon will be to the lower left of the big guy of our solar system.
Viewing Saturn for the first through a telescope, even a smaller one, is something you’ll never forget. It’s beyond magical. My first Saturn telescope experience was well over fifty years ago and I’ve never tired of viewing it since. You should easily be able to resolve Saturn’s vast ring system and maybe even some of its moons, especially Titan, the moon that’s larger than the planet Mercury. It’s best if you can view Saturn early in October when it’s less than 900 million miles away. Believe it or not, that’s considered close for the ringed wonder.
Jupiter is also wonderful through a telescope. You can clearly see the disk of the behemoth planet, 88,000 miles in diameter. More than 1,200 of our Earths could fit inside of Jupiter! Through your scope you’ll see up to four of Jupiter's largest moons that resemble tiny stars on either side of the planet. They're constantly changing their position as they orbit around Jupiter. Some nights one or more of Jupiter's moons will be absent, as they could be behind the immense planet or camouflaged in front of it. With larger telescopes you can also see some of Jupiter’s darker cloud bands and possibly the famous red spot, a vast storm that’s been raging for hundreds of years.
Over in the eastern skies is the grand constellation Pegasus, the winged horse. Look for a giant diamond of stars on the rise in the east. Just to the upper left of Pegasus is the Andromeda Galaxy, the next-door neighbor to our Milky Way. It’s more than two million light-years away, with just one light-year spanning nearly six trillion miles! You can actually spot it with the naked eye in super dark skies, appearing as a tiny patch of faint light.
If you stay up late enough, you can also spot the Pleiades star cluster in the eastern sky, resembling a tiny Big Dipper. It’s also called the “Seven Little Sisters”, who are the daughters of the god Atlas. Most people can see at least six stars, but it’s possible to see seven. Through binoculars or a telescope you can see many more. Astronomically it’s a cluster of young stars that all formed together over 100 million years ago. They’re fairly close by at a little over 400 light-years away.
There are three annual meteor showers in October. The Draconids peak from October 8th-9th, the Orionids from the 20th to 22nd, and the Southern Taurids from October 29th and 30th. The Orionids are the most prolific, but unfortunately, the Full Hunter Moon on October 20th will be interfering. As lovely as full moons are, their light washes out all but the brightest meteors. If you see any meteors from the Orionids you’re seeing debris left behind by the famous Halley’s Comet, incinerating in our atmosphere. Without the moonlight it would be possible to see over twenty meteors an hour from the Orionids.
If you’re an early riser, up before morning twilight in late October, you stand a pretty good chance to see Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. It’ll be the brightest starlike object you can see in the low eastern sky before sunrise.
Head out under the October night sky armed with your Sky Guide App, and prepare to be wowed!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at email@example.com