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ASTRONOMY COLUMN: Sky Ways

Planet Earth, Saturn and Jupiter in a cosmic cloud. 123RF Stock photo
Planet Earth, Saturn and Jupiter in a cosmic cloud. 123RF Stock photo - Contributed

This month, I want to take you on a special “Hunting Trip” in the sky. Let’s start with the Big Dipper. If you use the outside two stars away from the handle and follow five times the distance towards which they point, you will find Polaris, the North Star. Keep on going on the same line and you will come to a “letter W” in the sky. Now using the W, note there are four “lines” in the W. Now starting at the left go to the third line, follow the line from the top of the W to the bottom. Keep on going on this line and you will come to a large square, the Great Square of Pegasus – the horse. This is great already, but we won’t stop there. If you go to the brightest of the four corners of the square, Alpheratz, there are two graceful curving lines of stars towards the Northeast. These are the “legs” or “skirt” of Andromeda, the princess. Back to Alpheratz, follow the bottom leg for two stars, make a right angle (90 degrees) to the right, go two stars in that direction and you should arrive at the Great Galaxy of Andromeda, bigger than our own Milky Way, with billions of stars. It is the most distant object you can see in the sky with your own unaided eye, - just a dot but incredible. Try it. It’s a little difficult at first, but well worth it. If you then look at it with binoculars, you will be amazed at this awesome sight. All the other ones along the way weren’t bad either.

Finally, if this is too difficult, just get a sky map in Astronomy magazine. That will help.

As always, we need to discus what is in the sky this month. Let’s start with our planets, and things are changing. This month Venus disappears from our evening sky. To look ahead for a second in late November, Jupiter disappears from our evening sky. So, what is left?

Venus first. It is dipping lower and lower into the West Southwest. At the start of October, it is quite low at seven degrees above the horizon and sets approximately ¾ of an hour after sunset. By Oct. 16 it will set with the sun and is lost to our view.

Now Jupiter. At the beginning of October, we can find it in the sky 10 degrees up, and 14 degrees to Venus’s upper left. It sinks lower, just as with Venus, losing three degrees of height each week of October. Thus, by month’s end, it is quite low and is lost to sight in the sunset by early to mid November.

Saturn is dim but stately, shining in the South at 20-30 degrees above the horizon. It sets at about 11 p.m. Throughout October, it moves from the South to the South Southwest, but remains at about the same altitude.

Mars is in the South Southeast as the month begins. Mars actually gets higher and by month’s end, it is 30-35 degrees high. But as with last month, it loses another half of its brightness in October.

I usually don’t cover our two outer planets, Uranus and Neptune, because they are too difficult to see. However, if you want a challenge, Google a sky map of the orbit of Uranus and try to see it. It will be faintly visible, but you may need binoculars.

Lastly, Mercury. If you wait until the final week of October, Mercury will be in the Southwest, just above the horizon. It will be below and to the left of Jupiter.

There is not much in the morning sky this month. If you are prepared to get up early, well before sunrise, looking east toward where the sun will eventually rise, and while it is still dark, you may see a cone or pyramid of light, stretching up into the sky. This is the Zodiacal Light, almost a false dawn but well before dawn. It is a reflection of the yet to rise sun, causing a soft glow, of dust out in space. Worthwhile.

There is also a little bit of fun to be had. In the Northeast, about 30 degrees up, is a bright star called Algol. It has been called the “Demon” star by the ancients, because it seemed to wink. It is actually a double star, with one passing in front of the other, causing the total light to dim significantly. This will occur for two hours on Oct. 20 from about 9:30 – 11:30 p.m. But find Algol on an earlier night so you will know where to watch.

New Moon – Oct. 8

Full Moon – Oct. 24th. It is called the Hunter’s Moon.

See you next month.

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