Finally Fall! Now that we are past the autumnal equinox, nights are getting longer and days are getting shorter. With longer nights and drier weather its a great time to get out and enjoy the night sky. October is the most popular month for ‘star parties’ where amateur astronomers gather at dark sky locations to look at and photograph celestial objects. Attending a star party is a great way to get youngsters interested in astronomy too. Two nearby events this week are the Mid Atlantic Star Gaze in Robbins, NC (http://masp.us/) and the Peach State Star Gaze at the Deerlick Astronomy Village near Washington, GA. (http://www.atlantaastronomy.org/PSSG/). You don’t need to bring anything except curiosity as amateur astronomers will be happy to share their views with you.
The planets – Jupiter still rules the skies in October. It will be high in the sky around 10 PM by mont end and a treat in binoculars or a small telescope. See if you can identify its four brightest moons – Io, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. They will appear in a line on either side of the planet and look like nearby stars. As they orbit Jupiter they will sometimes disappear behind or cross in front of its huge disk. If you have really, really good vision you just may be able to spot Callisto with your naked eye.
Venus is still hanging out low in the west as the Sun sets but getting harder to spot as it nears the Sun on its way to an early morning appearance around the end of the month. On October 9th Venus will nuzzle up to a thin crescent moon just after sunset.
Comet Hartley is getting closer to the Earth on its 6.5 year orbit around the Sun. It may get bright enough to visible to the naked eye late in the month. Try looking just south of the ‘W’ in Cassiopeia with binoculars and see if you see a fuzzy patch of light. You can get a finder chart here (http://media.skyandtelescope.com/images/CometHartley2-bw.jpg). On the 9th it will pass near the famous Double Cluster in Perseus which is easy to spot in binoculars.
The Orionid meteor shower occurs between October 15th and 29th with its peak on October 21st. Unfortunately the peak will likely be washed out by the glow of a nearly full moon. It is one of the major annual meteor showers so go out and see if you can spot some. They are particles of dust and ice left behind by Halley’s comet passage through Earth’s orbit. A lesser shower, the Draconids, peaks on October 8th making October a great month for meteors.
Thinking of October skies reminds me of a wonderful movie; “October Sky”. Its based on the true story of Homer Hickum; the son of a coal miner who was inspired to build a rocket by the launch of Sputnik. It’s a great rental to share with kids of all ages.
Thats all for this month – Go out at night, turn out the lights and enjoy the dark skies.