October is a good time to rent the wonderful movie October Sky for your kids and grand kids. Based on the book Rocket Boys, its the true story of Homer Hickam about a coal miner’s son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik to become an engineer against his father’s wishes. Homer went on to a very successful career as a NASA engineer. The film was shot next door in Tennessee. An interesting side note is that the movie title was changed to appeal to women. The movie title October Sky is also an anagram of Rocket Boys.

Now on to the night sky.

If you are up early in the next week, look for the zodiacal light. Sometimes called the ‘false dawn’, it appears as a dim triangle-shaped glow near the horizon about 2 hours before sunrise. Its caused by sunlight reflecting off of dust left by passing comets orbiting the Sun in Earth’s orbit. See the photo below for what to expect. The glow actually extends from horizon to the horizon along the plane of the ecliptic but its so dim its usually washed out by light pollution or the moon.
Jupiter continues to put on a great show this month. Look for it in the east just after sunset. With a small telescope or binoculars you may be able to spot the four Galilean moons as they pass across Jupiter’s face. The best time to see this will be when Jupiter is high in the sky after 10 PM. If you have a dedicated star gazer in the family, consult a transit table (there is a good one at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/) and try to spot the moons and their shadows as they race across Jupiter’s bright face.

Venus shines brightly in the west just after sunset this month. By winter it will be the brilliant “evening star” high in the west after dusk.

Mars continues its inconvenient journey across the sky in the early morning hours. Look for it in the east after 2 AM.

Comet Garradd is just visible through a small telescope and may brighten to naked eye visibility by January. Consult one of the numerous finder charts on the Internet and try to find it in the constellation Hercules this month. I took some photos of comet Garradd at Dogstar Observatory that I will try to process and post this week.

The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the nights of the 21st and 22nd. You may have a good show around 2 AM but light from a waning crescent Moon and Jupiter will add a challenge.

October is usually the best month in the year to go out and view the night sky. Long nights and dry conditions give us many nights of good viewing especially around the time of the new moon (September 30th and October 26th). Its also a popular month for ‘star parties’ where local astronomy clubs hold campouts at dark sky locations. If you are really interested in learning more about astronomy and seeing some truly dark skies check out the Pisgah Astronomy Research Institute (PARI) star party on October 29-30. http://www.pari.edu/about_pari/PublicPrograms/pari-star-party-2/.

Thats all for now. Remember to turn off you outside lights after 10PM and go out and enjoy the night skies of Balsam Mountain Preserve.

Jim Stratigos

Resident Astronomer