October is a prime-viewing month
As we enter the last few months of 2009 -the International Year of Astronomy, October offers a fabulous array of celestial views for those who look up while it is still dark in the morning. Some of the best viewing will take place from 6 a.m. until sunrise. Binoculars will be especially useful for some special pre-dawn views this month. During mid October, you will be able to see three planets showing up in the eastern sky before dawn. The brightest of all planets, Venus, has been gracing our morning skies for several months now. However, the longer daytime hours of summer likely prevented many from enjoying this beautiful gem.
As the nights lengthen, Venus, known often as the "morning star" will grace the eastern skies. Saturn joins Venus in the morning skies in October and they move to within a half degree or one moon diameter of each other on the morning of Oct. 13.
More elusive is the tiny planet of Mercury. Of all our planets, Mercury orbits closest to the sun and is often lost in the morning or evening glare of the sun. However, this month the geometry of our solar system allows us to better see Mercury in the morning skies as it swings out from the sun. On the morning of Oct. 8, Mercury and Saturn will also be only a half-degree apart. The morning to mark on your calendar is Oct. 16 when the waning crescent moon joins Venus, Saturn and Mercury for a beautiful gathering of celestial objects in the eastern sky. If you have a tripod-mounted camera, this would be the time to frame the view with some beautiful foreground landscape or structure.
While you are up before the sun on these special mornings of October, you will also be able to spot a fourth planet, Mars, higher in the sky. Look for two bright stars just above reddish Mars. These two stars are known as the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux. At the end of October, Mars approaches a beautiful cluster of stars called the Beehive Cluster. Visible to the naked eye, in binoculars this cluster explodes into dozens of individual stars like a swarm of bees. Throughout October, you can find the Beehive star cluster to the lower left of Mars and watch from morning to morning as Mars draws ever closer. The beautiful constellation of the winter months, Orion, is also higher up in the sky before dawn in October. If you look carefully at the stars and constellations, you will notice the same view of the sky later in winter in the evening sky.
For those who prefer to view the skies in the evening, you will continue to find Jupiter blazing across the evening skies in the south. The king of planets has dominated the summer and autumn skies. Over sixty moons have been discovered orbiting Jupiter and four of them are large enough to be seen with binoculars or a telescope. If you view Jupiter this month with a telescope, you will enjoy the view seen by Galileo four hundred years ago. He was the first human being to view Jupiter's moons.
The full moon on Oct. 4 was known as the harvest moon since it is the full moon closest to the equinox on Sept. 22. While harvest may already be over for some farmers, everyone can enjoy an evening walk in the light of the moon. The regular monthly phases are interwoven with so much of our lives that it offers a time to ponder on the beauty and inter-connectedness of all of life and the universe. We wish you good viewing in October.
During the International Year of Astronomy, Ken and Bev From will be offering regular public observing nights at their acreage near Didsbury. Information on observing nights and links to IYA are available on their website, www.WhatsUpTonight.net