Monday, October 10, 2011

Astronomy: The October Night Sky

Here are some naked eye objects for the month of October. All of these objects, although small, should be visible without the help of binoculars or a telescope, so long as you have clear dark skies.

Light pollution is a killer for seeing these objects with your naked eye. To find out how dark your location is, use the Google Map Overlay of light pollution. If you are in a blue, gray or black area then you should have dark enough skies. You may still be able to see some of these objects in a green location. If you aren’t in a dark sky location you may still be able to see these objects with a pair of binoculars or telescope.

You can find help locating the night sky objects listed below by using one of the free sky charts at (scroll down to Northern Hemisphere Edition and click on the PDF for October 2011). The map shows what is in the sky in October at 9 pm for early October; 8 pm for late October.

If you are not familiar with what you see in the night sky, this is a great opportunity to step outside, look up, and begin learning the constellations. The sky is beautiful and filled with many treasures just waiting for you to discover them. Once you have looked for these objects go through the list again if you have a pair of binoculars handy, the views get better!

Meteor Showers
This post was a bit late for the Draconids, which peaked on October 8th. The peak was during our daylight hours and we (as far as I could see) didn’t get much of a show. I looked but saw maybe one that was a Draconid meteor. However, from what I’ve read Europe, Northern Africa, and the middle East got a pretty good show as it was dark for them during the peak hours of the meteor shower.

Orionid Meteor Shower peaks on the 21st and 22nd. With the peak you can expect to see as many as 20 fast although faint meteors per hour. This shower should be easier to spot than Draconids and Perseids since this shower will have a thin crescent moon that will rise in early morning. Orion will rise in the east around 11pm and that is when I would suggest to start looking for meteors, although they may be better as Orion is higher in the sky at 2am. Remember the darker the site for viewing the better your chances are of seeing them. I also suggest to bundle up since October is quite chilly.

The Moon
The moon will be full on the 11th, as with every full moon it rises at sunset and sets and sunrise.

On the 11th, and the 12th there will be a close encounter again between the moon and Jupiter. Around 8pm on the 11th you’ll see Jupiter just below the Moon. Throughout the night you will see Jupiter and the moon getting closer. On the 12th the two will be about a degree closer together.

The Last Quarter Moon is on the 19th which will be visible from midnight into the morning.

On the 21st and 22nd the Moon and Mars will be about 10° apart (a fist-width at arm’s length) with Mars above the Moon.

New Moon on the 26th.

Mars is still a morning object for this month rising around 2am. Before sunrise it will be about 45° above the horizon below Gemini and in Cancer.

Jupiter is rising just a little after sunset in the East and will be in the sky all night. In the West around sunrise. If you happen to have a pair of binoculars I suggest pointing them at Jupiter to check out some of it’s moons which change their position every day. The moons you can see are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Lyra the Harp, Cygnus the Swan and Aquila the Eagle
Due to earlier dark hours this month these constellations still remain directly overhead after sunset, around 7:00pm. These three constellations contain 3 of the brightest stars in the summer sky which form what is called The Summer Triangle. The star Vega in Lyra, Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila. If you are in a really dark area you should be able to see the Milky Way passing through the constellations Cygnus and Aquila. Again, if you have a pair of binoculars and want to be wowed (even from a light polluted spot) look towards the Milky Way and look at all the stars that pop out at you.

If you have spotted The Summer Triangle, look to the left (East) of the star Altair to find a small kite shaped constellation called Delphinus, the Dolphin.

A great grouping of stars in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Looking at it has always reminded me of a smaller version of the little dipper. In dark locations you can see anywhere from 5-7 and possibly a few more stars in this grouping. It has also been called the seven sisters and is actually a Messier object, number 45. These are very hot blue and extremely luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years. This grouping of stars has quite a bit of history in mythology. It rises about 45 minutes earlier than Orion in the East.

Although it may be easier to view later in the night around midnight or later – The Andromeda Galaxy cataloged as M31 is visible to the naked eye in the northeast. The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way lying about 2.5 million light-years away. If in a dark enough location the light produced by this galaxy is roughly the diameter of 5 moons in our sky.

The Double Cluster, cataloged as NGC 869 and NGC 884 is a beautiful cluster that shows quite a group of stars with the naked eye. M34, which you may need to wait until around 11pm for it to be high enough to see is nearly a moon-diameter wide and is a fairly easy to see open cluster.
Look for a grouping of stars around the brightest star in Perseus, Mirphak.

M8 is an open star cluster and nebula complex, also known as the Lagoon Nebula . Visible to the naked eye as a small hazy patch. Bright enough that it is visible even in suburbia. It may look small with the naked eye, but it is actually quite large nearly two moon diameters across. I’m not sure if any of the other objects are visible to the naked eye, although Sagittarius is a beautiful sight as it lays in the Milky Way.

The Great Rift is a non-luminous dust cloud that can be seen splitting the Milky Way in two separate streams. It stretches from Aquila to the constellation Cygnus although it is more prominent in the constellation Aquila.

Messier Object 13 (known as M13) is a globular cluster. It will have a small hazy glow to it. Hercules is getting lower in the sky so M13 may be difficult to spot through the haze of the atmosphere.

North America Nebula (NGC7000) – The unaided eye sees only a wedge-shaped star-cloud which may be quite dim, or not visible at all. In dark skies it should pop out a bit. Located near the star Deneb. M39 an open cluster patch of stars northeast of the star Deneb. The Northern Coalsack spans across the sky between the stars Deneb, Sadir, and Gienah in the northeastern portion of Cygnus. If you don’t know which stars of Sadir and Gienah just find Deneb with the map and look to the east northeast.

Ursa Major
Very low in the North at sunset and low at sunrise. Mizar and Alcor is a double star in the handle of the Big Dipper. Was once used as a test of good eyesight before glasses. Mizar resolves into a beautiful blue-white and greenish white binary (double star system). They are labeled on the map I linked to above.

Photo: The radiant of the Orionid Meteor Shower taken from the astronomy freeware Stellarium.

Michael Rector is an amateur astronomer with his own blog, Adirondack Astronomy.

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Although he now lives in Clinton County, amateur astronomer Michael Rector has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at


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