On Oct. 12 the moon hits its last quarter and the new moon is on Oct. 19, so this is the perfect time for sky viewing. We just need the clouds and wind to give us a break. If you’ve looked at the sky on a clear night, you may have noticed some flashing stars low on the horizon.
There are three big bright stars that do it this time of year. Arcturus appears low in the WNW at night fall. The arc of the handle of the Big Dipper always points down to it. Arcturus is a large orange star in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman.
Capella in Auriga the Charioteer appears low in the NE mid evening. Our brightest star Sirius in Canis Major currently appears low in the south before dawn. All three of these stars appear to be flashing colors of the rainbow for the same reason.
Because these big bright stars are so low in the sky this time of year, we’re viewing them through a greater thickness of our atmosphere than when they’re higher in the sky. The atmosphere refracts or splits their light, causing them to flash the colors of the rainbow. All stars low in the sky flash light, but only the brightest ones are noticeable.
Early morning viewing can also provide you with the Zodiacal Light. This will occur in the east 80-120 minutes before sunrise which should be around 7:15 a.m. So, 5:30 to 5:45 a.m. should be a good time to try to find it. To see it, you need to look for a tall but dim pyramid of light leaning slightly to the right with Venus at its base.
This is also known as the False Dawn and sometimes looks like the light from a distant town just over the horizon. When you see it, you’re looking edgewise into our solar system. It’s actually the Sun reflecting off dust particles that move in the same plane as the planets orbiting the Sun. I have never been able to see this one, but I have seen the evening one many times.
Venus and Mars are visible in the morning sky before dawn. By the time you read this, Mars will be above Venus. They’re both currently quite small and pale. You can’t miss bright Venus, but Mars may still require binoculars to find it. On Oct. 17 the thin crescent moon will be between them.
If you’re up before sunrise, you should look in the SW to see the constellation Orion, and the Pleiades star cluster to its right. Night viewing will give you the Milky Way which should be very bright this time of year. Saturn is highly visible just above Scorpius to the right of the Milky Way.
Uranis reaches its peak visibility on Oct. 19 when it’s directly opposite the Sun. It’ll be visible all night in the east along the ecliptic where the Sun travels. It’s in the constellation Picses, a deep V, near the bottom of the V. First try to find it with binoculars, and then look at it without them. Once you find it, you should be able to see it with unaided vision. So let’s hope for some clear skies to enjoy the treasures we have available.