September 29, 2013

What's Up in October: Meteor showers, comets among month's highlights


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SKY GUIDE: This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during October. The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at midmonth and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end. There are no planets visible at map times. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.

Sky Chart Prepared by George Ayers

The good conjunctions in October will include Venus and Antares, Mars and Regulus, the moon and Saturn, and the moon with an asteroid named Juno. This is our fifth-largest asteroid at about 100 miles across and was considered a planet for a while. Spectral analysis of Juno show that it could be the source of chondrites, which are common stoney-iron meteorites that are rich in iron-bearing silicates.

Brilliant Venus will dazzle us all month. Look low in the southwestern sky one hour after sunset. Our sister planet will form a nice conjunction with Antares -- the brightest star in Scorpius and one of the largest in the whole galaxy at 700 times the size of our sun -- on the 16th.

Saturn has passed Venus and will set into our western horizon by the third week of this month. Look for our first planet, Mercury, close to Saturn low in the evening sky until it also sets.

Jupiter rises shortly after midnight early in October, and it will rise before 10 p.m. by the end of the month. You can easily find it in Gemini, shining at magnitude minus 2.3, which is 25 times brighter than the brightest stars in Gemini. On Oct. 12 at 1 a.m., there will be a very rare triple shadow transit. The shadows of three of its four large Galilean moons will cross over the face of Jupiter, lasting for 65 minutes. These are Io, Europa and Callisto. You will need a small telescope to witness this rare event.

Mars rises around 3 a.m. in Leo. The red planet will form a nice conjunction with Regulus on the 14th at 5 a.m. If you can look through a telescope, look for Comet ISON just one degree directly above Mars. After that, their paths get even closer, but ISON is moving a little faster.

The third annual New England Fall Astronomy Festival was recently held at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. This is turning into an excellent astronomy convention with great activities for kids and adults. They had everything from solar system walks to learn about the relationships of the planets to building and launching model rockets. There were several excellent talks and workshops on many subjects, from Comet ISON to new discoveries on the Van Allen radiation belts that shield us from dangerous cosmic rays to astrophotography.

The highlight was the featured speaker, Dava Soebel, who has written four books related to astronomy and is working on her fifth. She teaches science writing at Smith College and was inspired by Carl Sagan.

UNH has a 14-inch telescope at its observatory, which is open to the public the first and third Saturday each month. Looking at the sun with its many dramatic prominences slowly and majestically moving in real time was a good reminder of its great power and how it provides for all life on Earth.


• Oct. 3. Uranus reaches opposition tonight in Pisces.

• Oct. 4. New moon is at 8:35 p.m. On this day in 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched, beginning the space age.

• Oct. 5. On this day in 1923, Edwin Hubble found Cepheid Variables in the Andromeda Galaxy. We now use this class of star as a standard candle to determine distances to nearby galaxies.

• Oct. 6. The slender waxing crescent moon will pass near Saturn and Mercury this evening.

• Oct. 7. Neils Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics, was born in 1885.

• Oct. 9. Kepler's supernova was observed in 1604. That was four years before the telescope was invented. It was bright enough to see for a full year. Now we know that this was a classic Type 1A supernova located about 20,000 light years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus. It is about 20 light years wide and still expanding at 4 million miles per hour.

• Oct. 11. First quarter moon is at 7:02 p.m.

• Oct. 18. Full moon occurs at 7:38 p.m. This is the Hunter's Moon. There will also be a penumbral lunar eclipse, since we are in an eclipse season again, with a partial solar eclipse visible on Nov. 3.

• Oct. 26. Last quarter moon is at 7:40 p.m.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.

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