Star Charts

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Star Charts

October 2020

After Sunset

For much of the year, we use the stars of the Big Dipper to help us find Polaris, the North Star. However, the Big Dipper is harder to find in the autumn. It appears very low to the northern horizon after sunset. Some of its stars even set below the horizon from our latitude.

Another group of stars can help us find our way. Look for a group of five stars known as Cassiopeia the Queen. When the Big Dipper is low to the horizon, Cassiopeia is high in the north. The central peak of this constellation’s W-shape also points you in the direction of Polaris.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Look straight up after sunset for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Each of these stars is part of its own separate constellation.

In the east is planet Mars, looking very bright as it nears opposition near the middle of this month. A planet is at opposition when it’s opposite the Sun in our sky. That also means that the planet is making its closest approach to Earth. Mars will look as bright as Jupiter, and a little bit bigger than usual in telescopes. It’s also the reason we’ve seen spacecraft from three different countires all lift off to Mars this summer - the trip is relatively short right now! Officially the date of opposition is October 13, but anytime this month will be great for taking a close look at Mars. The next time Mars will be this close to Earth will be in 2035.

In the southwest are two bright planets, Jupiter and Saturn. If you have binoculars, you may be able to see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Watch them over several nights to watch them orbit around their parent planet. If you have trouble steadying your binoculars on Jupiter, try leaning them up against the side of a building or another steady surface. A small telescope not only shows the moons of Jupiter, but also its cloud bands. Jupiter has stripes!

Saturn is just to the left of Jupiter. At best, binoculars will show Saturn as appearing slightly oval in shape. A small telescope reveals the reason: those beautiful rings.

Both Jupiter and Saturn are near the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, which looks a lot more like a teapot to modern eyes.

Look for the Moon forming a triangle with Jupiter and Saturn on October 22nd. The Moon will be near Mars on both the 2nd and 29th.

As Earth and the other planets orbit around the Sun, the planets we see appear to move across the constellations over time. Some planets, like Mercury, Venus, and Mars, move relatively quickly. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, being further from the Sun, move far more slowly. These two planets will now be in our early evening sky through the rest of the year, and we have a great opportunity to track their motions. They will appear to grow closer to each other over the next several months, and by mid-December, they will appear extemely close together, from our vantage here on Earth. Their closest approach will be on December 21, and you’ll be able to go out in the early evening to catch this incredible sight.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights. You can begin by looking for the fainter stars of this season’s constellations. Pegasus the Flying Horse, Andromeda the Princess, and the three constellations of the Summer Triangle all become easier to explore.

Look closely for the star that marks the head of Cygnus the Swan, a fairly boring-looking white colored star called Albireo. A small telescope reveals that there are really two stars there, appearing very close to each other. Not only that, but the two stars are different colors, one blue and one yellow!

The Ring Nebula, or M-57, is a faint, round patch of light in Lyra the Harp. Invisible to the unaided eye, M-57 is called a planetary nebula. This somewhat misleading name refers to the fact that in a telescope, planetary nebulae can look round, like a planet. A planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gas expelled from a star near the end of its life. Our own Sun may form a similar nebula when it runs out of fuel billions of years in the future.

Early autumn evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from Sagittarius through the Summer Triangle and on towards Cassiopeia in the northeast. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

Near Andromeda, look for M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. This massive spiral galaxy is the most distant object visible to the unaided eye, but to find it it requires crisp, dark skies and a little patience. Binoculars or a small telescope can improve the view, but don’t expect to see more than a faint, fuzzy, oval blob. If you don’t feel impressed, just remind yourself you’re looking at the collected light of possibly one trillion stars, all at a distance of 2 million light years away. Now that’s impressive!

Early Morning

Throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the autumn night sky.

In the hours before dawn, Mars is beginning to set in the west. Winter constellations Orion the Hunter, Taurus the Bull, and Canis Major the Big Dog are high in the south. The Big Dipper is now rising in the northeast, easier to find than it was in the evening. Meanwhile, Cassiopeia is high in the northwest.

Look to the east for brilliant “morning star” Venus. Its bright clouds reflect sunlight to our eyes making it stand out even as the sky begins to brighten. Venus will appear extremely close to the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion on the mornings of October 2nd and 3rd. Look for a thin crescent Moon near Venus on the morning of October 14.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

Watch the Clock

At 2:00 am on Sunday morning, November 1, most of the United States will be asleep as we “fall back” from Daylight Saving to Standard Time. Don’t forget to set your clocks back by one hour before bedtime!