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September skies of the Gulf Coast

A supernova in the sky.
Rocking Rob Bell
A supernova in the sky.

For September 2022, the moon is first quarter on September 3, just to the upper left of Antares in Scorpius. The Full Moon, the famed Harvest Moon, is on September 10. It sits just to the right of brighter Jupiter, which comes to opposition on September 26. The last quarter moon is on September 17, and lies just above and to the left of red Mars, now getting brighter as the earth closes in on it. The autumnal equinox begins fall on September 22 at 8:04 p.m. The thin waning crescent moon will lie just above bright Venus about 30 minutes before sunrise on September 24, a last glimpse of both before they get lost in the sun’s glare. The new moon is on September 26. The waxing crescent again passes Antares on September 30th, marking the synodic month, based on the moon’s position among the stars, as 27.3 days.

With the color changes of autumn coming up, my accent this month is on changes in the sky over shot periods of time. So I start with the very active Sun last August, as observed with quick changes in the chromosphere with my Lunt 60 solar telescope. The Sun is more active now than expected in solar cycle 25. It extended along the edge of the Sun for over 250,000 miles, the distance from the earth to the moon. Now note how the same cloud of hydrogen, curved along the Sun’s limb by strong magnetic fields two days earlier, has literally fallen apart by August 4, with the bright red gas sailing upward and out into the solar wind, to fade within four hours. The Sun is fun!

A cloud of hydrogen captured along the sun.
Courtesy photo
A cloud of hydrogen captured along the sun.

Speaking of our Sun, we have an annular solar eclipse in October 2023, and a total solar eclipse running from Texas up to the Northeastern states on April 8, 2024. For Northwest Florida, we will get partial solar eclipses from both, with about 80% coverage. This means you will need solar eclipse glasses to safely view the crescent Sun, or to see it safely on any clear day as a tiny disk only the size of the full moon, or about half degree apart. Our club is raising funds for the Pensacola State College Foundation through sale of these glasses; contact Dr. Wayne Wooten at 291-9334 for more information. These proceeds will go to the Merry Edenton-Wooten Chair in support of the planetarium, with the glasses costing fifty cents each for large donors.

Mercury lies too close to the Sun for visibility from Earth this month, but will emerge into the dawn in October. But Venus says good bye; it passed Regulus in Leo in the dawn on September 4-6, but will be behind the Sun by month’s end. But contrast the three superior planets are are well placed for telescopic observing. Mars rises about midnight, in the head of Taurus, and is striking now as gibbous in phase at 200X or more in good telescopes. It will be fully lit by opposition in December.

Jupiter reaches opposition on September 26 and is striking with its four moons and racing stripes and Great Red Spot.

As noted last month, Saturn is now well up in the sky. It rings are now tilted about ten degrees to our line of sight, and closing become edge on at its equinox in May 2025, almost invisible from earth for weeks.

For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, visitwww.skymaps.com.

To the northwest, we find the familiar Big Dipper getting lower each evening. Most know how to use the two pointers at the lower part of the bowl to find Polaris, our Pole Star, sitting about 30 degrees high all night in the northern sky for the Gulf Coast.

From the Dipper’s handle, we “arc” southeast to bright orange Arcturus, the brightest star of Spring, and still well up in the western twilight. Spike south to Spica, the hot blue star in Virgo. Spica is now low in the southwest, and by September’s end, will be lost in the Sun’s glare due to our annual revolution of the Sun making it appear to move one degree per day eastward.

To the Greeks, Spica and Virgo were associated with Persephone, the daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest. The beautiful young daughter falls for the gruff, dark god of the underworld, Pluto. He elopes with her, much to the disapproval of mother Ceres, and they marry in his underworld kingdom of Hades…a honeymoon in hell…really, he does love her as well, and the marriage itself works well. But it is the reaction of Ceres that creates alarm. Very despondent over the loss of her young daughter to a fate as bad as death, Ceres abandons the crops, which wither. Soon famine sets in, and humanity appeals to Jupiter to save us all. Calling all together, Jupiter hears that Ceres wants the marriage annulled, Persephone loves them both, and Pluto wants his mother-in-law to stop meddling. Solomon style, Jupiter decides to split her up, not literally, but in terms of time. In the compromise (aren’t all marriages so?), when you can see Spica rising in the east in March, it means to plant your peas.

For the next six months, she visits upstairs with as very happy mama, and the crops will prosper. But now, as Spica heads west (to the kingdom of death, in most ancient legends) for six months of conjugal bliss with Pluto, it is time to get your corn in the crib. This simple story, told in some form for as long as Noah’s flood, was one of the ways our ancestors 7,000 years ago knew the solar calendar and when to plant and harvest. As you watch Spica fade, thank this star for agriculture, and even our own civilization.

To the south, Antares marks the heart of Scorpius. It appears reddish (its Greek name means rival of Ares or Mars to the Romans) because it is half as hot as our yellow Sun. It is bright because it is a bloated red supergiant, big enough to swallow up our solar system all the way out to Saturn’s orbit. Near the tail of the Scorpion are two fine open clusters, faintly visible to the naked eye, and spectacular in binoculars. The clusters lie to the upper left of the bright double star that marks the stinger in the Scorpion’s tail. The brighter, M-7, is also known as Ptolemy’s Cluster, since he included it in his star catalog about 200 AD.

The brightest star of the northern hemisphere, Vega dominates the northeast sky. To the northeast of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan. It was just northwest of it that I discovered the brightest nova of my lifetime, Nova Cygni, on August 27, 1975.

To the east, the Square of Pegasus rises. The long axis of the square points to the southwest to Saturn in the tail of Capricornus. The two easternmost stars in the square point south to even brighter Jupiter, rising due east in Pisces. Planet observing season has arrived.

A shot of the huge moon Ganymede, just to the left of Jupiter on August 8.
Courtesy photo
A shot of the huge moon Ganymede, just to the left of Jupiter on August 8.

The Escambia Amateur Astronomersreturn to Casino Beach for our Pavilion Stargaze Season on the first quarter moon. Meet us south of the famed Beach Ball Water Tower and bring your smart phone to image the Sun (before sunset with our solar scopes), Moon, and constellations. We have free star charts and will show you what’s up. The gazes, if clear skies permit, will be on the Fridays and Saturdays for these weekends: September 2-3, and the last on September 30 and October 1.

For deep skies with much less light pollution, on the weekends of the third quarter moon we continue our cooperation with the Florida State Parks at Big Lagoon State Park. Here the emphasis is on learning to observe and photograph the night sky with binoculars or your own telescopes and smartphones or other cameras. While the Pavilion parking is free, normal entry fees to Big Lagoon still apply, and remember to check in the front gate before it closes at sunset! We certainly encourage the many campers and scout troops to join us at our site, at the north end of the boat ramp access road. Our gazes for best imaging of the Milky Way, constellations, and other galaxies are on these weekends: September 16-17, and October 14-15. Clear skies permitting!

For Okaloosa and Walton Counties, the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomerswill also host public gazes this summer at a variety of venues. Picturesque Eden State Gardens in Point Washington are the site for September 16. Back to Henderson Beach on October 14, and final gaze for 2022 will be at Topsail on November 11.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.