October skies of the Gulf Coast
For October 2022, the first quarter moon is in Sagittarius on October 2, and waxing gibbous moon below Saturn on October 5. Almost full, it passes below Jupiter on October 8, and the Full “Hunter’s” Moon is October 9. The waning gibbous moon passes above Mars in the dawn on October 15, and is last quarter on October 17. The old moon is above Mercury in the dawn on October 23, and very close to Mercury (use binocs about 30 minutes before sunrise) on October 24. The first quarter moon will make a telescopic treat for Halloween on October 31, with Saturn and Jupiter also out to share with the kids in the neighborhood. Set up your telescope!
Mercury is low in the dawn sky in October. Venus lies behind the Sun all month. Mars is in Taurus the bull, rising about midnight, and will get much brighter and come to opposition early this December, the best time to observe it in the next two year. Jupiter reached opposition last month, and is well placed for viewing in the east and the brightest object in the night sky now. Saturn is in the tail of Capricornus, and well up at sunset.
While the naked eye, dark adapted by several minutes away from any bright lights, is a wonderful instrument to stare up into deep space, far beyond our own Milky Way, binoculars are better for spotting specific deep sky objects. For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, visit skymaps.com.
The Big Dipper falls lower each evening. By the end of October, it will be only the three stars in the handle of Dipper still visible in the northwestern twilight. By contrast, the Little Dipper, while much fainter, is always above our northern horizon here along the Gulf Coast.
The brightest star of the northern hemisphere, Vega dominates the sky overhead. To the northeast of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan. To the south is Altair, the brightest star of Aquila the Eagle, the third member of the three bright stars that make the Summer Triangle so obvious in the NE these clear autumn evenings. To the east of Altair lies tiny Delphinus, a rare case of a constellation that does look like its namesake.
To the south, Saturn is in the head of Capricornus, and Jupiter above its tail. Aquarius and Pisces are among the faintest of the zodiacal constellations, and need dark skies to pick out. Fomalhaut is the only first magnitude star of the fall sky.
To the east, the square of Pegasus is a beacon of fall. If the southern skies of Fall look sparse, it is because we are looking away from our Galaxy into the depths of intergalactic space. The constellation Cassiopeia rises in the northeast as the Big Dipper sets in the northwest. Polaris lies about midway between them.
Below the head of Pegasus is Aquarius, the Water Carrier. Below his western foot is the only bright star of the southern fall sky, Fomalhaut. It means the “mouth of the fish,” and carries on the watery grouping of Pisces the Fish (home to Jupiter now), Capricornus the sea goat (with Saturn in its tail), Cetus the Whale, and Grus the Crane.
Below Andromeda is her hero, Perseus. In his hand is a star most appropriate for Halloween, Algol. This star “winks” at us for six out of every 70 hours, which Arabic astronomers centuries ago found spooky, hence naming it “the ghoul." At the foot of Perseus, the hero of “Clash of the Titans” is the fine Pleiades star cluster, the “seven sisters” that reveal hundreds of cluster members in large binoculars. This might be the best object in the sky for binocular users.
Winter will be coming soon, and in the northeast we see yellow Capella rising. It is the brightest star of Auriga the Charioteer, and pair of giant stars the same temperature as our sun, but at least 100 times more luminous and about 10 times larger than our sun. It lies about 43 light years distant. A little farther south, below the Pleiades, orange Aldebaran rises. It is the eye of Taurus the bull, with the V shaped Hyades star cluster around it making the head of the bull. This colorful giant star is only 2/3 as hot as our yellow sun, but 44 times times larger and at 65 light years distant, one of the closest of these monster stars.
The last stargaze is at Casino Beach is Oct. 1 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. Oct. 14-15 we'll be at Big Lagoon State Park. 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.
For Okaloosa and Walton Counties, the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers will also host public gazes this summer at a variety of venues. On Oct. 16 it's back to Henderson Beach and at Topsail on November 11.
P.S. Remember last month I gave you examples of just how fast things can change in the sky. Well, since then, I discovered something new…a “Dark Flare." On Monday, August 31, 2020 at 9:20 a.m., I was observing the Sun and saw a dark sun spot almost in the center, larger than the Earth, and comparable to the largest in the big group I had been tracking for days at lower right. Went inside to report it to NASA’s Spaceweather.com, then decided to capture it in visible light. But by 10 a.m., all traces of it had vanished. Subsequent research with Dr. Alex Pevtsov of Cerro Tololo in Chile and his GONG recordings, and video processing by Marc Glover and Ed Magowan of the EAAA provided it was indeed a very short-lived (only 30 minutes), intensely dark erupting filament pointed right at us, almost like a point meteor coming right at us from the radiant. Learn more about it here.