Thursday, October 8, 2009

October Skies: Meteor Shower, Planets, Annual Star Party

By Jon Spargo
New Mexico Tech Astronomy Club

Brilliant Jupiter, shining at magnitude -2.6, will be at its highest point in the south just after dark. Well placed for optimum viewing through binoculars or a small telescope, its 4 Galilean moons and atmospheric bands should be a real treat for early evening viewing.
Saturn reappears in the morning sky this month. On October 13 it will pass a scant ½ degree north of Venus which will be at least 100 times brighter than the ringed planet. Although Saturn’s rings are still nearly edge on it will be hard to see them with the planet just above the horizon. By the end of the month Saturn will manage to climb to almost 20 degrees above the horizon.
Mercury will also make an early morning appearance during the first half of the month. On October 6 about 45 minutes before sunrise look for it slightly to the left and about 6 degrees below Venus.
Mars rises around midnight and its tiny orange-red disk is starting to grow larger as the Earth begins to catch up to Mars. It can be found in the constellation Gemini about 6 degrees from the bright star Pollux. As the month progresses Mars begins an eastward migration among the stars and will be found near the center of M44, the famous “Beehive Cluster” on Halloween night!
The moon was full October 4, last quarter on October 11, new on October 18 and 1st quarter on October 25. The full moon on October 4 will be this year’s “Harvest Moon” which is defined as the full moon closest to the September equinox. On October 16 a waning crescent moon will be about 6 degrees to the right of Venus about 45 minutes before sunrise.
Using the moon as your guide on this date will net you three planets with Saturn being about 3 degrees above Venus and Mercury about 8 degrees below Venus. On October 26 a waxing gibbous moon will be about 4 degrees above and the right of Jupiter.
The period of October 17 through the 25 will bring the Orionid Meteor Shower. This shower is the result of the passage of Halley’s Comet.
Even though the comet has a 76 year period the shower seems to have a peak about every 12 years. 2009 could be a good year with the peak on the night of October 20-21. This year the moon will not be a factor and rates of up to 30 meteors per hour could be visible as you look to the east between midnight and dawn.
October also brings the Enchanted Skies Star Party to Socorro. This year the event is from October 14 to 17. This year’s exciting lineup of speakers and workshops feature a keynote address by astronomer and astronaut Dr. John Grunsfeld. A veteran of five space shuttle flights Grunsfeld’s latest was his third and final flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission was a huge success as judged by recent Hubble images released by NASA. The new camera is revealing details never before seen. His address promises to be an exciting one as he will talk and show fabulous pictures about the mission.
The keynote address will be at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16, in the third floor ballroom of the Fidel Student Center on the New Mexico Tech Campus. The event is free to the public but come early to get a good seat! Star Party T-shirts will be available and you just might get an astronaut’s autograph on one! For more information about the Enchanted Skies Star Party go to or call the Socorro Tourism Office at 835-8927.

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