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Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (

October 4, 2013
Northern-Sun Print
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. I don’t know if you have noticed, but it is getting dark a LOT sooner these days! The best thing about that is it is still warm enough to be out with the telescope for a couple of hours with just a sweatshirt and still be able to get to bed at a decent hour. I just love Fall observing, don’t you? The bright planet in the west is that dazzlingly bright queen of the planets:Venus. Venus will be the first bright ‘star’ that will pop out at dusk in the west. Saturn and Mercury will be there too early in the month, but they will be quite low and since harvest is getting underway and kicking a little extra dust into the air, you will need binoculars to find them. Your best chance to glimpse them will be with the help of the moon on October 7th. Shortly after the Sun has set and the sky is just beginning to darken, look for Saturn to the lower right of the slender crescent moon. They will be about 11 degrees apart, or about the distance covered by your hand with all your fingers tight together held at arm’s length. If you are able to find Saturn, look down and slightly to the left for Mercury. Mercury will be twice as bright as Saturn, but since it is even closer to the horizon, the extra atmosphere will dim it down quite a bit and here in Iowa anything near the horizon gets lost fast. Mercury sets at about 7 o’clock so don’t wait too long to look for them. The show after it gets really dark this month includes the two giant outer planets Neptune and Uranus. I don’t usually talk about them because it takes a telescope to see them, but they both reach opposition this month and Uranus will shine at magnitude 5.7 which is bright enough to see even without binoculars from a dark location. Uranus is in the constellation Pisces or ‘Fishes’. To find Pisces, first locate the Great Square of Pegasus in the east, say around 9 o’clock on a moonless or nearly moonless night. A bright moon will make the sky too light to be able to find the light blue planet. Look for the little circle of stars off the south edge of the square then follow the ‘stringer’ that trails toward the eastern horizon. Uranus is just to the right of the two stars that are in the middle of the ‘stringer’. If you have trouble figuring out where Pisces is, the nearly full Moon will join Uranus there on the nights of October 16 and 17. I know I just got done saying that a bright Moon will hide Uranus and that is true, but it will give you an idea of where to look 4 or 5 days later when it is just rising and the sky is still dark. Just remember the direction and how high the moon was on the 16th or 17th and what direction (I’ll give you a hint: southeast) and then you should not have any problem finding the circle and the stringer and the planet! If you use binoculars the distinctive blue-green color will be obvious – be sure to give it a try and then once you’ve located it, see if you can see it without binoculars! Neptune only reaches magnitude 7.9 so seeing it without binoculars or a telescope is not likely. It is not far away from Uranus in the constellation Aquarius. The October issue of Sky and Telescope has some detailed finder charts that can help your track them down. Jupiter rises around midnight at the beginning of the month and two hours before midnight by month’s end. On the 12th Jupiter will reach western quadrature which means we will be looking at it from the side. This angle makes seeing shadows and transits of the moons easier. It is fun seeing those perfect little black dots which are the moon’s shadows being cast onto the cloud tops. I remember the first time I saw one and had no idea what it was! It looked like a perfect hole had been drilled into Jupiter. It took me a while to figure out what I was really seeing – great fun! Comet ISON is still on the way. It is not as bright as earlier predictions optimistically predicted, but lots can change when it gets closer to the Sun. You will have to get up before sunrise to see ISON. The comet will fly over Mars’s North Pole on October 1st and then one month later will fly over our north pole. Don’t worry, there is no danger of it crashing into Earth. At this point we hope it will begin to really brighten up. Only time will tell, but I hope it does. We have not seen a really good comet for many years and I hope ISON is ready to really put on a show for us! It probably will not be visible without a telescope until mid-November, but keep your ears open; if it begins to brighten, I’m sure weathermen and newspapers will be buzzing about it! ‘Till then: Clear Skies!


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