Dust off the telescopes! Longer nights are coming back with a week full of astronomical events!
As we slowly creep closer to the end of daylight saving time, we have already noticed mornings are darker longer, and evenings grow darker earlier. While sports fans may not be so enthusiastic about playing in the dark, amataeur astronomers are getting revved up for another busy season of observing during (somewhat) normal hours.
This upcoming weekend has made the news for its intriguing amount of astronomical events that most backyard observers will be able to see. For the novice, though, what does this week mean? It still means pretty early mornings, but it also means a lot of really interesting sites to get the fall and winter observing season started off with a bang (literally: there is a supernova visible)!
Here is a day-to-day list of what is coming up in the night sky and how you can participate in this busy observing week.
*Friday, October 13th (PM) - Summer Triangle: Don’t have a telescope? Still want to sit back on a blanket in the yard with the kiddos and stargaze? The Summer Triangle is still visible in the early evening and an easy go-to stargazing opportunity for all ages! After dark, look directly overhead for three bright stars, Deneb, Vega, and Altair! Check out this photo from Astronomy Magazine to help you identify these easy-to-spot stars.
*Saturday, October 14th (PM) - Saturn: Do you want something interesting and fun to look at without waking up before dawn or staying up beyond midnight? Saturn is still the go-to target in the evening sky for just a little while longer. Saturn will appear about twenty degrees above the southwestern horizon as night falls. You can spot Saturn first before any of its neighboring stars in the constellation Ophiuchus. See this Sky and Telescope chart from earlier this week to get an idea of where Saturn will be in the sky (note that it will be slightly lower than in this image).
Sunday, October 15th (AM) - Occultation of Regulus by the Moon: An occultation is an event that occurs when an object (in this case, a star, Regulus) is hidden by another object (in this case, the moon) as it passes in between the first object (Regulus) and the observer (YOU).
If you were paying attention this summer when our moon passed in front of our sun for the biggest eclipse in recent US history, then you're familiar with this concept. An eclipse and an occultation are not exactly the same thing, but the idea is similar. For the occultation, a celestial object, such as a star, must be occulted by a solar system body, such as the moon or a large planet observable from earth.
Another similarity between eclipses and occultations is that they have a path of visibility. Just like the total eclipse was only visible over a certain path over the US this past August, this occultation will only be visible over a (much larger) area of the US and Mexico. While most of the US will experience this occultation at night, some east coast locations will have to fight the sunrise twilight. We should have dark enough skies here in SC the morning of October 15th to be able to observe the star Regulus, of the constellation Leo, between 6:35 AM (10:35 UTC) and 6:38 AM (10:38 UTC).
Regulus is bright, but binoculars or a small telescope are still advised in this case so that you may watch the almost sudden disappearance of the star in more detail. To prepare yourself ahead of time, take a look at this YouTube video showing the occultation of another bright star, Aldebaran, recorded by a member of the local Midlands Astronomy Club.
Monday, October 16th (AM) - Comet 24P/Schaumasse: Beginning this morning, and lasting many mornings until mid- to late November, the “new but old” Comet 24P/Schaumasse revisits the inner solar system. You will still have to get up early for the next few weeks to observe this comet in the predawn sky. A telescope will be needed to observe this comet, which hasn’t been observable for roughly sixteen years. Use the guide below at your telescope to help you locate the comet.
*Tuesday, October 17th (AM) - The Moon and Mars: The Moon and Mars will be only one degree apart in the sky! Two days before new moon, the tiniest sliver of the waning moon will be visible alongside the red planet in the morning sky. What exactly does one degree apart look like? Hold out your arm in front of you, then hold up only your little pinky finger; that is about one degree’s width of the sky! Find more about measuring the night sky here, by One Minute Astronomer.
Wednesday, October 18th (PM) - Comet ASASSN1: Finally, we have another comet, with a really cool name, ASASSN1 (C/2017 O1), that will be making its closest approach to Earth (still 107.7 million km away) this week. On Wednesday evening after dark, find the Perseus constellation and then use this Sky and Telescope Chart to help you locate the comet. You’ll need a telescope and a decently dark sky to observe it at its current magnitude (apparent brightness) of around 9.
Are you excited yet? I know I am ready to get back into observing the night sky during normal “awake” hours!
You may have also read about a supernova (2017gxq in NGC 4964) that is also visible during this busy observation week. It was discovered on September 17th by the Gaia Spacecraft and has grown in visibility (magnitude) since. If you have access to at least an eight-inch telescope and a dark sky, this supernova can be found in the galaxy NGC 4964 in the Ursa Major constellation (near the star Alioth, or the epsilon star of the constellation).
Interested in taking on this observation challenge? Check out this InTheSky.org chart on the galaxy where this supernova will be visible.
*Those days that are starred with an asterisk involve objects that are considered easy to find and do not not require binoculars or a telescope for viewing. To see the rings of Saturn, however, a basic telescope is needed.