Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


The Night Sky of October

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For October 2014, the US will witness at least part of both a lunar and solar eclipse. The Hunterís Full Moon happens on October 8, 2014, and gives us a nice total lunar eclipse, if you are willing to set your alarm clock! The moon begins moving into our darker umbral shadow at 4:20 AM on Wednesday morning, and is completely inside our shadow and blood red by 5:30 AM. Greatest coverage is a 5:55 AM, and the moon begins leaving our shadow at 6:22 AM. The Moon sets at 6:53, still about half covered by our shadow. The moon will appear similarly eclipsed about 5:20 AM on the morning of October 8, 2014.

Just two weeks later, the next new moon will yield a partial solar eclipse on Thursday, October 23rd. The EAAA will set up telescopes outside the Pensacola State College Plaentarium about 5 PM, with first contact (the new moon touches the sunís upper eastern limb) at 5:07 PM CDT. We only get about a third of the sun covered at maximum eclipse at 6:01 PM, and the sun will appear much the same when it sets only eight minutes later.

Still, the setting sun with the moon taking out a bite of a third of the disk will be a great photo op, especially if there are a lot of sunspots on the disk at the same time. Observing the sun without a safety filter, whether with naked eyes, binocs, or any scope, is dangerous! If you want advice on a safe solar filter for observing this event, and the much more dramatic total solar eclipse coming up on August 21, 2017 (82% coverage), visit

The moon is first quarter on October 1st. The Full moon is eclipsed by our earthís shadow on the morning of October 8th, as noted above. The last quarter moon is on October 15th, and the waning crescent moon passes five degrees south of Jupiter on the morning of October 18th. On October 19th, in the SW sky Mars gets a close encounter with Comet Siding Spring; this will be strictly a telescopic event, however. Look to NASA images of the comet taken from Mars orbiters and landers then.

On October 21st, the peak for the Orionid meteor shower (bits of Comet Halley striking us) happens in morning hours, with the slender crescent moon interfering little. As discussed above, the new moon on October 23rd gives us a partial solar eclipse in the hour before sunset. On October 25, the waxing crescent moon passes 1.4 degrees north of Saturn in western twilight. This is your last shot at Saturn, disappearing into the sunís glare quickly. The Moon passes six degrees north of Mars on October 28th. The Moon is first quarter, ideal for evening stargazes for a treat for neighborhood kids (candy also suggested), on Halloween evening, half lit and high in the southern sky.

Mars and Saturn are both low in the SW evening sky in October, with Mars east of red Antares in Scorpius as the month begins, and moving into the teapot of Sagittarius by monthís end. Saturn will be lost in the Sunís glare by monthís end. Jupiter is in Cancer, in the morning sky, rising about 2:30 AM as October begins, and about midnight by Halloween, a little late for showing it to all but the adult trick or treaters. Venus and Mercury are both close to the sun in the dawn, and hard to observe this month.

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. To the southwest, Antares and Scorpius also set soon after twilight, and will be gone by monthís end. East of the Scorpionís tail is the teapot shape of Sagittarius, which marks the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. Looking like a cloud of steam coming out of the teapotís spout is the fine Lagoon Nebula, M-8, easily visible with the naked eye. This stellar nursery is ablaze with new stars and steamers of gas and dust blown about in their energetic births. In the same binocular field just north of the Lagoon is M-20, the Trifid Nebula. Many other clusters visible in binoculars as you sweep northward along the Milky Way, and are plotted on the sky map for the month.

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 east, the square of Pegasus is a beacon of fall. South of it lies the only bright star of Fall, Fomalhaut. 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 makes a striking W, rising in the NE as the Big Dipper sets in the NW. Polaris lies about midway between them. She contains many nice star clusters for binocular users in her outer arm of our Milky Way, extending to the NE now. Her daughter, Andromeda, starts with the NE corner star of Pegasusíí Square, and goes NE with two more bright stars in a row. It is from the middle star, beta Andromeda, that we proceed about a quarter the way to the top star in the W of Cassiopeia, and look for a faint blur with the naked eye. M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the most distant object visible with the naked eye, lying about 2.5 million light years distant. It is a bigger version of our own Galaxy, which it may collide with about three billion years from now.

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" . We know today it is an eclipsing binary system, with the larger, cooler orange star covering 80% of its smaller, hotter neighbor during the "wink". 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 NE 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 100X more luminous and about 10X 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 44X times larger and at 65 light years distant, one of the closest of these monster stars.

Read past issues of the Sky at Night