January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights for October and Early November 2015

Posted: Monday, October 19th, 2015

By Robert C. Victor
Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller

During October and early November, there are exceptionally beautiful gatherings of planets in the morning sky. A waning crescent Moon graces the lineup of planets on Nov. 6-7. Except as noted, these spectacular sights covering Oct. 8-Nov. 10 will be well seen about an hour before sunrise.

We hope you will be inspired to organize morning sky watching sessions for your students! With daylight saving time still in effect through October, a 45-minute skywatch from 1-1/2 hours to 45 minutes before sunrise would provide a wonderful, rewarding display of planets at a time not unreasonably early by the clock. Even if you can’t meet together as a class, urge your students and their families to get up early on their own to view the planetary gatherings. The displays on Oct. 22-29 will be especially striking.

The October 2015 Sky Calendar illustrates most of the events described here.

Thurs. Oct. 15, one hour after sunset: Look low in SW to WSW to find the 3-day old waxing crescent Moon with Saturn 7° to its upper left. Look also for reddish twinkling Antares, heart of the Scorpion, 10° lower left of Saturn. By Friday evening, the Moon will appear 6° upper left of Saturn.

Sat. Oct. 17, one hour before sunrise: Look closely for faint Mars just 0.4° (less than a Moon’s width) to the north (upper left) of Jupiter.

Oct. 22-29: Three planets, in order of brightness Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, form a trio, appearing within a 5-degree field of view. Binoculars magnifying up to about 10-power will fit the trio in on these eight mornings. Binoculars of lower magnification, such as 7X, will fit them in for a longer interval, Oct. 17-Nov. 2 if they provide a 7-degree field. Most trios of naked-eye planets involve Mercury (always low in twilight) or Venus (usually low), but on this occasion we catch Venus at its greatest apparent distance from the Sun and near peak altitude of a very favorable apparition high in the eastern morning sky.

Sun. Oct. 25 and Mon. Oct. 26: Venus and Jupiter will appear just over a degree apart, providing striking views, all within a single telescope field: Jupiter with its four bright moons discovered by Galileo, and Venus appearing as a “half moon”. This sight should not be missed! The next pairings of Venus-Jupiter, at dusk on August 27, 2016 and at dawn on November 13, 2017, will be tighter, but low in twilight and will catch Venus on the far side of its orbit, displaying a tiny, nearly full disk. We must wait until the year 2036 for the next pairings of Jupiter with Venus in half or crescent phase, and until Nov. 2039 for a pairing of these planets within the same telescopic field while high in a dark sky.

Beginning Tues. Oct. 27, in morning twilight: Follow the Moon daily for 15 mornings, as it wanes from Full low in the west on Oct. 27, to a thin, old crescent low in ESE only 28 hours before New on Tues. Nov. 10. Watch also for these events:

Wed. Oct. 28, 45 min. before sunrise: Mercury passes within 4° N of emerging Spica. Use binoculars to see the star to the lower right of Mercury. Each morning, Spica appears higher in the sky (resulting from Earth’s revolution around the Sun), and Mercury lower (because the inner planet is faster).

Thurs. and Fri., Oct. 29 and 30, one hour before sunrise: Watch the waning gibbous Moon leapfrog past Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, the Bull. Moon will appear widely S (lower left) of Pollux Nov. 2, and 7° from Regulus Nov. 4 and 5.

Tues. Nov. 3: Venus passes Mars in the last of three close predawn pairings of planets in October-November 2015. Look for the faint red planet just 0.7° N (upper left) of brilliant Venus. This morning the Moon is at Last Quarter phase, appearing half full and 90° or one-quarter circle west of the Sun. First activity of the morning in the schoolyard: In your right hand with arm fully extended, hold a ball up to the Moon and note how the lighting on the ball matches the lighting on the Moon! Use a telescope with a low-power eyepiece fitted with a polarizing filter to view the Moon Nov. 2-4. Rotate the eyepiece in its tube until the blue sky is darkest, and there’ll be plenty of contrast for seeing details on the Moon, even in the daytime!

Fri. Nov. 6: Jupiter about 2° N (upper left) of Moon. Venus 10° to Moon’s lower left. Mars 1.6° upper right of Venus

Sat. Nov. 7: Venus 1.7°, Mars 3.5°, to upper left of Moon. Venus-Mars 2.1° apart.

Mon. Nov. 9: Spica within 4° S (lower right) of Moon.

And finally, on Tues. Nov. 10, about 45 minutes before sunrise: Look for a thin, old crescent Moon, about 28 hours before New, rising in E to ESE 12° lower left of Spica.

Looking ahead: In mid-December 2015, Saturn will emerge into the morning sky. When Mercury returns from late January through most of February 2016, all five naked-eye planets will be fine display in a long arc from ESE to W across the southern morning sky. Stay tuned!

Resources:

See the October 2015 Sky Calendar for illustrations of gatherings described in this article. To subscribe, visit www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

Here are Robert Miller’s sky charts depicting positions of bright planets and first-magnitude stars at morning and evening mid-twilight in October 2015.

An activity, Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets, to help students investigate visibility of bright planets and first magnitude stars, is also available. As stars and planets come and go in morning and evening skies and display beautiful pairings and groupings, students can model these changes and explain their sightings with the aid of items provided: Two planet orbit charts, Mercury through Mars and Mercury through Saturn;table of data for plotting planets on the orbit charts; and a sheet with questions on star and planet visibility updated for 2015-2017. 


Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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