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Touring the Evenig Skies

October 9, 2018
By Jim Bonser - , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Summer officially ended on Saturday September 22nd. Sad to see it go, but I'm really looking forward to the cooler evenings that come with Fall and especially October. I have many fond memories of being out under clear, dark October skies just drinking in the beauty of the fall constellations rising in the east while taking one last good look at the beautiful Milky Way and all of the summer constellation as they depart toward the western horizon.

Last month we enjoyed some beautiful sunsets due to the huge amount of smoke and dust in the upper atmosphere from the many forest fires out west and even north in Canada. It appears that most of that is gone now and the skies are returning to beautiful blue in the daytime and inky black (if you live outside the city, as I do) at night.

I hope you have been enjoying the nightly parade of planets that have been on display this summer. Most of them will still be visible this month although Mercury and Venus basically set with the Sun or so soon afterwards that they can't be seen. Let's let the Moon be our guide to help us identify the planets and start on October 11. Step outside around 7:15 or 7:30 and look to the southwest about 10 degrees from the horizon. The Moon will be an incredibly beautiful crescent phase, only about 10% lit. Just below the Moon you should easily be able to make out the King of the Planets: Jupiter. Although the two appear very close in the sky, they are very far apart. The Moon will be about 238,819 miles or about 1.28 light seconds from us. So, for instance if you aimed a laser pointer at the Moon and pressed the button to turn it on, the light from the pointer would not reach the Moon's surface until 1.28 seconds later (assuming your laser pointer is powerful enough to make it through the atmosphere). If you shifted the pointer and aimed it at Jupiter, it would take the beam about 51.17 minutes to arrive at Jupiter's cloud tops! Can you imagine? Traveling at over 186,000 miles per second, it takes light almost an hour to make the trip from Earth to Jupiter! Another way to look at it is Jupiter is about 940.4 million kilometers (about 584,337,469 miles) away or slightly more that 6 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. Wow! Think about that as you take in the beauty of that pairing in the darkening sky.

3 days later, on October 14th, the Moon will sidle up to the next farthest out planet in our solar system: the lovely ringed planet, Saturn. Once again, step outside around 7:15 in the evening. If you face south and look to your right, Jupiter will be in just about the same place it was on the 11th in the southwest, but now the Moon has moved quite a bit to the East to a spot in the south-southwest, about 23 degrees from the horizon. The phase has changed to a much larger 33% lit crescent still very pretty and also very interesting to view through a telescope or pair of binoculars. Just below and a little to the left of the Moon you should be able to see the beautiful golden hued glow of Saturn. The Moon has moved slightly farther away than it was on the 11th. It is now 196,768 km (about 246,540 miles 1.32 light seconds) from us. And it you thought Jupiter was a long ways off, think about this: Saturn is 1,544.5 million kilometers (about 959,707,806 miles) away! Your laser beam will take an amazing 85.86 minutes to reach Saturn! When we look at the stars and planets in the sky, it is easy to forget the tremendous distances that separate us from them. They all seem to be glittering diamonds attached to a "celestial sphere" but as we all know, looks really can be deceiving. Saturn is still an amazing sight with her rings still tilted at a pleasing angle. Be sure to take time if you are out with your scope to take a peek at this true gem in the sky. If you don't have a scope of your own, don't think that looking at Hubble Space Telescope pictures is 'good enough'. Sure you can see more detail in the Space Telescope or Cassini or even Voyager pictures, but believe me there is nothing as wonderful as seeing Saturn through at telescope with your own eyes. You owe it to yourself to experience that view at least once. I never tire of gazing on beautiful Saturn.

One day later, the Moon stops a little short of Pluto. Of course, you need a fair sized telescope to see Pluto and even then it still looks like a faint star, but I thought I'd mention it since we are talking about distances a little. Okay, point your laser about 16 degrees directly to the left of the Moon and switch it on. About 4.67 hour later your laser beam will reach the icy surface of far away Pluto. Over 4 and a half hours at 186,000 miles per second. Incredible!

One more stop. On October 17, the Moon will be approaching Mars. On that night the two of them will be almost 6 degrees apart. On the next night the Moon will be to the left of Mars almost the same distance. Mars is much closer to us than the outer gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, but it is still quite a ways away.Your laser will still take over 5 and half minutes to make the trip to dusty Mars which is 101.2 million km (62,882,764 miles) away. Just in case you're wondering, NO! I am not contemplating buying a ticket and colonizing Mars! Way too cold there for me.

One last thing, the Orionid Meteor shower peaks on the nights of October 20-22. Unfortunately, the Moon will be nearly full so you will only be able to see the brightest ones, but it might still be worth while to keep an eye out for some if you happen to be out anyway.

Let's hope for some clear, dark, not too cold October skies this year! Clear Skies!



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