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Marco Bertorello, Getty Images
Marco Bertorello, Getty Images

Look Up! 3 Celestial Events to Watch This October

Marco Bertorello, Getty Images
Marco Bertorello, Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching, because you get two strong meteor showers and a distant planet desperate for viewing. Events toward the end of the month will be especially stunning as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you’ve ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance. Set your alarm, look up, and keep your eyes peeled for these events.

1. THE DRACONIDS METEOR SHOWER RETURNS.

This weekend the Draconids meteor shower reaches its peak, and while it is not expected to be a beast—count on 10 meteors or so per hour—it can sometimes go full Smaug and lay devastation to the skies. In 2011, there were hundreds per hour—a veritable fusillade of shooting stars. So many rained down that NASA had to evaluate the safety of its orbital assets. Don’t expect the Hubble Space Telescope to be destroyed this year, though. (Sometime in the 2030’s, however, that's pretty much guaranteed to happen as atmospheric drag finally prevails.)

The Draconids are the product of comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, a periodic comet that leaves behind a field of debris as it travels along its 6.6-year orbit. Meteors are produced not by massive chunks of decaying space rock, but rather, specks of dust (and sometimes sand) that collide with the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. That kind of speed releases some serious energy, and the bright streaks that course across the sky are the lovely result.

Incidentally, the NASA International Cometary Explorer spacecraft visited 21P/Giacobini-Zinner in 1985 and crossed through its tail. If you lack a personal spacecraft, the best time to view the Draconids this year will be just after nightfall on the evenings of October 7 and 8.

2. URANUS IS AT ITS BRIGHTEST.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: unless you really know what you’re doing, you probably won’t be able to spot Uranus with your telescope. The circumstances required to glimpse it are so remote and challenging as to be basically impossible. There should be zero light pollution. The Moon should be new, or just a sliver. And you need to know what you’re looking at, which is probably the hardest part. I’m not saying don’t bother, but I am suggesting that you prepare yourself for disappointment. The sky gives, but it doesn’t give easy.

On the evening of October 19, Uranus reaches opposition. This means that it is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, and thus is in full illumination. Good news: it’s not just the Sun and Uranus doing their part. On October 19, we will have a new Moon. It will be black in the evening sky, reflecting none of its glow down onto Earth below. These conditions are just phenomenal for a rare and extraordinary celestial event.

So what are you looking for? Someone who knows what they are doing! Seek out your local astronomy club and find out if they have organized a viewing. Short of this, get thee to the most remote, lightless area you can find. Here's a quick way to judge a potential viewing area in keeping with this month's Halloween spirit: are you afraid of being axe-murdered by a ghost? If so, then it’s dark enough.

Around 8 p.m. EDT, look east. Uranus will cross the celestial dome from east to south, rising in the sky from about 20 degrees over the horizon to just under 70. Again, this planet is 1.7 billion miles from Earth. Even on this, the best viewing night of the year, seeing it is a tall order. Seek out the experts for your best chance of spotting it.

3. ORION EXPLODES.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (They showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.) Like Uranus above, all the stars are lining up, so to speak, for this show. First, it’s on a weekend. That means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day: the shower peaks just after midnight on Saturday, October 21 leading into Sunday morning. (You can also make a picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.)

Second, the Moon, which was new only two days earlier, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the candle-wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn’t a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Draconids or Orionids experiences, don’t fret: there will be two more meteor showers next month, leading into the greatest of them all: the Geminids in December.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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iStock

The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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