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.

NASA's First All-Female Spacewalk is Really Happening This Time

NASA astronaut Christina Koch is suited up in a U.S. spacesuit ahead of her history-making spacewalk.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch is suited up in a U.S. spacesuit ahead of her history-making spacewalk.
NASA

After a surprising cancellation in March, plans for NASA's first all-female spacewalk are back on track. Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir are scheduled to make history on October 21, 2019.

Earlier this year, NASA canceled the first all-female spacewalk because of an issue with spacesuit sizing. Both astronauts originally scheduled for the walk needed medium-sized suits. At the time, the International Space Station had two—but only one was properly configured for a spacewalk. Preparing the other suit in time would have taken hours of crew labor, The New York Times reported, so NASA decided to switch out the astronauts.

“When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told The New York Times.

Still, the milestone is a significant one. Since 1961, nearly 550 people have been sent to space. Of those, only about 11 percent have been female.

“I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing and in the past, women haven’t always been at the table,” Koch said on NASA TV. “There are a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people who look like them, and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell.”

The mission itself is fairly routine—Koch and Meir are scheduled to swap out batteries on the station’s solar panels. Live video of the spacewalk (the 222nd spacewalk in history) will be available on NASA’s website.

A Huge Full Hunter’s Moon Will Light Up The Sky This Weekend

Chayanan/iStock via Getty Images
Chayanan/iStock via Getty Images

This weekend’s full moon will likely draw your eye even more than a regular one does.

Newsweek reports that what’s known as the full hunter’s moon—the first full moon after the harvest moon—will rise right around sunset, making it seem both much larger and more orange than usual. Though you’ll likely be able to spot it from Saturday, October 12 through the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 15, the best time to look up is Sunday night, October 13, when the moon reaches peak fullness.

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the hunter’s moon may seem so huge because of a simple trick our eyes play on us called the “moon illusion.” Usually, when the moon is high and far from the horizon, it’s the main thing we see in the sky. Because the sky itself is so unfathomably vast, the moon looks pretty small. The hunter’s moon, however, appears lower in the sky, giving us a chance to view it next to things like trees and buildings. Since the moon is so much larger than those objects, our brains may process it with a better sense of scale.

The reason the hunter’s moon often glows orange is also related to its lower position. The moon is actually closer to us when it’s higher in the sky, so the light it reflects has to travel a shorter distance to reach our eyes, leaving the shorter wavelengths of blue light intact. When the moon is low, the air scatters those short blue wavelengths before they get to us, and only the longer, reddish wavelengths make it through.

Though we don’t know for sure why it’s called a hunter’s moon, The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests that it may have once indicated the beginning of prime hunting season, when hunters could easily spot animals in fields that harvesters had just cleared after the previous month’s harvest moon.

And, after the hunter’s moon has come and gone, be sure to catch the full beaver moon in November.

[h/t Newsweek]

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