For skywatchers willing to get up early, the next few mornings will be greeted by the crescent Moon pairing up with Mars and a stellar giant. First up on Sept.24 at dawn -about half hour before your local sunrise – face the eastern sky and look for the crescent Moon, which will appear sandwiched between a faint red star above far right and a brilliant white star to its lower left. The red colored star is in fact the planet Mars which is about 280 million km from Earth and is too distant and so too small in telescopes presently for much surface details to be seen. But it’s still cool to identify with the unaided eye and just think that its rusty color is coming off all that iron-oxide rich deserts that cover this neighboring world.
By next morning of Sunday, Sept.25, the moon will have sunk closer to the eastern horizon and will be paying a visit to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, the lion. Known as Cor Leonis up until a few centuries ago, this 77.5 light year star marks the heart of the king of the celestial jungle. Look carefully and you can trace out the head and mane of Leo as a giant, backwards question mark with Regulus marking the period underneath.
Astronomers believe blue-white Regulus is actually the brightest and largest member of a quadruple star system, and is a young teenager star only a couple hundred million years old that is 3.5 times the mass of our sun.
BTW if you are up that early than why not take in views of the International Space Station which is making bright visible passes above North America in the hours before sunrise. Get your local flyby timetables.
As an added bonus for those of you that are in cottage country in the Northern Hemisphere, far away from light polluted cities, try your hand at seeing the elusive zodiacal lights. Visible for the next couple of weeks above the eastern horizon is an eerie, pyramid shaped cone of light that reaches halfway up the sky at twilight – about an hour before your local sunrise. These are really faint lights which many mistaken for light pollution from distant towns beyond their local horizon. Check out my video on zodiacal lights.
The amazing aspect is seeing the zodiacal lights is not really what you’ll see – after all its nothing more than just a really faint glow – but more has to do with knowing what your are seeing, This ghostly glow is caused by countless dust grains – leftovers from the time the solar system formed 5 billion years ago- scattered between the planets. These tiny particles refract the sunlight just the right way this time of the year that we get a faint light show in our skies.
Some truly wondrous cosmic sights to start your mornings off right!
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.