A spooky celestial sky show delights sky-watchers this week, in anticipation of October’s Halloween holiday, by offering everything from shooting stars to a solar disappearing act to ghostly light from beyond.
Orionids peak. In the predawn hours of Tuesday, October 21, and the following mornings, the Orionid meteor shower peaks, with as many as 20 shooting stars zipping across the sky every hour.
The Orionids appear to radiate out from their namesake constellation Orion, the Hunter, which rises in the northeast just before midnight this time of year. Orion is one of the easiest star patterns to recognize, thanks to its three bright stars that line up in a perfect row, marking the mythical figure’s belt.
Mercury morning. Early risers on Wednesday, October 22, get a chance to spot the elusive innermost planet in the solar system, which will swing very low above the eastern horizon at dawn.
Binoculars and telescopes will help you to scan the brightening sky for faint Mercury, as will the thin crescent moon that appears perched above the tiny planet. The two objects will appear separated by about 5 degrees, equal to the width of your fist held at arm’s length.
Through a telescope, the faint world will appear particularly interesting because it will look like a miniature version of our moon—except it will lack a superthin crescent.
Mercury is best spotted from a location with a totally unobstructed view of the eastern horizon, about a half hour before local sunrise.
Zodiacal light. At about an hour before sunrise on Thursday, October 23, and for the next two weeks afterward, keen sky-watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can hunt down one of the most elusive of astronomical phenomena—Zodiacal light.
This pyramid-shaped beam of light is easily mistaken for the lights of a far-off city just over the dark horizon in the countryside. It has also been called the “false dawn.” But this light is more ethereal; it is caused by sunlight reflecting off cosmic dust between the planets.
The best time to catch this ghostly sky light is about an hour before sunrise, looking toward the eastern horizon from the dark countryside.
This celestial phenomenon is actually the reflection of billions of dust-size particles left behind in interplanetary space after the planets formed about 4.6 billion years ago.
Partial solar eclipse. As the moon enters its new phase on Thursday, October 23, it will appear to partially hide the sun for most of the afternoon for onlookers across North America.
From the eastern part of the continent, the partial eclipse will still be under way at mid-afternoon as the sun sets, while those out west will see the entire partial eclipse play out. The farther west and north you live, the deeper the eclipse will appear, meaning that more of the sun will appear hidden by the moon’s silhouette. The best opportunities to see the eclipse will be in Alaska and in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, where over 80 percent of the sun will be blocked by the moon.
Just a reminder: Never look at the sun directly with unprotected eyes and always use solar filters.
Sayonara, Saturn. Up for a great binocular challenge? Look toward the very low southwestern horizon at dusk on Saturday, October 25, for your last views of Saturn before it’s lost in the glare of the sun.
Considered the jewel of the solar system, Saturn has been dominating the early evening skies for most of summer and autumn. Now it is sinking fast in the evening skies as it heads behind the sun before it returns to the morning skies in late November.
Hint: Try using the superthin waxing crescent moon to find the Lord of the Rings, which will hide only 3 degrees below the lunar orb.