September 30, 2016

The Night Sky: October is a month for meteor showers


You can expect both the Orionids and the Taurids to put on meteor shows this month.

The Orionids meteor shower will be active from the Oct. 4 through the end of the month -- and into November. It peaks on the night of Oct. 21. Expect 20 to 25 meteorites per hour. The shooting stars can appear in any part of the skies, but they will seem to originate from the constellation Orion. Look for the Orionids between midnight and dawn.

The Southern Taurids meteor shower will peak on Oct. 9. This is a minor shower, but it has a good record of producing fireballs. The Southern Taurids are visible every night in October, with peak viewing around 2 a.m.

The Northern Taurids begin on Oct. 19 and are active until December. Like the Southern Taurids, this is a minor shower that has a reputation for producing fireballs. Peak viewing is around midnight.

Like the Orionids, the shooting stars and fireballs from the Taurids can appear anywhere in the night skies, but they will appear to emanate from the constellation Taurus. If you’re a stickler for finding the source of the Taurids, try locating the Pleiades. It’s just about in the center of the constellation.

Look for the Pleiades (M45) to rise in the east at about 9 p.m. on Oct. 1. It’s a tight cluster of stars you can use to check your vision. There are six prominent stars that are readily visible with the naked eye. Under very dark good conditions, you might be able to spot more. Johann Kepler reported 14 in the 17th century. The last time I checked, I could only see five stars -- getting old is tough.

Now onto the planet viewing for October.

October will start with Venus visible near the west-southwest horizon. You should be able to see it just after sundown. Mars will show up almost directly above the southern horizon, and Saturn will be in between Mars and Venus. For those of you with a telescope, Neptune will start the month near the eastern horizon.

Mercury will be visible near the eastern horizon just before dawn on Oct. 1. Jupiter will start showing up near the eastern horizon in early October. On the morning of Oct. 11, the two planets will appear to be almost on top of each other. This is their conjunction.

October should be a great month for locating deep-space objects with binoculars. The Andromeda Galaxy is still a good starting point. But you might want to try to find the three objects I highlighted during September in next part of this article. M51 begins the month in the northwest, just below Alkaid, the first star in the handle of the Big Dipper. M27 will be almost directly overhead to start the month. You can also turn your binoculars towards the Pleiades. There’s quite a bit of nebulosity surrounding the stars in that group and you might be able to see some of it.


September had two new moons. The first was on Sept. 1, and the second on Sept. 30. That’s called a Black Moon! A new moon is the best time of month to look at deep space objects and September didn’t disappoint me. The first new moon offered some very good nights for viewing the stars. This is the Sculptor Galaxy, NGC 253.

The Sculptor Galaxy is also called the Silver Coin Galaxy and the Dusty Island Universe. NGC 253 is about 11 million light years away from us and roughly the same size as the Milky Way.

NGC 253 is the third brightest galaxy in the night skies. Only the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and Sombrero Galaxy (M104) are brighter. You can’t see it with your naked eye but you can see it through a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope.

M27, the Dumbbell Nebula is one of my favorite nebulae! I’ve shown images of it before, but I think this is probably the best one I’ve ever taken. It’s about 1300 light years away and yes, like the Sculptor galaxy, you can see it through binoculars.

I added this image of M51 for three reasons. First, it’s a fairly good image, particularly since it was the very first deep space object I photographed with my ZWO camera. Second, you can spot M51 with binoculars, like M27 and NGC 253. And, finally, I shot all three of these images on the same night! I usually consider it a pretty good night if I get one decent shot, so getting these three in what seemed like rapid sequence was pretty special.

M51 is about 23 million light years away! The smaller galaxy on the right is NGC 5195. It’s often called M51B. An,d yes, there is some sort of interaction going on between the two.


First Quarter: October 9

Full moon: October 16

Last Quarter: October 27

New moon: October 30

(Gerry Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. He has visited Hatteras Island since the mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013. Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)

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